Review: Himglish and Femalese
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 8 August 2009. Copyright Rachel Hills 2009.
Himglish & Femalese: Why Women Don’t Get Why Men Don’t Get Them
By Jean Hannah Edelstein
Reviewed by Rachel Hills.
Most books about relationships fall into one of two categories: they perpetuate tedious and outdated gender stereotypes, or they whip the reader up into a flurry of insecure self-loathing in an effort to shift more copies. The most infuriating do both.
On first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that Himglish and Femalese: Why Women Don’t Get Why Men Don’t Get Them, by twenty-something US-cum-British journalist Jean Hannah Edelstein, falls into the first category. Its title, after all, is premised on the idea that men and women speak different languages, even if both of those languages happen to be English.
But in this case, first glances are deceiving. As the intentionally familiar second half of title and kitsch 1950s illustrations hint, Edelstein’s tongue is planted firmly in her cheek.
The title isn’t entirely misleading – Edelstein does believe that the sexes communicate differently, and the book is peppered with humorous translations of typical conversations heterosexual couples might have – but if the prospect of another round of the battle of the sexes makes you want to flee from the bookshop, you needn’t be afraid. As the book’s bluntly titled chapter on conflict (Sometimes, Men Are Jerks. Sometimes, Women Are Also Jerks) suggests, gender essentialism, this is not.
More than a self-help book, Himglish and Femalese is a witty traipse through the modern sex and relationships landscape. Edelstein ponders “ambigudating”, the ethics of “researching“ prospective partners online, the modern man’s love of the crème brulee torch and MasterChef, and why exactly everyone feels compelled to stay friends with their exes – all in a tone that is simultaneously prim and sassy.
That’s not to say that Edelstein doesn’t have her share of genuine wisdom to impart. On commitment, she wonders if perhaps, instead of freaking out and jumping ship when our relationships hit a rough patch, we should just ride the bad times out like we would any other relationship. “If you have a fight with your mother and sulk and don’t speak to her for a couple of weeks, you usually don’t start looking for a new mother,” she reasons. If you must start a dalliance with your flatmate or colleague, she warns, make sure you have alternative accommodation and employment lined up if things turn sour. But this advice, one often feels, comes second to Edelstein’s playful social anthropology.
One UK reviewer suggested that Himglish and Femalese was a throwback to the 1950s, a cry for simpler times when men were men and women were women. But I would argue the opposite: that instead it represents a new style of self-help book, one written for a generation that has come of age on the carefully constructed snark of US gossip site Gawker, the witty self-referentiality of Gossip Girl and the gentle sarcasm of Lily Allen. This is a relationships guide that is at once self-help and satire.
Indeed, that combination might be the secret to Himglish’s success. Edelstein addresses her readers as female numerous times through the book, but my male partner was the first of the two of us to tear into it – focusing his attentions on, perhaps unsurprisingly, the witty fictional repartee between the book’s Himglish and Femalese speakers, and the summaries at the end of each chapter. “The good bits,” he called them – although they were the only bits he read.
Edelstein’s “Himglish” is based on the premise that men prefer to communicate more directly and succinctly than women, both in the number of words they use themselves, and the number of words they prefer to consume. Perhaps there’s some truth to this “different languages” thing after all.