I am aware that there are virtually thousands of self-help books on the market written by psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapists that profess to help individuals find some peace with, or gain control over, some aspect of their lives. Judging by the space devoted to the genre there is no doubt a substantial demand for such reading material, thus my concerns lie not with the need to occasionally seek the opinions of others, but the degree to which individuals question the material they are reading.
Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: A Practical Guide for Improving Communication and Getting What You Want in Your Relationships (New York: HarperCollins, 1992) came to my attention through a friend of mine who had been experiencing a very draining and depressing marriage. On the precipice of divorce, her husband arrived home one evening with the now infamous book. He had underlined a number of passages and suggested that they read the book together in order to improve their communication (the source, he believe, of their marital discord). Always open-minded, she thought it was at least worth the old college try. She opened the book and proceeded to read the introduction and the first two chapters, at which point she closed the book, walked into her bedroom and laughed out loud. Her impression? “It’s ridiculous,” she said to me. “It’s sexist and demeaning. You have got to read this!”
Within a few months another good friend called me. She told me that a co-worker had received the book from her sister as a “gag gift” and brought it into work. It quickly became the focus of laughter and, later, really concern. The consensus among this group of women held that Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus was, at best, demeaning, sexist and dangerously bordering on the misogynist. Misogyny? This was petty strong stuff! It was time to read the book.
As of this writing I have read the book. Four times. The first time I was, to say the least, amused. It was rich fodder for laughs, but as I thought about it I realized how destructive the information really was. It was certainly a book that professed to improve communication–but at what cost? The underlying message was not one of mutual respect, but an obvious endorsement of passivity on the part of women. Women needed to settle for less, shut up, and pull back when men needed time by themselves. Lists abounded for the improvement of women, but what of those for men? Was this really an improvement? Beyond the clever, but quickly overused, Martian-Venusian metaphor was the theme of female passivity. This book, clearly aimed at a female audience, was patronizing and downright insulting. How had this book become so popular?
As a woman, I had serious questions about its proposed methods for better communication. I spoke with colleagues as well as other friends and acquaintances and found an overwhelming dislike for the book. What I found so unnerving in this general dismissal of the material was a belief that people were intelligent enough to reject it and move on. While I agree that this is certainly the case with many individuals, those who are hurting may not always see through a clever presentation camouflaging a very ugly reality. Would men have a problem with this book? They should, for it insults their intelligence and their integrity as well. Although, since it accommodates their every need without having to do anything of any real significance, I could scarcely blame them if they liked it.
Without having read every self-help book on the market, it is probably safe to say that John Gray is not the only individual with whom I might have cause to disagree, but he is one of a few that I have read. And, judging by his apparent fondness for self-promotion, I think that it is important to have another voice rise to seriously question his ideas. True enlightenment, regardless of the subject matter, comes when an individual has had the opportunity to look at two sides of an issue and reach some sort of synthesis. Should you find this critique unwarranted, I respect your right to disagree, but only if you have at least read the concerns of those on this page before making your decision.
14 February 1996