Fascinating Womanhood Review: The Ideal Woman


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:

ideal woman

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.


This is the third post in a series. You can find links to the rest of the series here.

Previous Post Next Post

You Might Also Like

  • “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.”

    Hmm. I married my wife in large part because I admired her poise, talent, intellectual gifts, and clever personality. Although I admit she understands me pretty well, and is sweet (but NOT in the way Helen means it…). Does this make me female? Or gay? Never mind…

  • Thanks for pointing out the creepiness of wanting women childlike but also why is a Christian woman encouragine men to worship us at all? And, yet again, the message sent to women and girls is the most valued thing they do is to be as beautiful as can be even at the risk of their own health and comfort. Contrast the message with that of this fantastic article….


  • This makes me want to vomit in a bucket. Also, I once put up a Facebook status saying “I’m not your manic pixie dream girl. I’m a real person.” It was just an idea, directed at nobody in particular (I don’t do passive-aggressive status updates) and yet I was promptly defriended by 3 in-laws and sent rude notes. Not even kidding. Apparently some topics like this need to be discussed more because of how horrible people can act over them and how many people think that women should act in such a contrived manner or even claim it is natural for women to do so. So good for you for tackling this issue.

    • Wow, that seems really over-the-top. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that variations of the MPDG trope are pretty much the standard narrative that Christian women are allowed to have. You can be the quiet/meek/gentle woman, but if you’re more of an outgoing/rambunctious type, you’re forced into the MPDG mold.

      • Yeah, I agree. Either way, introvert or extrovert, you’re not allowed to be a full human being in your own right. I was told I was trying to be “manly” for insisting on it, which is total foolishness. The purpose for all that garbage really hit me when I heard that Michelle Duggar said that codependency in a relationship is a good thing, that it keeps you together. That made me feel ill. For all the Christian talk about love, people like that sure don’t seem to believe it if they think you need to be cut off at the knees to get and stay married.

  • Melissa

    This should maybe make me more angry, but mostly it made me laugh. I’ve never heard ANYONE accuse Agnes of being too spunky before. Ever. As for Dora, Dickens makes it pretty clear the marriage was a mistake in many ways; Dora’s childishness is not a virtue. Odd because a few other Dickens heroines probably would have fit the model pretty well…maybe Lucie Manette? And Vanity Fair….goodness. Thackery is not holding Amelia up as a model. Amelia’s loyalty to a false ideal makes both her own life and those of the people around her pretty miserable. Not to mention the other points you made. I look forward to more exciting literary interpretations.

    This whole model is so crazy and exaggerated. I was thinking how prevalent loyal/pure/domestic heroines are in 19th century literature- Dorothea in Middlemarch, Kitty in Anna Karenina, probably lots more- but all of them are still too intelligent for this model, in spite of how they differ from modern standards of independence. Crazy.

    By the way, have you read “Gone Girl?” Amy is by no means an admirable character, but she gives the best Manic Pixie Dream Girl (or anyway a variation thereof) rant I have ever read.

    • notleia

      The “angel in the house” was the female trope of choice in Victorian literature. Those domestic nymphs, so loyal and pure and happy and giving, right up until they died at the end from being “too good for this sinful earth,” or, you know, from overwork/childbearing complications/communicable disease (bonus points for catching it from someone you nursed). Because being tragic is so much better than being sane, amiright?

  • Pingback: Fascinating Womanhood Review: The Ideal Woman()

  • Pingback: Fascinating Womanhood: gender roles | Defeating the Dragons()