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ken is from mars, barbie is from mattel
when a toy isn't just a toy
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

I found myself in two places recently. Not at the same time, of course, but these were both moments that made me think. The connection will become apparent later on.

Actually, in the first place I found myself, I wasn't thinking much. I was paralyzed. I had literally fallen to the floor, unable to breathe, convulsing ... with laughter. The floor in question was the floor of F.A.O. Schwartz. In the Barbie section, with its pink and its frills and its pseudo-multiculturalism and its pseudo-feminism. A friend and I had stumbled upon Great Date Ken, a tuxedoed creature offering a bouquet of roses to his imaginary companion. After remarking that neither of us had ever encountered such a date, we agreed that young, impressionable girls should not be led to harbor such unrealistic expectations. Instead, we agreed, they should be presented with examples that would prepare them for the real world, such as Show Me How Much You Love Me Ken, Falls Asleep Afterward Ken, and But I Paid For Your Dinner Ken. Other examples provided endless merriment, and had us squeaking out half-choked sobs, on the floor somewhere between Astronaut Barbie and University of Texas Cheerleader Barbie.

In the second place I found myself, I could do nothing but think. (The curse of the English major-to be so busy with analysis one can do nothing but analyze.) I was on a date, in a car, having just had the door held open for me by my date. A woman at work had lent me a John Gray book, Mars and Venus on a Date, asking me to read it so we could have a discussion, "single woman to single woman," about its lessons. I found the book offensive. And misleading. And, in the end, amusing beyond all reason or cause.

One of the book's chief instructions is that men like to provide. Women, instead, should not provide, but should simply be receptive. Gray's example was that, on a date, when a man unlocks the woman's car door, the woman should not reach across and unlock the car door for the man. She should only be receptive to having that unlocked door provided for her. I thought this was ridiculous. I thought this was offensive. And then on this date, my date unlocked the door for me, and I did not reach over and unlock his door, and I sat and obsessed about why that had happened.

I haven't come up with a real answer. Instead, I came up with another question: who cares, really, whether or not the woman reaches over to unlock the door? Is this the most important thing upon which a relationship is founded? Not likely.

My mind has since begun to explore the connections between Give Me Some Sugar Ken and this book full of phrases such as "Marriage is to women what sex is to men" and chapters such as "Why a Woman Needs a Man." (There is no chapter, incidentally, on why a man needs a woman.)

I may have to cede a point or two to John Gray, much as I hate to do so. There is some truth to some parts of what he says. The idea that dating consists of stages, that a woman's excessive attention may sometimes frighten a man-these both make sense to me. I do not believe, however, that "when a woman reaches across to unlock a man's door it defeats the whole purpose of the date and confuses their roles. Instead, if she just happily waits, appreciating his attentiveness to her, there is a greater opportunity for the attraction to grow." The gendered commands, then, are these -

Man: Do things.

Woman: Just sit there.

The day I conduct my dating life on the 'Just Sit There' principle is the day I ... I don't even know. It's not a day I ever expect to see. And it scares me that this is a best-selling book, and that millions of people believe "women are like waves" and that "a man's gift is to be responsible for a woman's fulfillment, while a woman's gift is to be responsive and receptive to his gift." Gray locks his subjects in "masculine" and "feminine" roles, and punishes those who try to escape with lines like "when women are too responsible, they are also less attractive to men." Oh, oops. Didn't mean to be self-sufficient. Sorry.

My friends and I are just as prone to exploiting stereotypes as Gray is, but we use them for different purposes. In this case, comedy. You Can Use Your Hand Ken is funny, but in the real world, who uses this kind of line? The same goes for But I Paid For Your Dinner Ken. Several coworkers, men and women alike, have pointed out that at no time in their collective experience has any man expected a woman to sleep with him because he paid for dinner. (One male coworker pointed out that the average cost of dinner in the Washington DC area is probably far below that of the going rate for a hooker in the same location.) Self-help books are more straightforward than reality, but are they easier? No.

So if Great Date Ken arrives at my doorstep, painted tuxedo and cloth rosebuds and all, I'll have to turn him down. Graciously, of course, but I have to ignore a John Gray rule and tell him exactly why he's being rejected.


Look at me, Ken.

Sorry, honey, you're just too short for me.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

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lisa r
6.2.04 @ 2:24p

I must have passed John Gray's house in Reading, PA the other day. For some reason this area is full of people who feel the need to post Biblical scripture in their yards in a not-so-subtle effort to preach to the world in general.

This particular house had a 2-sided sign. Approach from one direction and you see "Husbands love your wives". Approach from the opposite direction you see "Wives submit to your husbands".

People wondered why I got so bent out of shape concerning the Southern Baptist Convention's adoption of the wifely submissiveness passage in their mission statement in my first column. It's because despite the fact that the Scripture (and the mission statement) actually do complete that lesson by pointing out that women are to be submissive to their husbands when it comes to religious matters (something I still disagree with)--the overwhelming choice of many fundamental Christian sects is to stop right where that sign stops, and where John Gray stops--female submissivenss to the male.

As Colonel Potter so succinctly put it on M*A*S*H: horse hockey. You're right, Jael--the worst thing in the world women (or men, for that matter) can do is Just Sit There. Taking someone for granted is never appropriate.

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