September 14, 2004

Bad Advice on Parade!

Today's Musical Selection: "Go Ask Alice" by Jefferson Airplane

Hi, everybody! As loyal readers know, every other Tuesday in this space I run the romantic advice column by Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice. It's a proud part of the Mediocre Fred Experience, and I'm certainly glad to have them on board.

However, some people don't seem to agree. In addition to the letters seeking advice that pour in every week, America's sweethearts receive some, er, less-than-complimentary mail. Negative opinions of their advice range from
"clueless" to "criminal." Uncle Millie seems to come in for the worst of the beating; he's derided with names that I would hesitate to publish in this space, lest any young children find it. The gist of the criticism is that they're peddling bad advice, and I should be ashamed of myself for hosting it.

I would like to take a moment to leap to their (and my) defense. First of all, they're offering advice to you on a pro bono basis. If you don't like the advice, or it doesn't work out for you, you're not out a penny, a deal that I dare say you wouldn't get from your psychiatrist. Second, when you're taking advice from a proud alcoholic/Lothario and his harried wife, you're proceeding at your own risk, in my opinion. Finally, we live in a world in which Dr. Laura is permitted to roam free. Given that, I think it's hardly fair to attack Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice for bad advice.

But, though Dr. Laura is controversial, she has quite a following. Personally, I think Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice are a much better source. It's like the difference between getting advice from your bartender and getting advice from your parole officer. But I feel certain that there are certain sources of advice that are indisputably worse than our favorite couple. So I started looking around and, lo and behold, I found a couple.

For instance, take this article from today's Post. You may believe that Uncle Millie's advice is bad for young women, but how about Web sites that describe anorexia as a "lifestyle choice"? What a great message! As if images of rail-thin models plastered all over the media aren't bad enough, now we have "thinspirational" (possibly the most disturbing phrase ever) sites offering support and encouragement to women who want to starve themselves! To quote Yakov Smirnoff, "What a country."

It's one thing to set up a site offering dieting tips; that's fine. But these sites are encouraging people to lose unhealthy amounts of weight, by definition. And in the manner made famous by cults, these sites encourage anorexics to tune out the voices of those who want to save them:

The terms "Ana" and "Mia" -- short for anorexia (a condition characterized by eating so little that one's health and life are at risk) and bulimia (overeating and then purging by vomiting or taking laxatives) -- are often used by those with eating disorders who don't want treatment.

Frequent visitors to these sites refer to themselves as "anas" and "mias" and say the sites offer a safe haven where they can talk, share advice and commiserate away from the harsh criticism of family, friends and other "outsiders."

It's refreshing, when you're making a serious attempt to kill yourself, to know that there's someplace you can go where no one will try to save you from yourself. After all, who wants to listen to people who care about you and want to see you healthy? They're such a drag.

And why stop with anorexia? Why not set up Web-based support groups for other stupid and dangerous behaviors? How about a Web site supported and encouraging people to have unprotected sex with heavy drug users who share needles, or to clean their loaded guns with the safety off, or to bungee-jump with a frayed cord? Think of the fun we could have!

Of course, those pesky free-speech prohibitions prevent the government from shutting these sites down, since they aren't promoting anything illegal. But eating disorders are a real problem among young women in particular, and the very concept of a Web site that exists to cheer them on is revolting. Kudos to America Online, which is moving to shut down such sites as a violation of its user agreement. I wish more ISPs had the guts to follow in AOL's footsteps, but too many of them are playing see-no-evil in the hopes that they won't get sued.

So the next time you think that Uncle Millie's advice is dangerous, I remind you that it could be much, much worse.

And for those of you who think the advice in this space is more stupid than dangerous, I've got you beat there, too. I direct you to this column, written by a woman who calls herself Mama Gena. She received a letter from a woman who's dating a loving, caring guy who lacks ambition and drive. She's wondering if she should marry him. Now, before I address Mama Gena's reply, I can imagine several possible replies that would constitute good advice. Here are a few:

- There are no fairy-tale princes out there, and if he loves you and is good company, that's what matters. You don't need a mansion and fancy cars to be happy.

