Upon spotting a picture of some female celebutante reading “Taming Your Alpha Bitch” and falling head over heel for the stiletto cover art, I purchased a copy. I’m not sure whether it was because I’d just read Mindy Kaling’s amusing “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” and a collection of Jhumpa Lahiri’s powerful short stories back-to-back (it was apparently female Indian-American author week), but I thought I was in for a series of funny tales of modern womanhood. Instead, I unwittingly delved into my first self-help book. I realized my mistake when the fabulous satirical punchline I eagerly anticipated didn’t materialize on the second page. Refusing to let Amazon pocket my $9.84, I resolved to withhold judgment. Like Britney Spears’s teenage chastity vow, it didn’t last long. About three minutes later I turned to my husband and announced, “This may be the single most sexist document I’ve ever read.” Now, keep in mind that I once scanned a summary of arguments cited in opposition to the Nineteenth Amendment, including that giving women the right to vote would unfairly advantage married men (you know, by giving them two votes). After finishing the book, I can say I’m doubly shocked. First, it is indeed terribly, inexcusably sexist as well as totally out there in a sort of new-agey, clean-hippie fashion. Second, my self found it helpful anyway.
Whitman and Grado write, “[M]ore and more of us are approaching our education, our careers, and even our love lives with [a] harsh ‘pit bull’ kind of attitude.” They describe this “masculine tactic” as “action-oriented, externally focused, and domineering” while the “softer, feminine nature” with which we need to reconnect “is inwardly centered, being-oriented, collaborative, and cocreative.” According to the authors, women must turn away from “[m]asculine energies such as assertiveness, control, and tenacity,” and toward “the feminine energies such as trust, surrender, and faith,” assessing “a situation [not] from the standpoint of ‘What’s in it for me?’ . . . [but] from the standpoint of ‘How can I serve?’” After all, they soothingly coo, this “tough-girl routine is only a facade that we use to hide our insecurities and camouflage our inner doubts.”
Let’s suspend disbelief (and outrage) for a moment and turn to the specifics. The authors identify four types of “Alpha Bitch” and then describe how each type interacts in public, in the workplace, in her marriage, as a mother, and as a friend. “The Forceful Alpha uses bullying and intimidation, the Controlling Alpha becomes overbearing and micromanaging, the Competitive Alpha can be relentless and underhanded, and the Disruptive Alpha resorts to attention-seeking behaviors.” I readily admit that I fit each of these molds in numerous ways; but in many respects, not so much (e.g., I do “motor down the aisles [of the grocery store], unconcerned that [I’m] plowing over others’ toes,” but I don’t steamroll my husband and his restaurant suggestions). In the workplace, however, I commit pretty much all of the enumerated sins. I refuse to lavish praise on “good tries” in order to foster creativity (preferring to maintain high expectations), assert my opinions relentlessly and without apology, aspire to be at least as good as the best performers, and call attention to my achievements. According to Whitman and Grado, this means I “throw [my] weight around like a man.”
Stating that this “behavior[ is] always triggered by the . . . perception that there are simply not enough love, attention, money, or other resources to go around,” they recommend we pitbulls instead “place . . . faith in a force greater than ourselves to coordinate the events of our lives. Instead of feeling that we alone must work to fulfill our dreams, we can . . . choos[e] to really feel our desire as already attained” and then “sit back and watch the magic unfold with the help of the universe.” To which I respond, in the deafening, drawn-out collective bellow of a thousand drunken college football fans contesting a referee’s release of the yellow flag, “BUUUUUUUULLSHIT! BUUUUUUUULLSHIT! BUUUUUUUULLSHIT!”
More specifically, I identify two large, stinking piles of excrement produced by male bovine animals. First, why would any of this behavior be okay for men but not for women? The only evidence offered to support a distinction is a biological imperative for men to behave like hunters and women like gatherers. Like the six-dollar Whole Foods cheese I can get at Target for two, I just don’t buy it. I believe that the failings discussed and lessons proffered apply to any “Alpha” person, regardless of gender. Unfortunately, that change alone wouldn’t redeem the book. The second lump of doodoo reeks of petula oil. Resources are scarce despite all the warm, fuzzy new-age speak to the contrary, particularly in the workplace. Both men and women believe that “if we’re going to get anywhere in this world, we had better learn how to throw our weight around,” because under Whitman and Grado’s definitions of “throwing” and “weight,” it’s largely true.
With those humongous caveats registered, however, I did find value in the book. Perhaps it’s because I can use their assistance becoming a “Femininely Empowered Woman,” or maybe, as my bridesmaid-turned-editor posited, “these fools were just rambling about a lot of shit and happened to say a few useful things simply by virtue of the fact that they wrote 200 pages.” I’m horrified to admit I lean toward the former explanation after distilling mumbo jumbo like “become skilled in the art of attuning our thoughts and emotions with the universal laws that govern manifestation” into Whitman and Grado’s baseline recommendations for Alphas: “surrender . . . addiction to control,” “[v]iew others not as threats but as sources of inspiration,” “let go of drama,” and “focus on what we can give, rather than on what we can take.” A handful of their specific assertions also resonated with my omnipresent desire to become a better relative and friend:
– “[T]ry not to jump to conclusions. Ask yourself if there is another way to look at the situation, or a logical reason for the other person’s behavior.”
– “When we find ourselves slipping into disrespectful . . . behaviors, we must learn to take this as a sign that we are feeling underappreciated and undernourished, and in desperate need of our own attention.”
– When you start to manage others’ actions, thinking you’re being helpful, you actually send the message: “You are incompetent and untrustworthy; therefore, I must take control.”
As I attempted to separate the book’s wheat from the monstrous amount of chaff, distill it, and tentatively sip the vodka (don’t worry, Celiacs can drink metaphorical grain alcohol), I tried a little experiment. Before reading the book, I left the house every weekday at 8:45 and walked to the gym, arriving precisely at 9:00 when the daycare opens. I hired a babysitter two mornings a week, starting at 9:45. Now there’s no way in “h” “e” double hockey stick that I would pay someone to sit around and wait for me. Thus, I used to exercise until precisely 9:35, collect the kids, and j-walk (or, in reality, j-run) in order to return home in time; breathless and stressed, but on time. After reading “Taming Your Alpha Bitch,” I asked the babysitter to come at 10:00. I now stop and wait at each light. Whitman and Grado can’t convince me that relaxing and letting the universe (a.k.a. the Seattle Department of Transportation Traffic Management Signal Operations Group) determine how quickly I walk gets me home just as fast. It doesn’t. But, like the eight dollar Whole Foods cheese that goes unrivaled at Target, I’m willing to pay for something that makes my life a little more pleasant.
I feel compelled, however, not to “end on a pro” as veterans of sorority rush say. Let there be no mistake: this self-help book dressed up in sexy garb is 5% helpful, 5% harmless but annoying new-age speak, and 90% reprehensible sexist bullshit.