November 24, 2009
ACT LIKE A GENTLEMAN, THINK LIKE A WOMAN:
by Maria Bustillos
166 pages. Accidental Books.
Review from free advance copy by Kate Kasserman
I have never read Steve Harvey’s very popular man-bagging Act Like a Lady guide, although of course I had heard of it before reading Act Like a Gentleman. Anyone can correct me if I am wrong, but my general impression was that Act Like a Lady fit comfortably into one of the two existing basic slots for man-catching how-tos: slot one, be the “saintly nurse,” as soft and warm as undercooked bread; slot two, be the “kitten-mit-ein-vhip” (Mr. Harvey’s book falling into the latter category).
I am sure there is a great deal of utility in this sort of advice, in some respects. The pure angel and the befanged rifle-woman have proven their enduring appeal over the course of human history, of course, but more than that: if one takes these suggestions with a little salt, pretty much anyone can benefit from “remember to be nice, it means a lot to people, especially your nearest and dearest” and “but have a spine, liebchen.” The thing is – it is hard to get people interested in or excited about moderating their behavior to a pleasing balance of yielding and firm, nor is it possible to lay out a road map for precisely how to strike this middle ground, as it varies from human to human and relationship to relationship, and minute to minute.
And so the advice we receive, it seems, gravitates naturally to the high-concept extremes. Be Silly Putty! No, be a hormonal bitch! (The long, painted fingernails are for amputating a man’s procreative equipment, and the purse is for keeping one’s spoils tucked away safely. Is he going to leave you, just walk away from it all, when “it all” includes some Very Important Anatomy of his sitting in that scented little zippered compartment of yours, next to the Kleenex and Tic-Tacs and an emergency tampon? No; no, I think he is not.)
Extremes are, by definition, absurd. Weirdly, though, these guides seem to be taken at uninflected face value. And I suppose there is some utility in that, as well – if one’s broader goal is simply to secure a tactical end, and one doesn’t mind play-acting and doing nothing but grim, mechanistic upkeep (either on oneself or one’s partner) for the duration. But, you see – since the “tactical end” that pretty much any extremist guide assigns to Gender XX is marriage-for-life, “grim, mechanistic upkeep” becomes rather a meaningful liability.
But what about for a short-term goal? Well, it doesn’t seem so bad there. It’s like a costume party or something – it can even be fun! And if we’re going to be all high-concept and absolutist about things, we know that while women always want marriage, men always want the quick score. There’s the short-term goal for which a tactical approach is pragmatic rather than soul-eating! And there’s a ton of results-oriented advice out there on that front as well.
The thing is, the same sad, hopeful psychology that presents us with the nurse/bitch dichotomy (wishing that women would just mold their inscrutable selves into these easily identifiable types) suffers an underlying delusion that it is long past time was imploded: namely, that women are even remotely more complicated than men. Seriously, The Men should have figured this out earlier – having already caught on that all The Women ever want is The Ring. Does that sound like a complicated person? It does not. There you go. And so these get-women-into-bed guides go blah blah blah on and on with gratuitous complexity, when it is all very simple.
There is a magic button they can press. That’s all it takes! It won’t work all the time, but – and I am truly serious now – it will be astonishingly effective for a genuinely depressing percentage of the time.
Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman reveals the magic button, and it is within the reach of literally ANY MAN WITH A PULSE, be he ever so pig-ugly and economically unviable. The fact that the advice here is devastatingly effective on a tactical front is, in many ways, the wickedest thing about this wickedly funny book.
Bustillos asserts that – here we go, I am giving away the goods – all a man really needs to do to inveigle a woman into taking off her clothes is to make a convincing show of being way into her. That’s it. Truly. Men, nix the I-am-so-great posturing, and talk about how great you think she is. Boom, you’re in.
And yes – Bustillos also lays out how you can get right back out whenever and however you please. Aforementioned way-into-ness takes on a hint of uncertainty – due to reasons, of course, having nothing to do with the always-entrancing female in question – that requires either a dissolution for the female’s own sake (so she’s not tied down, ha!) or else time off that can be parlayed trivially into a permanent vanishing act. Sure, “it’s not you, it’s me” is the stuff of tired jokes, but you can still get away with it using the simple three-step expedient: deny, deny, deny. As long as you admit nothing and stick to your story, a vast majority of your abandoned conquests, even if they are suspicious, will never feel quite certain that – well, you did what you did. They may even adore you for it! No, really. An excerpt from the book:
Another Secret: women very fervently believe that it is better to have loved and lost, etc. Much, much much better. A grown woman without a string of heartbreaks behind her is reckoned rather a poor specimen (UK “saddo”) among women, particularly among the Romantic Type. Consequently, even though it is not going to “work out,” as the phrase is, if you play your cards right by continuing to refer nostalgically to your glorious past with Patsy—by letting go gracefully, and without rancor or cruelty—there is no reason to suppose there will be any lasting harm on either side. On the contrary, a passionate love affair is self-evidently a success, just by virtue of having happened at all, leaving only a trail of beautiful bittersweet memories in its wake and, with any luck, no lasting sadness.
I was, admittedly, a little floored when I saw someone fessing up about all this in print. “Ack,” thinks I, and, “heh heh. Oh dear.” There is an underlying ferocity particular to the “best of all possible worlds” form of satire that does not rely on exaggeration for effect but rather a level gaze at what actually exists. Fortunately – and unlike many satirists – Bustillos takes the disappointments of reality lightly, and the book is not just funny, it is tolerant and warm, with a wealth of judgment-free, take-it-for-what-it-is anecdote and observation. A satiric spin on loving-and-leaving femmes written by a woman might reasonably be expected to turn out to be some sort of stalking-horse in defense of commitment, and yet this is nothing of such. The author even flat-out asserts that lifetime monogamy isn’t for everybody, and probably isn’t even for most bodies, at least until they get a few years and whatever else under their belts.
Maybe it’s because I haven’t read Act Like a Lady, and I am doing a disservice to it, but in my mind, in a way, the real foil to Act Like a Gentleman is more the books written by that veteran of a thousand wars (well, four hundred-odd), also an excellent raconteur with a consistently entertaining turn of phrase and a blisteringly direct view of the world, Giacomo Casanova. Early in The Story of My Life, Casanova relates an anecdote of a dinner-party he attended at the age of thirteen. His intellectual precocity being widely admired by the company, he was asked to translate an ancient Roman couplet: “Discite grammatici cur mascula nomina cunnus/Et cur femineum mentula nomen habet.” (Sans scansion, this is approximately, “Hey, grammar nerds, why is the word for woman-bits masculine and that for man-bits feminine, huh? Riddle me that.”) Rather than translate, frisky young Casanova composed a response in meter: “Disce quod a domino nomina servus habet.” (“Because the slave bears the name of the master.”)
Bustillos admits the reality of this in Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman – and sees beyond it, too. The game is brutal. But it is also amusing. And fun. Sure, there may be a roughly defined winner or loser in any individual skirmish, and this book shows men how to make sure that they’re on the more comfortable side of that equation. But it also shows how while we may all of us be fools – we need none of us be slaves. Hey, even Rousseau, getting all sweaty for an “imperious woman” to “dominate” him – the big question being whether he wanted to be horsewhipped by riding-costumed Madame Civilization or tied with vines and slapped by body-painted Savagina – didn’t want to live that way all the time! You know, just a couple private hours here and there. It’s an important distinction. Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman knows the difference, and the inestimable value and even beauty of each – as well as how absurd, ultimately, all of it is.