Reincarnating Freud: Rules, Planets, and Hysteria in the 1990s


 

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.