A Feminist Analysis of Self-Help Bestsellers for Improving Relationships: A Decade Review

Article excerpt

Self-help literature is pervasive and influential in the United States. A critical analysis of self-help books would help therapists to determine their utility for the therapeutic process and assist them in making reading recommendations to clients. In this study, a content analysis was conducted of the top 11 relationship self-help books on the New York Times Bestseller List over a period of 10 years (1988-1998) to determine the degree to which these books support a feminist approach to therapy. This study yielded three major findings. First, the number of feminist books, the number of nonfeminist books, and those falling in the middle across four components of feminist family therapy are about equal. However, the second major finding was that the top-selling books are more likely to be nonfeminist than feminist. The third finding is that most best-selling self-help books appear to have become less compatible with a feminist approach to relationships over time. This analysis encourages therapists to think critically about these best-selling books; it will also allow therapists to consider this methodology as a model for critically analyzing other books that they recommend to clients or use in their own professional development.

The self-help industry is important to therapists and can have a profoundly beneficial or detrimental influence on the therapeutic process. Therapists can use self-help books to educate clients on specific issues. However, if books are inaccurate, fail to separate an author's opinion from research findings, and/or contain suggestions or interventions that fail to recognize gender and diversity issues, self-help books can be detrimental to clients' change process.

Many therapists frequently assign self-help books as part of their therapeutic plan. In a study of 105 psychologists, 89% reported that they regularly assigned self-help books as a part of therapy (Starker, 1989). Further, individuals and couples in therapy may read self-help books before entering therapy and may discuss their reading with their therapists. Thus, even therapists who do not plan to use these books as a part of therapy should be familiar with and be able to evaluate the self-help literature.

In many cases, the popularity of self-help books makes the authors' messages or guidance seem important, right, or truthful, regardless of its accuracy. To use self-help books most effectively, therapists must critically analyze them to determine their appropriateness for inclusion in the therapeutic process. This analysis must be based on current research and theory in marriage and family therapy, including the feminist perspective. For this analysis, Haddock, Zimmerman, and MacPhee's (2000) definition of feminist family therapy was used. These authors delineate four components of a feminist approach to therapy: (1) Addressing the influences of the social construction of gender on individuals and their relationships, (2) encouraging egalitarian relationships between couples, (3) empowering clients to explore nontraditional behaviors and choices, and (4) managing the power differential between therapist and client. In this study, the contents of self-help books were analyzed to determine the degree to which they supported this definition.

When couples understand the influence of the social construction of gender on them as individuals and on their relationship, they can better resist pressures and constraints. When they do so individually (as in her assertiveness, his expressing feelings and vulnerability), they are better able to resist the influence in their relationships and instead share equal power (as in coparenting, division of labor). Consciousness raising with couples about the influence of the social construction of gender, therefore, may be an important component to help them recognize and resist stereotypical ways of behaving and encourage them to explore a wider range of behaviors and choices in all aspects of their lives (Haddock et al. …