“How to Date Men When You Hate Men”, a “comedy philosophy” book about 21st-century romance by Blythe Roberson, a contributor to the New Yorker and the Onion, got a nod of approval from the New York Times and is being promoted by booksellers ahead of “galentine’s day”. You may have noticed its social-media-friendly cover pop up on your Instagram or Twitter feeds.
When I was reading this book in a café, a man in his early 20s recoiled at the sight of the book jacket. But Roberson is quick to reassure prospective readers that, like most feminists, she does not actually hate men. “To paraphrase the suffragettes in ‘Mary Poppins’,” she writes, “though I adore men as individuals, I believe that as a group they’re systematically oppressing women.” She decided that the title “How to Date Men When They are Born into and Brainwashed by an Evil System That Mightily Oppresses Women” was not as catchy.
So who is Blythe Roberson?
She’s a 27-year-old writer who lives in Brooklyn. You may have seen her satirical pieces on Vice, the Onion, or in the “Shouts & Murmurs” pages of the New Yorker (her predictions for what Jane Austen adaptations might look like in the future are worth reading). She also works as a researcher for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and hosts live comedy nights.
What I can expect from her book?
If you’re hoping to pick up some tips and tricks to apply to your romantic life, you’ll be disappointed. Roberson wastes no time in admitting that she is in fact “bad at dating” and was recently dumped on a crowded subway train. Plus, she says, “dating advice is boring” and “advice books seem to be weirdly gendered – women are made to give solutions to discrete, manageable situations, whereas men get to write philosophical grand thoughts that are no immediate help to anyone.”
Instead, she uses her own experiences as “a horned-up perv” as a jumping-off point to explore dating in the 21st century. The structure of the book mirrors a relationship, from the first pangs of lust, through dating and getting serious, to break-ups and singleton life. Roberson intersperses her observations with references to pop culture, rom-coms, history and philosophy (“How to Date Men…” was inspired by, and is a sort of modern response to “A Lover’s Discourse”, Roland Barthes’s rumination on love, language and self). The book is punctuated by listicles: “Acceptable and Nonacceptable [sic] PDA Locations” (“Acceptable: outside of a bar”, “Not acceptable: cab or rideshare”), “Ways to Break Up with Someone You Aren’t Dating” (“cancel three plans in a row”) or “Lines I Would Prefer Men Use When Rejecting Me” (“I don’t want to kiss you, but I admire and am inspired by your courage in asking me to kiss you”).
Give me some more highlights.
Society, says Roberson, deems women “boy crazy” if they show too much interest in romance or are too forthcoming about their emotions. She, however, is outspoken about her crushes, proudly admitting that fancying people brings her great joy (she tracks her “many millions” of infatuations in a spreadsheet). She reckons that crushes are “not really about the person who is being crushed on at all” but rather “about using the idea of another person to figure out what you find important in a lover”.
Roberson thinks flirting is a minefield (“I have gotten poor peer reviews in the whole ‘signal’ area”) but is experienced enough to furnish us with some “good analog flirts that work”: paying attention, making weird eyes, showing them your Twitter drafts (“extremely vulnerable!”) and some “bad flirts that do not work”: standing completely still and not doing anything, showing them all the stuff in your purse and correcting someone’s grammar.
“The question of our generation”, reckons Roberson, is “was it a date?” The word means so many different things to different people, she surmises, it is essentially meaningless. She advises readers to get the “D” word out there as often as possible, eg “Thank you for meeting me here for our date!” She hates apps like Tinder because they turn people into commodities and anyway, “too much choice makes you less happy”. An eternal pessimist, she believes most relationships are doomed. “Nothing in life lasts,” she says, citing the end of “Game of Thrones” and the collapse of Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan Tatum’s marriage as evidence.
What have people said about it?
It’s been a mixed bag. The New York Times praised Roberson for her “biting wit”. Josephine Livingstone, in the New Republic, found it “extremely funny but also a document of timeless agony”. Vulture’s Karen Chee considered it “not only hilarious but also surprisingly thought-provoking and invitingly introspective”. On Amazon, where it enjoys a four-star rating, one reviewer said it “hits the mark on men”.
Others were less effusive. Another Amazon reviewer described it as a “navel-gazing, cringe-y memoir of a woman in her 20s.” Lauren Oyler, writing for Bookforum, was also scathing. “Roberson’s bland mix of bratty overconfidence, insincere misandry, and not quite believable self-deprecation would be at home on the kind of women’s website that is run by a man recently made hip to the click-ability of feminist catchphrasing.” Ouch.
Will I enjoy it?
I laughed out loud at various points. “The Rules versus My Rules If I Wrote a Dating How-To Book”, a listicle which appeared in the New Yorker, is particularly good at skewering the ways in which women are instructed to be coy and alluring in order to trap a partner: “13: Don’t Tell Him What to Do versus Tell a Man He’s a Misogynist at Least Once per Date” and “16: Be Honest but Mysterious versus Tell Him the Scientific Reasons Why When You’re on Your Period You Poop More”.
But I did find it all a bit much after 250 pages. The colloquial style can grate and there are rather too many references to Harry Styles (I write that as someone who was once gifted a life-sized cutout of the One Direction singer.) Its insights aren’t especially novel (rom-coms have long been held up as bogus templates for relationships, for example) and Roberson might have quoted some unusual studies or research to back up her points.
Still, for something to dip in and out of for a chuckle on your commute, or as a source of quotable lines to share with your friends, Roberson’s book does the trick nicely. “I’m no longer trying to date the person I want to be in the world,” she says at one point. “I’m trying to be that person.”
How to Date Men When You Hate Men by Blythe Roberson is out now (Flatiron Books)