Fascinating Womanhood Review: The Ideal Woman

Fascinating Womanhood Review: The Ideal Woman July 5, 2013

by Samantha cross posted from her blog Defeating The Dragons

This chapter is titled “The Ideal Woman: From a Man’s Point of View,” making sure, in case we forgot, that women’s lives need to revolve around men, and there’s also plenty of “if you don’t do what I tell you to, your husband will never love you” to go around. This is the chapter where she explains two terms that Helen will be using throughout the book: “angelic qualities,” and “human qualities.” There’s even an amazing little diagram at the end of the chapter:

The qualities listed under “Angelic” are “Understands Men,” “Inner Happiness,” “Character,” and “Domestic Goddess.” Under “Human” are “Femininity,” “Radiates Happiness,” “Has Radiant Health,” and “Childlike.” However, this diagram is just a summation of the ground she’s already covered, so let’s tackle that.

This chapter, like the previous ones, introduces the literary characters that she will continue to reference through the rest of the book, and, just like last time, her presentation of these characters is disingenuous at best. I realize that not every single person has gone through a graduate program in English, but her approach to literature is maddening. She’s essentially proof-texting these women, ripping them out of context and refusing to give us information that would be useful in making any kind of decision. I don’t mind that she’s gone to literature as her examples– the pieces that she’s chosen (Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Dickens’ David Copperfield, Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea) are fantastic works, and reflections of their times. However, she ignores all context, any historically relevant information, and at times, the plot of the novel in order to make her point.

But, before we get into all of that, you should watch this:

Also, I love Anita and Feminist Frequency. So much win.

Yes, ladies and gents, the Ideal Woman is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, only worse. They’re lobotomized and infantilized MPDGs. She opens up this chapter by contrasting what men and women tend to appreciate about women.

Women are inclined to appreciate poise, talent, intellectual gifts, and cleverness of personality, whereas men admire girlishness, tenderness, sweetness of character, vivacity, and the ability to understand men.”

This dichotomy becomes increasingly frustrating as we get deeper into the book, but the trait she’s going to focus on in this chapters is girlishness. “Childlikeness” is something she emphasizes is necessary for all women, everywhere, and personally, I find that incredibly creepy. However, it helped when I realized that by “childlike,” she was basically talking about an MPDG, although that term hadn’t been coined when she wrote this and she’d probably deny the connection, mostly because the MPDGs that appear (especially in film) are portrayed as “clever,” and that isn’t a quality men admire.


Anyway, she begins her poor literary analysis by comparing Dora and Agnes from David Copperfield. She argues that Agnes possesed all the Angelic qualities, and Dora possessed all the Human qualities. She even acknowledges that he loved these women at the same time, but instead of working with the tension and conflict that Dickens’ was building into his text using David’s untempered naivety, she simply blames it on the female characters. It’s not David’s fault that he loved Agnes while married to Dora, and loved Dora while married to Agnes– it’s primarily Agnes’ fault for not filling the void in his life:

She was too independent. She was to able to killer her own snakes, too hesitant to lean on David, didn’t appear to need his manly care and protection. She was too unselfish, for David said, “Agnes, ever my guide and best support. If you had been more mindful of yourself, and less of me, when we grew up together, I think my heedless fancy would never have wandered from you.”

She was “too unselfish,” which puzzles me exceedingly, because this is a disconnect from reality. I’ve known men and women who are much too modest, who rarely ever ask for help from their friends, who hate feeling like a burden to their friends in any way, and Agnes shares some of those qualities. However, this quote reinforces Helen’s primary argument: it is the woman’s fault if her husband doesn’t love her. And what she identifies as “too unselfish” is not the same thing, it’s her independence and autonomyIt’s not that Agnes didn’t ask for David’s help when she needed him, it’s that she didn’t need David’s help that was the problem in Helen’s eyes. She could open her own pickle jars, and that’s not feminine, apparently.

