Women Hating Women: The Toxic Anti-Feminism of Self-Help Guru Marabel Morgan
Nathan Rabin's Happy Place (or rather, Nathan Rabin) is taking the week between Christmas and New Year's Off to prevent him from going insane (seriously, dude is on the edge! Writing about himself in the third person and everything). So the next week will be Exploiting the Archives week, where we'll be running some of our favorite pieces from the year that was.
I am a huge fan of the audio mini-series The Complete Woman and its follow-up Complete Joy, writer-star Amanda Lund’s funny-sad fake audio books of wonderfully perverse self-help guide for housewives. I wrote about both mini-series for my Pod-Canon column at Splitsider but it wasn’t until a Facebook friend asked me how many people I thought knew it was based on real-life best-selling author Marabel Morgan that I realized that it was based on a specific woman and a specific book.
As a connoisseur of the perverse and terrible, I had to track down this book. A few days later, a beat-up copy of The Total Woman arrived in the mail and I had an opportunity to experience firsthand the kookily masochistic counsel of what I was shocked and horrified to discover was 1974’s best-selling non-fiction book, eventually selling ten million copies. That’s a lot.
The woman is of course Marabel Morgan and the book is The Total Woman. Judging from the book’s contents, you could be forgiven for assuming that it was written by an ambitious if moderately psychotic housewife in the mid-1950s. The book, and the world it describes in fascinatingly, heartbreakingly banal detail, seem stuck forever in a time when men got up every morning and put on suits to go to business jobs in the city, women were divided, roughly, into housewife, secretary, daughter, and mother-in-law, and women spent the best years of their lives folding laundry, eating Bon Bons and watching their "stories" on the black and white TV until hubby came home.
The Total Woman inhabits some weird Planet Of The Apes alternate reality where feminism didn’t happen, nor did the counterculture, or black power, or the gay rights movement. The rest of the world might have been experimenting with sensory derangement and alternate forms of healing and spirituality when the book was released in 1973 but within the book’s proudly corny, Reader’s Digest-ready pages, the world was still a smutty Playboy cartoon where wives in dowdy bathrobe and curlers nagged husbands while men found their truest satisfaction smoking cigars on the golf course with their buddies (away from those nagging wives!) and secretaries were invariably busty sexpots being chased around desks by horny businessmen. General Halftrack from Beetle Bailey is the platonic ideal of this archetype.
Marabel Morgan told a nation simultaneously confused, titillated and frightened by massive cultural changes that they don’t need to bother with any of that “spiritual seeking” or “self-examination” because there was a already a book that had all the answers. It was called the Christian bible and, according to Morgan, it preached that in order to experience true happiness, women must worship, love and obey their husbands and also God, if not necessarily in that order.
She advised women to remake themselves in the image of whatever their husband desires. Hubby loves hockey? Learn to skate, study up on hockey history and read the sports pages regularly so that you can have an informed conversation about the NHL every morning when you bring him his newspaper and his impeccably made gourmet breakfast.
And be sincere in your newfound love, obsession and encyclopedic knowledge of hockey because if you’re insincere when you ask him about a new trade he’ll know instantly, and be right to punish you any way he sees fit, whether it’s by withholding love and conversation for months or forcing you to sleep in the garage on the cold concrete.
What if you don’t like hockey? Jesus, this isn’t about you, you inflexible bitch! What are you interested in, knitting and talking about feelings? Why would any man be interested in those? Those are lady things and are garbage so never waste your husband’s valuable time when you could be bringing him a beer and complimenting him (sincerely, for fuck’s sake!) on how handsome his comb-over and beer belly look and how regal and king-like he looks upon his beat-up recliner of a throne in his soiled undershirt.
I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. The Complete Woman is a masterpiece in part because it scathingly satirizes something so crazy and over-the-top it seemingly defies satire. How do you humorously exaggerate a book with passages like the following:
“That great source book, the Bible, states, ”Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled…In other words, sex is for the marriage relationship only, but within those bounds, anything goes. Sex is as clean and pure as eating cottage cheese.”
Sex is as clean and pure as eating cottage cheese indeed. That’s good news for married men, and less welcome news for married women, because according to the Marabel Morgan method you really should have sex with your husband any time he wants, however he wants, and you should be sincere about it! Who are you, the Queen of Sheba, that you should be in a position to reject your husband’s drunken advances when he comes home at 2 in the morning reeking of whiskey, puke and cheap perfume? Do you want to give your poor husband a complex? Destroy his self-esteem? Would it kill you to have sex with him as often as possible, with genuine enthusiasm, complimenting and praising him sincerely the entire time?
Part of The Total Woman’s success and notoriety comes from the surprisingly central role sex plays in an otherwise deeply Christian bible-quote-filled book written in a tone that screams, “Golly gee, I’m just a dumb girl but these are some of the silly thoughts rattling around in the goofy little cotton candy wad I call a brain!”
Morgan is big on wearing elaborate costumes for fun sex-play even when young children are around the house. She imagines that little Junior will just love to tell his friends, “Gosh, mommy dressed up like a sexy cave-woman for daddy yesterday and a cheerleader tonight! What will she do next?” and everyone will be amused and entertained rather than moved to call child protective services to investigate the weird kink house down the road.
In The Total Woman, marital sex is as clean and pure as eating cottage cheese. Don’t be worried. God wants you to get your fuck on! Besides, you owe it to to God and your husband to submit to his every sexual advance whether you enjoy sex or not, because let’s face it, all problems, sexual or otherwise, emanate from you.
