Forever Your Girl
Call it a feminist coincidence: Two books published in 1963 examine gender, sex, and marriage, but arrive at diametrically opposite conclusions. In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan complains that “the only passion, the only pursuit, the only goal a woman is permitted is the pursuit of a man.” Meanwhile, Helen Andelin’s Fascinating Womanhood urges women to embrace that primary passion, because it leads to ultimate fulfillment and complete happiness. We all know how The Feminine Mystique changed the world for countless women. But Fascinating Womanhood, while lesser-known than Friedan’s polemic, has had its own powerful impact on notions of women and their potential.
Like the bestselling how-to guides for would-be wives that followed in its wake—The Rules, The Surrendered Wife—Andelin’s Fascinating Womanhood told women what they wanted, and then explained how to get it. Its central thesis asserted that the most essential gender difference is that “love is more important to a woman and admiration is more important to a man.” According to Andelin, nothing motivates men more than pride, and nothing causes them more suffering than a blow to it; men’s need to be admired is so overriding that they cannot endure criticism or even rational conversation—which is why she informs women that “it’s better to surrender your point of view to a man than to win an argument.” Instead, men must be manipulated. They might realize that they’re being manipulated, but as long as this manipulation is perpetrated by saucy, pert, childlike women, men are okay with it.
The means by which women manipulate men into loving, desiring, and protecting them are familiar: FW envisions women as weak, dependent, submissive, selfless, and in need of protection from a laundry list of dangers enumerated by Andelin. There’s “abduction and rape, sometimes followed by brutality and murder,” as well as “vicious dogs, snakes, a high precipice, a deep canyon, or other dangers of nature,” and even “unreal dangers” such as “strange noises, spiders, mice and even dark shadows.” Women must also sympathize with their husbands’ difficulties while never expecting sympathy in return, because a woman who reveals the truth about her emotional life risks injuring her husband’s fragile pride by forcing him to see that he is not always an ideal mate.
Now in its sixth edition, Fascinating Womanhood has sold more than 2 million copies. Over the years, the book has grown from less than 200 pages to more than 400, with most of the additional pages featuring testimonials from women whose miserable marriages were saved once they began following the book’s advice. The most substantive differences between the first and latest edition are not additions but deletions: Even so committed an antifeminist as Andelin could see that revisions were necessary to make the work more palatable to modern women, despite her advice to live according to antiquated notions of femininity and family.
Gone from the most recent edition, for example, is the promise that the book will teach women “how to get what you want out of life, until man becomes both master and slave,” a line that made too explicit FW’s underlying message: Personal dignity, ethical responsibility, emotional maturity, and intellectual growth aren’t as important as bedroom roles of master and servant so profound that they shape every aspect of a marriage. Also 86ed is the part where Andelin urges women to purposely botch household chores so men feel capable, needed, and amused as they correct their wives’ mistakes. (“If it is the furnace that needs fixing replace some of the parts backwards or fail to get it running at all.”)
What remains unchanged about Fascinating Womanhood is its baseline equation of femininity with the performance of—if not the actual state of—eternal youth. When the book was first published, this expectation was par for the course: In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan summarizes a 1960 issue of McCall’s magazine by noting that “the image of woman that emerges from this big, pretty magazine is young and frivolous, almost childlike; fluffy and feminine; passive; gaily content in a world of bedroom and kitchen, sex, babies, and home.”
To Andelin, the only problem with the magazine and with Friedan’s analysis is that the image of woman is almost childlike. Andelin recommended that women become explicitly, intentionally childlike, writing that “childlikeness is one of the most charming traits taught in Fascinating Womanhood.” And Andelin’s legacy is still very much in effect—not only for the adherents who blog about the book’s wisdom or enroll in online “Marriage, the Fascinating Way” classes offering personalized advice on how to act like a little girl, but in the female infantilization enthusiastically embraced by popular culture.
We’re not talking merely about the obvious examples, like sexualized schoolgirls in kneesocks and supershort kilts, or dumb-bunny stereotypes like The Girls Next Door. Childlike women are also the prevailing romantic heroines in movies, TV, and beyond. Not unaware of the very earnest and sober ways women are still told to cultivate what even Andelin acknowledges is a “ridiculous exaggeration of manner” so as to appear “cute, pert, saucy...trusting and innocent,” Nathan Rabin of the Onion AV Club coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to describe the wild-yet-innocent cutie-pie who uses her childlike delight to entice some young male sad sack into a candyland of cutting work and skinny-dipping. From Natalie Portman in Garden State to Kate Hudson in Almost Famous to Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, Rabin asserts that the archetype “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Furthermore, Rabin argues, these movies make clear that “the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is largely defined by secondary status and lack of an inner life. She’s on hand to lift a gloomy male protagonist out of the doldrums, not to pursue her own happiness.”
