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Reincarnating Freud:
Rules, Planets, and Hysteria

By Susana McCollom

Z magazine

Freud is not likely to be a name found on a woman's list of heroes. While he is recognized as the pioneer of psychotherapy, Freud cemented historical labels of women as "hysterical" and "neurotic," and recommended years of psychoanalysis to cure these ailments. And it was Freud who asked "what does a woman want?"

Lucky for Freud that he was around in the 1890s and not today. Women of the 1990s would never tolerate such putdowns, right? Wrong. The Freudian phenomenon is happening again, right under our noses. It is a more subtle version of Freud's gender labeling which leads us back to the same "hysterical" women whose only hope for curing their natural frailties is years of counseling, anti-depressants, or a steady diet of self-help publications.

Freud's contemporary followers have one advantage. The capacity for selling these images of women has skyrocketed as a result of technological innovations and mass media. The subtlety of these images and their messages is continuously overlooked as women's educational, political, and financial strides convince many that gender equality is becoming a reality. Today, the professional heirs of Freud are joined by marketing wizards (including women) in helping self-help book authors and publishers, women's magazines, and pharmaceutical companies to promote and reinforce the notion that women need help. And women are buying it.

Self-Help and the Packaging of Neurosis

"When a man goes into his cave, it is important for a woman to do something enjoyable. Read a book, do some gardening, take a bath, go for a walk, go shopping or call a girl friend for a good chat."

No, this is not a quote from Freud. This advice comes from the contemporary relationship expert, Dr. John Gray, author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (1992). Gray asserts that men and women are from different planets, resulting in communication problems which can only be solved by accepting our gender differences. What, exactly, are these differences? Chapter Seven, entitled "Women Are Like Waves," is a prime example. He claims that "a woman's self-esteem rises and falls like a wave. When she hits bottom it is time for an emotional housecleaning."

According to Gray, women exhibit "warning signs" which should alert a man that his spouse or girlfriend is entering her "well." The warning signs vary according to a woman's mood. She may feel insecure, resentful, confused, passive, controlling or demanding. But fortunately for men, there are 101 ways to "score points" with women (as opposed to 26 ways to score points with men). The theme is very straightforward: men must learn to appease women's natural tendency to chatter or cry at the drop of a pin. A man should "compliment her on how she looks," "give her four hugs a day," or "pay more attention to her than to others in public." Women, on the other hand, need to resist the urge to constantly nag their mates. They "score big with men," if "he makes a mistake and she doesn't say I told you so," "if he disappoints her and she doesn't punish him," or if "she really enjoys having sex with him."

Like women in the 1800s, today's women are characterized as neurotic and lacking any sex drive. Yet Gray has undoubtedly mastered the self-help book market. Since it was first published almost four years ago, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus has remained a best seller in the United States. During this time, Gray has published additional versions of his planetary discoveries, further advising men and women on relationship skills both in and out of bed.

However, while Gray's appeal to (mostly) women have deemed him a relationship guru, his advice singles out married and committed couples. For the single, presumably miserable women who have failed in their attempts to capture a husband, help has arrived. In The Rules.-Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right, Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider guide the single woman in search of the man of their dreams--or any man, really. Unlike Gray's book, many women and men alike scoff at The Rules and its "outdated" advice.

What are some of these rules? First, women must "look the part" by wearing lipstick while they jog or by getting a nose job if it means a man will find them more attractive. But equally important is acting the part. Fein and Schneider advise, "Be feminine ... don't be a loud, knee-slapping, hysterically funny girl ... when you're with a man you like, be quiet and mysterious, act ladylike, cross your legs and smile ... You may feel that you won't be able to be yourself, but men will love it."

The authors acknowledge the differential responses to their "timeless" advice and respond to skeptics such as the cynical career woman. "A relationship with a man is different from a job" claim the authors, "...the man must take charge. He must propose. We are not making this up--biologically, he's the aggressor." Fein and Schneider's message is basically that women must play hard to get. Really hard to get. Even if it means they have to set a timer to ten minutes to get off the phone first. The authors claim that "when you do The Rules, he somehow thinks you're the sexiest woman alive! ... you don't have to worry about being abandoned, neglected, or ignored!"

Fein and Schneider promote and encourage behavior which polarizes men and women. Essentially, the authors attempt to reinstate the "say no but mean yes" mentality that oppressed women for years and which only recently, through advocacy, education, and policy changes, has begun to subside. So much for the vindication of women's rights. According to these authors, women are too stupid to know they have any. While seemingly ridiculous, The Rules remains a best seller and occupies the authors with a string of public appearances.

Women As the Target Market

The irony within today's self-help mania is that neither Fein, Schneider, nor most men are responsible for placing this book on the best-seller list. Nor are they the ones raving about gender planetary differences. On the contrary, women are the die-hard supporters of the self-help book market

Are women buying the notion that it is natural for them to need a stack of self-help books? Recent research suggests that anxiety, the nation's leading psychological problem, strikes twice as many women as men. Psychologists, women's magazines, and the general media have seized this finding as they eagerly promote self-help books, articles, and anti-depressants to women. Through their advertising they reinforce the concept that women are inherently neurotic--ringing the 1890s bell louder than ever.

The pharmaceutical industry also contributes to the perpetuation of this neurotic image. Historically, "female" diseases were treated through physiological methods including hysterectomies, a recommended cure for hysteria. Freud's predecessors also suggested hours of bathing to treat hysteria, often resulting in life-threatening dehydration. While these remedies are likely to be perceived as inhumane today, anti-depressants have become the contemporary physiological remedy for "female" anxiety. By targeting women in college, at work, and at home, drug companies join the self-help industry in selling and profiting from the image of the neurotic female.

We've Come A Long Way?

Although the media and self-help industry produce and perpetuate negative female stereotypes, apparently much of our society remains willing to accept them. Women--many of whom are encouraged to undergo years of counseling and physiological treatment as they did during Freud's era--are the most likely to accept and perpetuate such stereotypes by succumbing to the means through which they are marketed, purchasing stacks of self-help books and magazines as fast as they are published.

Self-empowerment, through means including education, sports, and community involvement, is less interesting to the profit-oriented media. Such pursuits may enhance women's self-esteem, but they don't sell as many books. Even exercise or a healthy diet are not sold to women as ways to relieve stress, but rather as methods to lose unattractive pounds. The ultimate message is that there is something wrong with women, either mentally or physically.

It is unfortunate that negative female stereotypes are continuously accepted in our society. More tragic, however, is that so many women acquiesce to the subtle but massive marketing of Freud's depiction of them. His labels are bought again and again, in printed or bottled versions of products that cause too many women to accept their own worst self-perceptions and make many men perceive them as the basket cases they were--and still are--advertised to be. Research may show that women are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety as men, but if this finding is accepted at face value and is mass marketed, it not only implies that psychological problems plague a huge number of women today--it indicates that we have a serious social problem and a potential self-fulfilling prophecy.