Does the fairer sex need its own instructions on how to do...everything?
Seal Press calls itself the publisher of “Groundbreaking Books For Women, By Women,” but theirs is a very specific definition of “women.” Their idea of womanhood is no less narrow than that of the We Channel: Television for Women. The We Channel may define women as those creatures who believe happiness lies in finding the right wedding planner and pilates instructor, but Seal Press defines women as tattooed 20- and 30-somethings who use alternative menstrual products and think that working in the sex industry imbues you with Wisdom.
A large percentage of the books Seal publishes are how-to guides. How to run the marathon, as a woman. How to grieve, as a woman. How to save money, as a woman. How to be a creative spirit, as a woman. How to find balance, as a woman. How to choose which books to read, as a woman. How to find “your true self,” as a woman. How to buy a house, as a woman. How to masturbate, as a woman. OK, actually, that last one is fine.
This list does not even include their anthologies, which are like how-to guides for existence, just without the bulleted lists. They include women writers offering their advice and personal stories about body image, older women’s body image, being single, being a third-wave feminist, being biracial, navigating female friendships, traveling with children, traveling with your mother, traveling with your father, traveling in Greece, traveling in Mexico, traveling in Turkey, being a Jewish feminist, and owning a dog. And these are simply the books published within the past few years — their catalog stretches back to the 1970s.
I understand the need to see your own reflection in the larger culture, but Seal Press doesn’t always navigate the line between reflection and narcissism very well. The travel books are not about the countries they’re titled after — they’re about the inner journeys of the traveler. They read like more self-involved and less charming versions of Elizabeth Gilbert. In the anthology We Don’t Need Another Wave: Dispatches from the Next Generation of Feminists, L.A. Mitchell’s contribution is an essay called “The Healing Vagina: How Revealing My Body Rescued Me.” She writes, “I have always been amazingly happy when I’ve felt the softness of my cervix, when I’ve experienced how delicate and hidden it is.” This is worse than navel gazing; it’s cervix gazing.
The self-help world is already female-focused. Walk down the aisle of any bookstore and you will find yourself surrounded by every shade of pink imaginable. Specializing in self-help for women is rather redundant. But beyond that, do women really need their own guide to running the marathon? Or their own instructions for travel? Couldn’t it be summed up in one sentence? “Do everything that men do, but bring a dosage of emergency contraception.” Most of these guides are low on practicality and choked with cute anecdotes. The Nonrunner’s Marathon Guide for Women is written by Dawn Dais, a nonrunner. She decided to run the marathon as a way to cope with her grandfather’s death. She’s not a sports trainer or a professional in any way. That’s a recurring theme in these how-to books for women — I’ve done something, and now I’ll tell you how to do it, too. Personal experiences do not always make you an expert.
There are realms, however, where women (in general) behave differently from men, and the business world is one of them. While the self-help section is a friendly, pink ghetto, the business aisle at your local bookstore is clogged with images of powerful men who have made questionable hair choices, standing in front of proof of their wealth: skyscrapers, yachts, giant McMansions.
Lauren Bacon and Emira Mears’s The Boss of You: Everything a Woman Needs to Know to Start, Run, and Maintain Her Own Business is the feminine addition to this line of books. Instead of focusing only on the financial aspects, the authors include information on how to make decisions regarding the name of your business, creating a persona, identifying the ideal audience or client, and hiring and firing. They write, “Each business is a reflection of its owners, and we suspect that’s even more the case for those of you reading this book — because if you were the sort of person who only cared about making the most money in the shortest possible time frame, you probably would have picked up one of those other ‘how to succeed’ business books that have a cover photo of a dude on a yacht.” Bacon and Mears are — again — not really experts. They successfully run a small Web design business, and they have anecdotes from their own business and from their clients’ businesses. They are, however, pretty adept at the basics.
There have been business guides for women before. Seal Press published one of them a little over a year ago, The Anti 9-to-5 Guide. But Bacon and Mears manage to strike a balance between acknowledging that many women run small businesses differently from the way men do — and might therefore need a different kind of advice — and patronizing women with constant reminders of how unique their experiences are. Their demographic is not far off from Seal’s audience: The examples they use for businesses often include the keywords “vegan” or “knitting.” They talk about the usefulness of nurturing a small, niche audience in The Boss of You, and it’s obviously something that has worked for both them and Seal.
There are times when Bacon and Mears delve too far into the cute realm, like when they encourage you to make collages from fashion magazines of your ideal clients. “Then get to work filling in all the salient details that will turn them from two-dimensional demographics into proper characters: their hometown, occupation, housing situation, pets (if any), favorite movies/magazines/music/clothes, the stuff they carry around (in pockets, handbags, or in their car), what they read, what they do for fun, their exercise habits, and so on.” There’s talk of using glitter on the collages.
There’s no real need for the “Woman” in the subtitle — any small business where passion is prioritized above financial concerns fits. I am surrounded by women entrepreneurs, from candy makers to tarot card readers, from clothing boutique owners to writing teachers. All of them started their businesses out of passion and love, but none of them works in the same way. Suggesting that all women think the same way or respond to the same things is like believing that all Cancers really are going to find “big-time romance” today (I just checked my horoscope.) The writing teacher would love the collage idea; the candy maker would simply roll her eyes. But then Everything a Woman Who Really Liked the Vagina Monologues, Has Sewn Her Own Curtains, and Subscribes to Bust Magazine Needs to Know to Start, Run, and Maintain Her Own Business would be too long of a subtitle. • 4 June 2008
Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Chicago.