But Andelin insists that a “fascinating woman” finds happiness precisely by assuming a secondary status and lacking an inner life. Being infantile, manic, pixie-ish, and dreamy is not just a cute way to act in movies; in Fascinating Womanhood, it’s posited as an important ingredient in attracting a mate, which is the most important element of female happiness.
Nowhere is this idea more abundant in current pop culture than in the Twilight franchise. Bella Swan can’t properly be called manic, since mania is defined by wild mood swings and Bella is almost uniformly morose. But she has the pixie-dream-girl part down pat, what with her accident-prone fragility, her halting speech, her separateness from others, and her inability to participate in what most of the world knows as reality. And the extent to which the relationship between human Bella and vampire Edward depends on her childlike weakness—and his power to simultaneously threaten and protect her—is one of the more striking aspects of the series.
Bella and Edward
Bella’s fragility and the protectiveness she arouses in him are things that Edward mentions often. He initially wants to feed on her; but, just as Andelin would predict, when he senses her vulnerability and admiration for him, his bloodlust is tamed, and he feels a burning desire to rescue her from would-be rapists, runaway vehicles, and vampires more vicious than himself. Meanwhile, Bella’s overriding desire to be with Edward is complicated by the fact that she is human—and therefore aging—while he is undead and ageless. Edward would rather she retain her humanity than her youth, but Bella is desperate to become a vampire before she turns 20, so she can spend eternity as an adolescent. New Moon, the second book in the series, begins with a nightmare in which Bella has grown old: She’s gray and wrinkled, while Edward is still a gloriously handsome 17-year-old. Despite the repeated assertion that Bella is mature beyond her years, she gauges her compatibility with Edward primarily on physical age, and is dismayed by each birthday—even spending life as an eternal 18-year-old is too old, because it’s one birthday older than Edward.
When she finally does become a vampire shortly before turning 19, Bella is thrilled to realize that she will be childlike for all eternity, a teenage bride and mother cocooned in a tiny family circle for the rest of her existence. Sounds fascinating, right?
Indeed, Bella would have been the perfect Fascinating Womanhood case study. The book freely scorns women who “insist on believing that really sensible men, the kind they admire, would be repulsed instead of attracted to…a childlike creature” who stomps her foot and threatens to tattle to her husband’s mother when he misbehaves. It also suggests that women foolish enough to hold this misconception implement the book’s advice, then judge its aptness by men’s reactions. (Fun fact: Helen Andelin and Twilight author Stephenie Meyer are both devout Mormons who graduated from Brigham Young University, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the two women are prone to glorifying female submission and male strength.)
And there’s no need to worry that a skeptical woman won’t be able to be harness her pouty inner infant. Says Andelin:
It’s part of being a woman. Remember, it was not long ago you were a little girl, when these traits were natural to you.... When a woman matures there’s a marked tendency for her to lose this childlike trait, especially when she gets married. She somehow feels that now she must grow up, without realizing that men never want women to grow up completely. Truly fascinating women always remain somewhat little girls, regardless of age.
Fascinating Womanhood exhorts women to develop childlikeness in several key areas: Childlike Anger (“When you are angry”), Childlike Response (“When he is angry or cross”), Asking for Things, Childlike Joy, Childlike Trust, Outspokenness, Changefulness, Youthful Manner, and Youthful Appearance. But can a woman who, unlike Bella, must age physically and mentally still retain all these qualities? Andelin died in 2009, at the age of 89. The biographical note at the back of the 2007 edition of Fascinating Womanhood lauds her “storybook marriage” of almost six decades to Aubrey Andelin, a dentist and real-estate developer who himself wrote a marriage manual, Man of Steel and Velvet, first published in 1981; the Andelins raised four sons and four daughters and had 60 grandchildren.
We don’t know whether the fascinating Mrs. Andelin remained childlike and dreamy even as she approached 90 years of age. It might seem that our culture, with its obsession with youth and abhorrence of age, would be unable to produce an alluring, flirty octogenarian. But just as the tenets of FW can be located in the newish crop of Manic Pixie Dream Girls, so too can they be seen in the enduring cult movie Harold and Maude and its beloved elderly heroine.