She goes through Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea, which I’m not familiar with outside of it being a task-oriented hero tale, so I’m going to simply point out that Deruchette seems to be simply another example of a MPDG:

You may think . . . that Deruchette was a bit insipid. Remember, however, that Hugo was a man, a rugged man who wrote challenging sea stories, speaking more the language of men than women. We can be grateful that he has provided us with a very masculine viewpoint of true femininity.

Remember, ladies: what you or I think is “insipid” (meaning shallow and dull), is actually just girlish femininity that men absolutely lose their minds over. Insipid women inspire heroic men to fight off an octopus.

The last literary example she works with is Amelia from Vanity Fair, which, notably, is the main character, and one of the primary conflicts of her life is that her husband, George Osborne, has an affair with Becky Sharp. An affair, as in, her husband has sex with another women, falls in love with another woman, all while married to her.

Helen, I’m questioning your judgment.

This is the second time she’s held up a woman as a shining beacon of girlish femininity that men will worship and cherish, and the men in their life completely fail to do this. I don’t think that Helen approves of affairs, although she seems to take a similar tack as Pat Robertson and Debi Pearl: the only correct way to respond to adultery is, apparently, to start singing “you ain’t woman enough to take my man.”

Her last example she pulls from real life: Mumtaz, the woman who is entombed in the Taj Mahal (with a passing reference to Cleopatra and Helen of Troy, because, gee, what woman doesn’t want whole empires going to war over the right to break her hymen with his penis?). Here, she brings the Manic Pixie Dream Girl fully to life, because Mumtaz’ single contribution was “influencing her husband” so that his reign was “peaceful.” She claims that his reign saw no wars except brief rebellions, which is false. Again, I’m uncomfortable with how willing Helen is to twist facts and narratives in order to make her arguments.

The main point she drives home through all of these descriptions is that women are supposed to be girlish, childlike, faery-like, “fresh and joyous as  lark.” We’re all supposed to have “gay little laughs” and be “make all kinds of gentle noises, murmuring of unspeakable delight.” Women are to be eternally uplifting and encouraging. We’re not allowed our moments of sadness or introspection, we’re never allowed to express any other emotion except constant happiness. Happiness is a quality she lists under both Angelic and Human, of the internal and radiant varieties.

There’s no place, in Helen’s world, for complex women with depth, with independence. She’s limited to eternal sunshine of a spotless mind, and straying outside of that means that her husband won’t love her. He’ll sense that she is lacking in some way, and go to another woman in order to find true love for himself.

Intro | Part 1

Comments open below

Read everything by Samantha!

Samantha grew up in the homeschool, patriarchy, quiverful, and fundamentalist movements, and experienced first-hand the terror and manipulation of spiritual abuse. She is now married to an amazing, gentle man who doesn’t really get what happened to her but loves her anyway. With him by her side and the strength of God’s promises, she is slowly healing.

Samantha blogs at Defeating The Dragons and is a member of The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce


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  • Tapati McDaniels

    I can see that some of my difficulty in writing about Fascinating Womanhood as it affected my marriage (or failed to) is that I tried to do it in ONE POST. My one draft attempting that failed miserably. It is too complex a project for one post and I may take another swing at it. You’ve hit on many of the issues I had with it so it is useful to see your take on it. THANK YOU.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Okay, she messed with David Copperfield. Sh*t just got real.

    WTF??? Did we read the same book? David was not romantically in love with Agnes when he was courting and then married to Dora. He loved her as a sister while Agnes was in unrequited love with him and kept it to herself because she didn’t want to ruin his happiness. That’s what David was talking about in that quote. He’s not saying that she was “too independent,” he was saying that she’d kept her feelings to herself for his own sake, and that he was too immature to notice and to realize how right they were for one another. That’s what the freaking book is about–David changing and growing up and gaining wisdom, not the women around him changing to suit him. Agnes actually changes very little throughout the story. How did Helen Andelin get through all of those pages without realizing that the entire arc of the story is about David growing up? Dora and Anges are not the two halves of what he needs, Dora is who he thinks he needs because he is young and foolish and Agnes is who he comes to understand is really right for him because he has matured. Sheesh!

