I find it fascinating that Dr Laura’s central thesis is that women mess up their lives by acting like their lives all about men, and yet all ten things they do to “mess up their lives” are things they do in relationships with men. That kind of implies that Dr Laura also thinks their lives are about men, and therefore, that they are right to acknowledge that their relationships are the single most important things in their lives. Chapter 3 is about “stupid devotion.”
We begin with another of those odd sections where Dr Laura seems to be quite feminist indeed. She says some pretty wise things in this introduction, like “Their definition of love is — with a lot of confirmation from popular culture — way off the mark and has become synonymous with attachment”. She point out the toxic way in which Ariel in The Little Mermaid is encouraged to give up family, friends, home, and even her own body for the love of a stranger she finds attractive, or how Belle dreams of seeing the world and getting out of her province and immediately abandons that dream to settle down with the Beast. She writes, quite well said in my opinion, “I would have been happier had she been a part of his successful spiritual transformation, patted him on the head, and gave him her forwarding address at the university”.
But here’s the thing: she doesn’t engage with these fictional stories as stories. She doesn’t seem to care why they were written that way, what the effect is on young girls, what the creators were intending to say, or how we could build a better fairy tale. She engages with the women in these stories as though they were real women with agency of their own — and she blames them for the failings, as though they were just too stupid to understand what to do. It’s this victim blaming mentality that steers her away from feminism and into misogyny.
The first case study in this section is a woman named Lisa. She doesn’t want to marry her boyfriend because he’s a drug addict, but she still loves him. Dr Laura advises her to get out of the relationship immediately. She admits that the last time she tried to break up with him, he hurt her physically, and that if she doesn’t take his phone calls or answer the door, he’ll come over and break it down to get in to her. Dr Laura sees this as a sign that Lisa is weak-willed; she calls her “a wimpy, overcompassionate, frightened female” when she refuses to call the police on her boyfriend. (Clearly this has nothing to do with the number of young men who get shot when there’s a mental health or addiction crisis going on and the police are called.)
She goes on to blame men’s problems on women. She suggests that the man is behaving in this abusive, stalkerish way because he’s getting signals that Lisa doesn’t really mean it when she tells him to piss off, then concludes with this garbage:
Although Lisa can clearly see this man is a major problem, she continues to have feeling for him. So what’s really at issue? […]I can’t tell you precisely what combination of nature and nurture is at work here ,but women do seem able (and all too willing) to search really hard or redeeming qualities in their men. With such a mind-set, they are ripe to be overly tolerant of grossly negative qualities in exchange for what may be only moments of happiness or peace.
She then rails for multiple pages about how women say “But I love him” as a reason to excuse bad behavior. What do you expect them to say? When your stupid heart wants something, it’s not going to turn on a dime; it’s going to keep wanting that thing even as your rational mind tells it no and sends it to bed without supper. That’s part of what the grieving process is for: resetting that desire, learning to let go of what might have been and focus on what is. All that work often begins when you break it off with someone. It’s not the work of an hour.
I’m going to interrupt this writeup for a brief PSA. If you are in a situation like Lisa’s, where you find yourself unable or unwilling to break it off with someone who treats you badly, physically threatens or harms you, and makes it clear that breakup is unacceptable, there’s hope. You can find people at the National Domestic Abuse Hotline who are trained and able to help you figure out how to break things off without having a police standoff at your apartment door. Then the grieving process can begin and you can get on the road to healing. If you can’t decide if your relationship is bad enough, feel free to drop a comment here, I’m always willing to help people talk through their choices.
Dr Laura then puzzles her way through a discussion of physical double standards. She mentions that women are willing to overlook all kind of “unattractive” features in a man, but men are quick to pass on a woman if she’s not conventionally beautiful. Number one, that’s not universally true; this reeks of being pulled from pop culture rather than from real life, as it’s a common sitcom trope but not necessarily indicative of everyone’s lived reality. Her evidence even includes beer commercials!
Number two, even if we assume this is a widespread problem, she doesn’t dig any deeper into why that is or what can be done about it. Instead, she blames women for not being picky enough! As though physical beauty is, in fact, the be-all end-all of relationships, and women therefore need to become more bigoted and only settle for the most attractive mates.