The puritanical Andelin would be horrified by the hedonistic Maude, with her penchant for stealing cars, nude modeling, and extramarital sex, but that doesn’t change the fact that Ruth Gordon’s Maude is a Manic Pixie Dream Crone who exemplifies Andelin’s prescribed childlike behaviors, with the exception of “childlike anger.” Seventy-nine-year-old Maude never becomes angry: She reacts to men’s anger by smiling sweetly and purposely misunderstanding them. When a policeman trying to make sense of her admission that she is driving a stolen vehicle with no driver’s license says, “Let me get this straight,” Maude replies, “All right, then,” and drives away while shouting, “Nice chatting with you!”
As for her relationship with 20-year-old Harold, Maude is no cougar: Her seduction of Harold occurs not because she offers him adult opportunities, but because she offers him a childhood—the chance to do things like turn cartwheels on a hillside or wander through a field of daisies. She instructs him to be “impulsive” and “fanciful”; her joie de vivre is so infectious that it enables her young paramour to “feel like a kid,” an experience he has heretofore missed out on. Maude even claims the youthful role of life’s cheerleader, standing up and shouting, “Go, team, go! Give me an ‘L.’ Give me an ‘I.’ Give me a ‘V.’ Give me an ‘E.’ L-I-V-E. LIVE!”
Harold and Maude
But her cheering is in service of someone else’s life: Despite the fact that she’s healthy, passionate, and vibrant, Maude takes her own life on her 80th birthday. She justifies the act by asserting that 80 is an ideal age to die: “Seventy-five is too early,” Maude tells Harold, “but at 85, well, you’re just marking time and you may as well look over the horizon.”
But the real reason for Maude’s suicide is that it leaves Harold not just richer and wiser, but unencumbered. Maude’s willingness to disappear ultimately serves male development and autonomy. Her embrace of Harold and discarding of her own life are just what is needed to transform the formerly morbid, macabre boy—and that, of course, is also the ultimate goal of Fascinating Womanhood. “In a miraculous way, when you accept [a man] at face value, he is more likely to change,” writes Andelin. In fact, she adds, a childlike woman’s appreciation of and admiration for a man, regardless of whether he deserves it, can “transform a man from an apparently stupid, weak, lazy, cowardly, unrighteous man into a determined, energetic, true, and noble one”—as well as a man ultimately alive to life’s fascination, and therefore youthful and vibrant in ways other men may never be. This is what Maude’s childlike love of and trust in Harold accomplishes, and what Manic Pixie Dream Girls do for the heroes of their films.
What this demonstrates is that womanhood is never fascinating for its own sake. The story of a fascinating woman is always, ultimately, about the man who wants to protect her: his power, his leadership, his happiness, his security, his growth. Fascinating Womanhood ends by informing women that its teachings will make them happier, then stresses, “You are in a precarious position as the wife. You can build or destroy him.” Thus, the book’s focus is revealed: A good woman’s job is to support and nurture a man who takes little responsibility for his own character.
And that focus reveals the appeal of Fascinating Womanhood: It offers women the illusion of power. Not authority, since they can’t make anything happen except through manipulation, and not control, because they can never take charge of any situation. But working behind the scenes, they can, if they’re sufficiently patient, subservient, sympathetic, timid, innocent, pert, and childlike, get the man and the life they want—or should want, if they’re real women.
Sure, the flip side of this philosophy is that every failure and disappointment in a marriage—lousy sex, lack of communication, poverty, and infidelity—is ultimately the wife’s fault. But shouldering all the responsibility for those failures is preferable for some women to admitting that they don’t find domesticity fulfilling, or married the wrong man, or have a marriage so dysfunctional that the only way to find happiness and peace is to leave it.
Not only that, but the illusion of power remains eternal, because the fascinating woman never ceases to be who she was as a child; she has always had the power to manipulate the men around her, men who are just as immature as she is—also by design. The fascinating woman and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl must never grow up, because that way, men never have to grow up, either. Peter Pan might lose most of his hair while his beard goes gray, but at heart, he’s still a little boy, and his companion in life reflects that: She’s not Wendy, but Tinkerbell. The “dream” supplied by Andelin, Bella, and the Manic Pixies past and present is one of a Never-Never Land where, although we cannot stop time, we can do without sobriety and reasoned maturity, and where a childlike fascination with the whimsical and fanciful is the way out of, never into, every nightmare of crisis and grief.
Holly Welker has an MFA in nonfiction writing and a PhD in English literature from the University of Iowa. Her work has also appeared in Best American Essays and the New York Times.
Comments32 comments have been made. Post a comment.
Have an idea for the blog? Click here to contact us!