In which the blogger, re-reading his battered old edition of the DC/Fireside romance collection "Heart Throbs" for a pending blog, notes a profoundly dodgy old questionnaire at the very back of the book;
I wish I'd had a copy of Test Yourself: Do You Understand Men? when I was teaching research methods to my exam classes. Just one ten minute session working through its flaws would've done wonders for the confidence of my students. At the very least, they'd've realised how difficult it would've been for even the most careless, unmotivated, or even fundamentally challenged of them to match the incompetency of this questionnaire. For a playful editorial feature claiming to have been designed to help girls who've "trouble figuring out just what's on a guy's mind", it was obviously slapped together by somebody who either didn't understand men or women, or who didn't want to let on what human beings of either sex can really be like. In particular, there's an obvious concern at work in this "test" to avoid emphasising to any young and presumably potentially vulnerable young women the fact that men, like any one else, can be selfish, deceitful, and entirely self-deluding dicks. For example, here's the wonders of question 4, which deals with one of the least troublesome of the 12 examples given,:
Suppressing an ex-teacher's urge to discuss half a dozen other obvious design flaws in the question, it's notable how any less charitable readings of this man's character are notably absent from the choices given. It's not that my own and perhaps over-concerned option for (d) would be considered suitable by everyone, for I'm sure that most people would regard it as being a touch hysterical to suggest;
(d) there's a possibility that he's a psychopath, as 1 in every 100 Americans are, with most of them being men, so get away from him as fast as you can!
But the chance that such a man might be fundamentally dishonest doesn't seem to have occurred to the framer of these questions. That it might have been best, if not actually ethically mandatory, to advise girls to consider staying as far away as possible from relationships with habitual liars certainly doesn't seem to have been thought relevant here,
It's not that the questioner has always avoided pointing out that men who behave badly might actually be vile people, though the possibility tends to be underplayed even when it's not entirely avoided. There's a chance offered that a boy who teases a group of girls "in a way that's almost mean" (2) might well be "a nasty person", for example, while the fury of a man who "gets very angry with you over something trivial" (9) could be explained, it seems, by his being "a disagreeable person". But these options are weighted in a way that we might think is rather perverse. In each case, the most careful response on the part of the girl answering the "test" earns the lowest marks. So, the girl who opts to interpret cruelty as evidence for the "nasty man" thesis, for example, starts to disqualify herself from a praiseworthy result at the test's end, which relies on gathering as many points as possible. A necessary corrective when it comes to the young not jumping to conclusions in their courtships, you might imagine, for a girl who always falls back upon the worst opinion of another may well already have trust issues, and that shouldn't be encouraged. As the advice which follows the test suggests, girls who "tend to jump to conclusions about a guy's character too quickly" aren't accepting that "things aren't always as they appear". Yet, what if things are exactly as they seem? What if a young woman's judgement of a man's poor behaviour is unimpeachably objective?
Another problem here is that there are human beings who do display a great many if not all of the negative behaviours expressed by the boys and men portrayed in the test. There's a fair few of the given situations which in themselves ought to immediately warn off a young woman from the potential lover concerned, but there's a considerable spectrum of human beings who display a range of such behaviour. These are the folks who are jealous and cruel, manipulative and bullying, tantrum-prone and secretive, changeable and generally anti-social. At the worst end of the spectrum, and of course all joking aside, these could very well be psychopaths, and even though they're quite possibly not, they're still hardly the sort of partners, potential or otherwise, who ought to be being given the benefit of the doubt.
It's regrettable, therefore, that a laudably careful young woman working through these questions would have earned the least possible marks on offer and secured the least favourable feedback at the end. For it's one thing to suggest that a single possible marker of a poor choice of boyfriend shouldn't be allowed to obscure his virtues, but quite another to suggest that a tendency to distrust dubious behaviour is actually dysfunctional. The former is a dubious recommendation at its very best, but the latter is surely far, far worse. It's in the lack of concern for the fact that these various actions tend to display themselves in combination with each other that the test unwittingly falls down. In essence, the cumulative effect of the test is to discount the possibility of each scenario being worth the worrying about, and since each problem is regarded in the same way, the end result is that all warning signs, whether considered separately or not, end up defined as unimportant. For example, the reader who's already in a relationship with a psychologically abusive man, or indeed women, could very easily end up generating a result which suggests that the problem is their fault, that the sin lies in their perceptions rather than the other's choices.
By contrast, the girl who jumps to the most optimistic readings of the various situations can end up having her lack of judgement, which cumulatively adds up to a dangerous naivety, reinforced. Little in a comic could buttress a less careful way of judging the value of a relationship than a process than the following, which does more than strongly suggest that it's the girl herself who "sometimes" is "the reason he acts the way he does";
In short, the test encourages women to blame themselves for any negative assessment of a boy or a man's behaviour, while suggesting that redefining such behaviour as excusable due to other factors is the most fair and, by implication, love-winning approach. It is, in truth, an abuser's charter, and though it clearly wasn't designed as anything other than a piece of fluff informed by good intentions and cultural norms, it is somewhat disturbing to consider the message that the test was transmitting.
It's not that I'm suggesting that the genre of romance comics was engaged in a deliberate process of softening up the Republic's women for the attack of social predators, although that would make for a really interesting EC-esque horror short. For one thing, a single questionnaire isn't proof of anything but itself, and these were undoubtedly throwaway editorial extras designed to enhance the enjoyment of the reader while lowering editorial costs in general. What's more, the ethical values which appear to underlie the test seem to be compassionate and well-meaning.Young women shouldn't "jump to conclusions", shouldn't "forget that there are other things in his life besides you", and shouldn't "always look for deep psychological causes"; as misguided as these principles appear to be in combination today, they're hardly the product of a writer who wants anything other than the best for the girls who read their work. But in suggesting that the behaviour of what might be a profoundly unsuitable partner should be blamed on a young woman's misconceptions, and in implying that being mature and romantically successful relies on learning how to put up with the unacceptable, Do You Understand Man? ended up effectively suggesting that blokes can do a great deal of what they like, and that women ought not to object when they do so.
In fact, it's a test which implies that young women create the illusion of a suitor's unsuitability, and in that, the centuries old practise of blaming the victim for their own oppression was quietly, and quite obviously unintentionally, perpetuated.
I hope no-one will mistake the above for a critique of romance comics per se. As decades of study has illuminated, the romance comic was often an engine for radical values, even as it tended to be a fundamentally conservative genre. In 'Heart Throbs', for example, there's some genuinely radical social commentary, such as in 'Forbidden Future', which takes on prejudice against divorced women, and the anti-racist 'Full Hands Empty Heart'. Even in many apparently regressive tales, there can be moments of contentious social issues and the possibility of readings which suggest something far more progressive than the story itself seems to suggest. Folks who might be curious about such things and who've never given into their inner romantic might think of visiting of Jacque Nodell's excellent Sequential Crush, a fine starting point for the net's thriving community of rom-comic fans.