Why are you settling? Why are you not more selective? Why are you not more critical?
Why are you calling it love?
Because you haven’t come to believe in yourself!
There’s a world of difference, in my view, between “settling” for a man who treats you badly or abuses you, and “settling” for a man who treats you well but is going bald. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s a pretty disgusting thing to equate here.
Dr Laura is abrasive, rude, and often downright cruel. But in this chapter at least, she grapples with some real problems. I mean, this isn’t necessarily an incorrect sentiment:
I feel certain that what many women call love, under so many obviously ugly, hurtful, and sometimes downright dangerous situations, is more about passion and promise and fantasies and desperate dependencies and fears about taking on alternatives.
Real love is a long marination of qualities having to do with respect, admiration, appreciation, character, affection, cooperation, honor, and sacrifice.
But verbally abusing women until they stand up to their verbally abusive boyfriends just seems counterproductive, doesn’t it?
She pinpoints that the problem is low self-esteem, but then counters that women often use low self-esteem as an excuse for inaction, rather than something that they should be working to change. My counter to that is that people will use anything as a reason not to change if they’re not ready or not willing to do so yet. You can’t shy away from terminology just because people will use it to deceive themselves. Isn’t this book supposed to be the real deal, raw and unfiltered, and not concerned with hurting feelings?
But as I keep saying, she has some good advice here:
Courage is not the lack of fear, it is fear plus action.
She lays out here that if you push yourself to make change, when your life improves, you’ll have more self-esteem: because you took control and made change happen, therefore, you are a person who can make good things happen. This is a far healthier basis for self-worth than what other people see in you.
Our next case study is, shockingly, a lesbian: Linda, who was involved with another woman. The other woman decided she wasn’t in love anymore and wanted to break up. Linda was finding it hard to let go, which Dr Laura claimed (and doesn’t give me enough data to judge for myself) was because she was afraid to lose herself, the sense of significance and worth she got from being in a relationship. We get another dose of misogyny here:
I observed that such behavior is typically female. Men don’t feel they have to be attached to a woman in order to exist. They feel they have to be doing something: racing a car faster, inventing something, climbing a mountain, running a company — doing something in the world. That’s how they find an identity.
This is because the patriarchy says that men get their identity and worth from the things they do, while women get their identity and worth from their owner. A girl with a rich father is better than one with a poor father; a girl who can afford to spend daddy’s money on expensive beauty regimes and plastic surgery is able to make herself more attractive to a potential husband, and landing a rich, successful husband is the way in which a woman shows she is valuable. Denying the effects of patriarchy and laying all the blame on the head of the woman is like denying the effects of our income inequality and blaming poor people for being poor, or denying systemic racism and blaming black people for not “trying hard enough”.
Dr Laura then describes women as “Volunteer hostages” and “romantic martyrs”. I’m just going to skip ahead a bit; she has a tendency to repeat the same central point over and over in progressively more shocking ways, as though worried it won’t sink in if she only says it once.
Toward the end of this chapter we get more traditional advice, though it’s dressed up in the sensationalist package. You have to love yourself before you can love someone else, Dr Laura basically implies. You can’t change a man, so if he has a deal-breaking flaw, give him up. You should use your head to overrule your heart: if the situation is dangerous, don’t listen to your feelings, protect yourself. Love (the feeling) is not enough.
I’ve been struggling with the definition of love for a while. There is an emotion, a gushy, sentimental attachment to a person, that is often described as “love”. But there is also the sense of devotion and faith, of choosing to be with someone and do what you can to make their life that much better. Of putting their needs over your own wants, of choosing to stand by them when things are difficult. There’s also the sense of unwavering acceptance, the idea that you know them thoroughly inside and out, and the curiosity and desire to see where their life is going and who they are becoming from minute to minute. All these things are called “love”, and they’re not always a package deal. What do you do when you have sentimental feelings toward someone but you can’t accept who they really are and you don’t want to be part of where their life is headed? You try to change them, or you tell yourself they’re better than you think they are (denial), or you leave them. Of the three options, only one is really healthy.
Post-script: Sorry this took so long, I’ve been having a mental health crisis and needed to be away from the internet for a bit. This book is a lot shorter than Bitten so I anticipate no trouble finishing it, but it may take longer than I expected.