- It seems like having an ambitious, hard-charging man is important to you. This guy's never going to be that, so you're never going to be happy. Don't marry him.

- Assume that he's always going to be like he is now, and imagine being married to that man. Does that sound like heaven or hell to you? Decide on that basis.

- You claim to love this man, but you also look down on him. He'd be a lot better off not being married to some snob who's going to be embarrassed by him, so do him a favor and take a hike, you vapid little materialistic twit.

You'll notice that I'm fairly generous about what constitutes good advice. The advice-giver can say she should or shouldn't marry this man. The advice-giver can be warm and friendly or acidic and sarcastic. Anything in this fairly wide range can constitute good advice, because there are a lot of valid ways to view the situation.

Given the large variety of "right" answers, you'd think it would be nearly impossible to give a wrong answer, wouldn't you? Well, Mama Gena proves that it is entirely possible to give a wrong answer. I quote her response verbatim:

Oh my, oh my, come rest thy weary head on Mamaís knee and allow her to spin you a little yarn. We have to clear that sweet little head of yours and set you to rights about who and what a man is, so you can make a great decision. Did you ever hear the story about Beauty and the Beast? Belle, a lovely young woman, met this hairy fat beast with really bad table manners. He was gruff on the outside, but he had a pure heart. Belle fell in love with this beast. And it was through her love and training that he turned into a prince. See, guys on their own recognizance wonít necessarily aim very high. A beer and a channel-changer is about enough excitement for them. But a man with a woman by his side, a woman who wants things from him, a woman who sees his potential and is unafraid of asking the best of him, oh, my darling, that man has a shot at becoming a hero. Dennis is your friend; he is attentive to you and your desires, right? Thatís a great start. Now itís time for you to ask him for everything you want: Where you want to live, what career you want to see him in, what kind of life you want to create together. He has the potential to take care of you in any style you desire, just point him in the right direction and enjoy the unfolding adventure of turning your beast into your prince!

If you want some inspiration from your predecessors, check out how Nancy Reagan inspired Ronald. Or how Annette Bening inspires Warren Beatty. Or Goldie Hawn with Kurt Russell. Join the ranks of the brilliant man-trainers of the world: Women who use men to fulfill their dreams and desires!

This is atrociously bad writing, but let's not even worry about that right now. Let's consider instead the advice given, which is even worse than the writing.

In my woozy idealistic moments, I occasionally wonder why everyone's so worked up about the "battle of the sexes." How hard can this be? Surely our common traits as human being outweigh our gender differences. And to the degree that gender differences exist (and I believe that they do -- apologies to my friends who disagree), anyone who spends a reasonable amount of time with friends of the opposite sex should have a working understanding of these differences. Why should the opposite sex be treated as some great mystery? I smile to myself, sure that I've figured everything out. Then I'll read some crap like the above advice and realize how far we have to go.

Ladies, as a card-carrying member of the male gender, I want to offer you some advice, should you think that Mama Gena's onto something. Consider this my contribution to greater understanding between the sexes. You're welcome.

When it comes to drive and ambition, men are a lot like women. Some are terrific self-starters, some would never leave the couch unless the beer supply ran out, and most are in between. And it's true that a good partner can challenge and inspire you to be your best. I hope to marry someone like that. But men hate being told what to do just as much as women do. We're not sitting around waiting for a woman to rescue us and make us into their ideal vision of the perfect man. And any woman who tries is going to find herself in for an unpleasant struggle.

Ladies, how do you feel about The Taming of the Shrew and Pygmalion, in which men try to mold women into their ideal vision? How would you feel if your husband or boyfriend tried to do that now? You'd detest it, right? (Dedicated feminists are preparing to beat me vigorously about the head and shoulders for even bringing it up.) So why would you think that it works well in reverse?