That’s the empowering message of The Total Woman: if you’re a woman in an unhappy marriage, everything is your fault. If hubby is morbidly obese, unemployed and smell like a garbage dump that’s because you must have nagged him or beaten down his fragile self-esteem by not complimenting him often enough. If he’s a loser it’s because you made him one. It’s up to you to make him a winner. For God. For America. And maybe for yourself on some level as well, although always remember that you come last, if at all.
Thankfully, since housewives are to blame for all of the problems in their marriages, there’s a sure-fire, can’t miss, quick-fix solution: become everything you imagine your husband wants in a wife, partner, lover and sex slave. Transform yourself into a perpetually ready sex-bomb and your husband will have no choice but to love and respect you. He may even buy you a new can-opener, or pat you on the behind while winking waggishly, or tell his friends, “My wife sure is a swell lady! She’s not a nagging shrew at all! I sometimes enjoy spending time with her!” and, honestly, what more could a woman want than that? Seriously, if you think you’re entitled to anything more than that, The Total Woman feels strongly that you’re wrong. Dead wrong. And also hate Jesus.
As an evangelical Christian, Morgan would never condone or promote adultery but if a housewife were to gain five pounds, develop ugly cellulite or those love handles that nobody loves, can she blame her poor husband for sleeping with his secretary and treating his obese shrew of a wife with disdain?
In The Total Woman, Morgan comes off less as colorful and kooky in the way self-help gurus are expected to be, but rather as genuinely mentally ill. In developing The Total Woman program, Morgan transformed the pathological self-negation and masochistic martyrdom of what appears to be, to my eyes at least, a deeply unhealthy and troubled marriage between an unpleasant, inconsiderate, almost impressively dull lawyer and a sad, lonely woman who felt she needed to transform everything about herself to prove worthy of the sub-par lump of a man she married into a one-size-fits all strategy to save any troubled marriage that fits within its incredibly narrow confines.
Basically, if you’re not a middle-class or upper-middle-class Christian housewife eager to learn how to be servile to your husband, you do not exist in its world, and there is nothing it can do for you. Of course, even if you do fit within its parameters, it still can’t do anything for you. I suspect that of the 10 million copies of The Complete Woman that were sold 9.9 of them were bought by men eager to have a woman tell their wives that the key to happiness lie in finding freedom in slavery and empowerment in servility. Make yourself a slave to your husband’s every whim and need and the world will open up for you. Because who, ultimately, is treated better than a slave? People are so happy and impressed that slaves work so hard and for no money that these lucky slaves are generally feted like kings of rock stars.
Morgan didn’t just have a book. She had a system. Beware of people with systems. They’re frequently gateways to cults and the glassy-eyed, toothy expression the hypnotically plain Morgan (she looks like an exact cross between Carol Burnett and the maid on The Brady Bunch) sports on The Total Woman’s back cover definitely gives off a Stepford Wife/Get Out vibe.
The Complete Woman and Complete Joy brilliantly captures the way society’s toxic social conditioning encourages woman to hate, fear and judge other women as well as themselves. While the audio mini-series capture the period details of the era perfectly, Complete Woman, Complete Joy and The Total Woman all resonate with a disconcerting timeliness.
It’d be nice to think that Marabel Morgan’s way of thinking is a relic of the ancient past. But the fact that Hillary Clinton, the living embodiment of everything Morgan abhorred, was defeated by a probable sex criminal even with a majority of white female voters suggests that while Morgan and her book may be forgotten, her ideas remain disturbingly in vogue.
Toxic masculinity and sexism were at the core of Trump’s campaign and his popularity. Yet a majority of white women chose a man who stalked Hillary Clinton around the stage during at least one of the debates like he would slash her to ribbons with a machete if the cameras weren’t on and clearly had to censor himself from calling her a bitch over a woman who embodied the ambition and drive of an entire generation of feminists.
Given a chance to make history, a lot of white women decided to put another rich white man in power no matter how comically awful and offensive and unqualified he seemed. We made him the boss because he told us he was the boss, and before the last guy, all our bosses were bossy white guys who literally felt that they should be the most powerful person in the world. "I'm the boss. I'm a man. I have a penis. Elect me President, loser." was essentially Trump's campaign slogan (he even bragged on his dick size during a debate, which would be a nadir for anyone else, but par for the course for Trump) and a nation of women who should know better apparently thought, "He appears to be a misogynist lunatic with a deep-seated hatred and fear of women but he does make an awfully good point about being a man and having a penis. He's got my vote!"
Marabel Morgan inhabited a complicated and ever-changing world, a world where feminism very could have been at its peak in terms of visibility, controversy and power. The crazy appeal of her monumentally ill-conceived, staggeringly successful relationship guide lie in the way she completely ignored the complexity and ambiguity of a crazy-making and insanely complicated world in favor of an absolute moral certainty rooted in violently enforcing rigid, conventional gender roles and unquestioning obeisance to God and husband.
Nearly a half century later, Donald Trump and Mike Pence embody the same dangerous false certainty that Morgan and her book does, the idea that if we just put cocky white men in power and let them do whatever they want, then these arrogant men, by virtue of being arrogant white men, will solve our problems and treat us with compassion once we show them how thoroughly, willingly and completely we’re willing to submit to their every fleeting whim.
Somewhere, I suspect Marabel Morgan, who is still alive and is about to turn 80, would more than approve.
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