REVIEWED BY ELEANOR J. BADER
|Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus:|
A Practical Guide for Improving Communications and Getting What You Want in Your Relationships
by John Gray, Ph.D.
(HarperCollins, New York, $24.00 hardcover)
As I write this, Men Are From Mars has been a New York Times bestseller for 140 weeks. More than four million copies in 86 languages have been sold since the book’s release in 1992. Struck by the phenomenal success of this self-help tract, an opus on how to make heterosexual relationships work, I set out to question some readers and marketers about the book’s appeal.
“People are desperate,” a sales staffer at a Barnes & Noble superstore in Manhattan told me. They want to make their relationships work. They’ll try anything and everything.”
While those desperate for a relationship quick-fix come in all ages and colors, the lion’s share of the book’s purchasers are women. Fabrienne Serignese, a student at the New School for Social Research, admits that she bought the book at a time when “my boyfriend and I were fighting about everything. I was in a bookstore and saw it and said, ‘Oh, a book that will help us get along.'”
And if you believe the hype, John Gray can do just that. But developing committed relations is tough stuff and easy answers are rarely, if ever, helpful. That, however, is what Gray provides. In The World According to Gray, gender divisions are clear-cut, simple, and universal. Men, or Martians, are goal-oriented and strive for autonomy as a “symbol of efficiency, power and competence.” On the other hand, women, or Venutians, “value love, communication, beauty and relationships.”
In Gray’s dichotomized view, women want love and empathy while men want respect and adulation. The question of what the sexes need is easily answered: Men need to feel needed while women need to feel cherished. Yes, cherished.
Yet for all its aphorisms and smug conclusions, Men Are From Mars offers men scant advice on how to go about cherishing, supporting, and nurturing their girlfriends or wives. In a section called “101 Ways to Score Points with a Woman” he offers (italics added): “If she usually washes the dishes, occasionally offer to wash the dishes, especially if she is tired that day; offer to sharpen her knives in the kitchen; open the door for her; give her four hugs a day; notice when the trash is full and offer to empty it; wash before having sex or put on a cologne (if she likes that).” Aside from these minimally demanding hints for the guys, the book reads like a primer for women who want to become better doormats, Stepford wives, or 1950s stereotypes.
Gray gives lip service to the belief that men and women should be equal; unfortunately, he then blithely offers the most familiar, regressive advice. “To approve of a man is to see the good reason behind what he does,” Gray writes. “Even when he is irresponsible or lazy or disrespectful, if she loves him, a woman can find the loving intention or goodness within him. To approve is to find the loving intention or the goodness behind the outside behavior.”
Still not convinced? Other examples make Gray’s point even more blatant: “She asks for his support but he says no, and she is not hurt by his rejection but trusts that he would if he could… When he asks her to do something she says yes and stays in a good mood…When he withdraws she doesn’t make him feel guilty. When he emerges she welcomes him and doesn’t punish or reject him.”
For some, Gray’s message is helpful, comforting even. “Men Are From Mars makes it so easy,” Caroline Hamill, a California publicist told me. “Gray speaks in a way that isn’t preachy or full of psychobabble. Just knowing not to take things personally in my relationships has gotten me through so much. I’m able to focus on the person I’m with instead of on myself. It takes the pressure off communicating when you have Gray’s words and techniques to use.”
Despite record sales, other readers find Gray’s dictums off-putting, if not downright nonsensical. “This book is written for females,” says writing student Serignese. “It’s a book of rules to follow so you don’t upset your husband or boyfriend. It is written to teach women how to appease men. It has no message for men. I agree that men and women do communicate differently and deal with problems differently, but it’s conditioning, how we’re brought up. Gray reinforces stereotypes about how men are. He doesn’t talk about what causes the problems in a relationship.”
Just who is this highly successful defender of the status quo?
The fifth of seven children born to a Texas oil family, Gray became a devotee of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi while in his late teens. According to a biography supplied by his publicist, Gray received both his B.A. and M.A. in Creative Intelligence from Maharishi European Research University, a college that is not listed in any of the major education directories. Nor is Gray a licensed psychologist; his Ph.D. in Psychology and Human Sexuality comes from Columbia Pacific University, a well-known California mail order program. Interestingly, his first marriage, to New Age heavyweight Barbara DeAngelis, author of Secrets About Men Every Woman Should Know, ended in 1984 and Gray has since remarried and become a father.
It is fascinating and frightening to contemplate the industry that has grown up around this mail-order psychologist: calendars with inspirational messages, audiotapes, videos, a CD ROM, public appearances, and romantic weekend get-aways.
Gray’s latest book, Mars and Venus in the Bedroom, was released in the spring of 1995. While sales are not as brisk as those of Men Are From Mars, by all accounts the book is doing well. (Among the pronouncements in Bedroom: “Women are like the moon in that their sexual experience is always waxing and waning. Men are like the sun. Every morning it rises with a big smile…. He wants sex, she wants romance…. The difference between a woman and a man is that she doesn’t feel her strong desire for sex unless her need for love is first satisfied.”)
“Gray splits everything directly down gender lines,” said Men Are From Mars reader Abeni Crooms, a research assistant from New Jersey. “He is too rigid in how he defines men and women. He never says ‘if your partner does this….’ It’s always men do this, women do that. But people are people. Who is he to assume that we all work this way?”
“Men and women are supposed to be different,” Gray counters in Men Are From Mars. “When you remember that your partner is as different from you as someone from another planet, you can relax and cooperate with the differences instead of trying to change them. Relationships do not have to be such a struggle.”
But while it is almost a pop-psychology cliche that many problems in relationships come from our thankless efforts to change our mates, how exactly are women to achieve equality unless men change at least some of the ways they behave in relationships? John Gray’s philosophy that gender differences are inborn and immutable neatly eliminates any possibility or obligation to change. It’s not the system, it’s not patriarchy, it’s not oppression. Relationship difficulties are simply a personal problem that women can solve for themselves; striving for social change is thus unnecessary, pointless.
Leonard Narrow, a Brooklyn-based activist in both the men’s and feminist movements, believes that this message is a reaction to the scrutiny and deconstruction that gender relations have undergone in the past two decades. “People may feel threatened, and so becoming attached to something that tells them that what’s being scrutinized is OK and normal is reassuring. Gray’s book takes common biases and turns them into a theory where gender roles are quintessentially monolithic and unchangeable. It reads like 100 Rules of Chivalry. I see its popularity as a mass reaction to an uncomfortable change.”
Fighting against anti-feminist backlash and at the same time continuing to develop feminist arguments and theories is no small task. Already, feminist thinkers have created an important body of work analyzing the relationships between men and women. While many questions remain about how women and men can better co-exist on a day-to-day basis, Gray’s vapid solutions are clearly not the answer.
“As long as we can’t imagine men free of patriarchy, men will not be able to be free of patriarchy,” notes educator and author bell hooks. “I think in the long run it won’t serve feminism well for us to buy into biological determinism. Any ideology of hopelessness that says, ‘Well, this is how men are, and women are different,’ stands in the way of progressive movement.”
Eleanor J. Bader is a freelance writer and teacher from Brooklyn, New York.