    And I’d never thought of Dora as kind of a MPDG but, yeah, that is very much what she is for much of the story, at least until their marital unhappiness and her illness take their toll on her. She’s very childlike and girlish and whimsical and I seem to remember that David even describes her as “fascinating”–to a disapproving Betsy Trotwood, who is old and wise enough to understand that “fascination” cannot sustain a relationship. Because then they get married and things fall apart pretty fast. David realized pretty quickly that he wants a real adult, not a little girl, to share his life and feelings with and he feels guilty for expecting things of Dora that she cannot give, while she feels inadequate because she knows she can’t give them. It’s a mess. We don’t get to see much of Agnes and David’s married life but there’s never any indication that she adopts a childlike affect or becomes less indepedent to please him–and he’s grown out of that anyway. Again, that’s the point. Yes, she definitely fits the “domestic goddess” role (and Dora’s domestic incompetence is portrayed as a problem in their marriage, although David also points out that he knew as little about how to have his own household as she did because they were both so young) but she’s also intelligent and mature and is not afraid to tell David what’s what–she sees that Steerforth is bad news before David does and she tells him her opinion in no uncertain terms. A silly little girl she is not and, in the end, that’s not what David wants because he is no longer a silly little boy. He wants Agnes as she is and has always been.

    And finally, Clara, David’s mother is also portrayed as very childlike and quite needy–and those qualities are largely what allow Murdstone to get his claws into her and manipulate, gaslight and abuse her literally to her grave. When Betsy–who has been a victim of spousal abuse herself–meets Murdstone, she sizes him up, puts that together with what she knows about Clara (whom she refers to as a “baby” multiple times), figures out exactly what happened, and tears him a new one! If anything, it can be said that a major message in DC is that women should not be childlike, helpless little house pets because that both makes them vulnerable to abuse and is not conducive to an actual mature, adult relationship. Dickens is not saying that all men really want women to be like this, he’s saying that some men might think they want a woman like this before they’re wise enough to know better. Dickens definitely had some distinctly 19th-century ideas about women but, wow, he was a raging feminist compared to this woman.

    Also, that diagram is one of the creepist things I’ve ever seen. And I’m supposed to “make all kinds of gentle noises, murmuring of unspeakable delight?” Huh? I mean, my beagle used to do that when he saw me getting his treats because he was, you know, a dog and literally incapable of speaking. I, however, am and I think that’s generally seen by most men I know as a feature, not a bug.


  • OK1

    I appreciate your effort in critiquing this book. Like Tapati, I think it’s too complex to address it in one post, so please continue 🙂 I would love to read more.

    My daughter fell in love with the Fascinating Womanhood, so I read it too. I can certainly see that some ideas from it will work on men wonderfully, but overall it looks like one big fat attempt to manipulate them because there is no other way to get happiness in a Godly way in life… Only through the alliance with a man who will either treat you well or not – the choice and the fault is, apparently, yours….

    My daughter used these manipulations on a few young men and all of them fell to her feet ( naive 20-somethings deprived of women’s attention). There is a lesson in the book, which is how to do female marketing – tell them what they want to hear, show them what they want to see, and they will fall in love with you ( the product) .

  • Taylor Joy

    I was the same way, unfortunately. I grew up in an abusive home–except my mother was the one who was the abuser. When I read fascinating womanhood, it gave me an entirely new paradigm for understanding femininity, and it *worked*. Men literally did fall at my feet–but when I married one, he never gave me the respect and honor and appreciation that this book (and CTBHHM) promised would naturally occur after treating a man this way. After having daughters of my own, we all realize how toxic and deadly these philosophies are.

  • OK1

    Thank you for your perspective, Taylor Joy ( sorry I did not notice your response earlier)
    I did live with an emotional abuser myself (he was not religious though) , and at the time of difficulty read all kinds of books how to be a real woman so that he stops in his tracks – and he never did. This never worked. Divorce and moving to another country was a better help. I thought I saved my daughter from poisonous impacts of this kind of environment, and here she is, looking for her own trap.