I've had women in my life who inspired me to be a better man. When playing baseball, I always play better when I know that someone I care about is there rooting me on. But do you know the difference between that and what Mama Gena so charmingly calls "man-training"? The impetus to become better came from within me. My lady love wasn't cracking the whip and demanding that I shape up to meet her standards. She loved me for who I was, and encouraged me to have faith in my abilities. And I did. That's how the right relationship can make a better man.

So what's wrong with Mama Gena's advice? For one thing, her opinion of the male gender is ignorant and condescending. No self-respecting man would want to date someone who held such a low opinion of him. Second, she encourages the idea of the fairy-tale prince, just waiting for a woman to make him wonderful. This is a textbook case of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. A woman who passes up men with normal human flaws to hold out for that prince is setting herself up for a life of solitude.

Finally, and most important, she encourages women not to consider their mates as they are. Maybe the man as he is currently is enough to make the woman happy, and maybe he isn't. Either is okay. What's important is that if she plans to commit to a life with him, she needs to be happy with him the way he is. Otherwise, she's ensuring a life of unhappiness for them both.

In short, Mama Gena's advice is a great way for women to find themselves either permanantly single or mired in an unhappy marriage. Great! And if that wasn't bad enough, she actually offers courses for which women and men can pay money, featuring her bad advice! Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice would never stoop to anything like that. (Well, Uncle Millie might.)

So lay off Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice, friends. I hope I've demonstrated today that you don't know how good you have it. I trust that you will be appropriately grateful in the future.

And that's all for today. See you tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at September 14, 2004 03:19 PM


Remember that Regena Thomashauer (Mama Gena) is saying this woman should ask her boyfriend for what she wants, not tell him what to do. If she asks for what she wants, he can choose to give it to her or not. At that point it's up for them to decide whether they should continue the relationship if they either isn't getting what they want.

Why shouldn't this lady have what she wants? Even if some people find what she wants distasteful, it's not up to us to correct her and tell her what to want any more than she should tell him what to do. She expended the effort to write an advice columnist about it, so clearly it's important to her.

You said that " . . . Mama Gena's advice is a great way for women to find themselves either permanantly single or mired in an unhappy marriage." Well, isn't yours also a great way to do that? Maybe this guy isn't a firecracker, but mightn't he be better off with someone who wants someone who is as satisfied with his level of achievement as he is? Wouldn't this woman be better off with someone who attracts her on more of the levels she finds attractive?

You also have missed the fact that Regena Thomashauer urges women to fulfill themselves more, and not depend so heavily on men to solve all their problems. This is not just about sex - although there is a clear emphasis on it, she stresses finding enjoyment in everything one does. All the wise old people I knew as I child stressed this very point, so this advice is not really new.

She very importantly urges women to get to know people to whom they normally would not give the time of day based on appearances. (Bad behavior is not excused here.) If nothing else, the world would be a friendlier place if more people followed this particular advice. She's also not just talking about sex so much here, as in finding something to be attracted to in everyone, and in some cases where further investgation seems merited, to get to know them as friends. Sometimes, she points out, one of these surprising people will turn out to be what you've really been looking for all your life.

She is refreshingly aware that people come in all sizes and shapes with myriad differences, and that it's not easy to choose a partner well without knowing more about what makes them tick. She sees that people might tick because they like each other, not just based on their paycheck or physical type. Some people will get past this kind of judgement, some will not, but either way, she's preaching good common sense here.

Now, I'm not swallowing Regena Thomashauer's entire thesis hook, line and sinker. I've read one of her books, and don't agree with everything she says. But there are some exceptionally good points to be taken from her book. It's good to read after Sherry Argov's "Why Men Love Bitches" (don't worry, men, the title is meant to be humorous.) This book is about reclaiming, or gaining for the first time, personal dignity.

And just for the record, I'm not a self-help junkie. I've been wanting to change my behavior in relationships recently, and these books were suggested to me. I read large parts of them in the store before spending money on them, because I really don't like most self-help advice. These writers, however, make enough sense that I bought their books and am finding them very helpful.



Posted by: TVegan at August 1, 2005 04:06 AM
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