The Sly Howl Mini-Series ‘The Complete Woman’ Is a Pitch-Perfect Satire of Regressive Gender Roles

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Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.

Howl, the Midroll’s subscription-based podcast service, is perhaps the biggest gamble and experiment of the podcasting revolution to date. The absorption of Wolfpop into the Earwolf stable suggests that not everything the Midroll has attempted has been a raging success, at least commercially.

Creatively, however, some of Howl’s quirkier endeavors have paid rich dividends, as evidenced by neat mini-series like the Sklar Brothers’ Finding The Funny, which is currently in the process of hopefully being adapted for television. It’s also nice that Howl hosts so many standup comedy albums, which has a given a boost to this perpetually imperiled form.

I am particularly enamored of the Howl mini-series The Complete Woman, from Amanda Lund. Podcasting tends to be something of an old boys’ club, like so much of pop-culture, but The Complete Woman not only has an excess of what the Sklars like to refer to as “lady energy,” but the mini-series is also a meditation on the sadly eternal nature of sexism. It’s not just woman-centered. It’s also, in a very real way, about how society does a number on women’s psyches, how it conditions them to value men’s happiness above their own.

The Complete Woman plays with the podcasting form in sly and subversive ways. Lovingly and elaborately produced to sound like a long playing record album from 1963, the mini-series unblinkingly lampoons the institutional sexism and regressive gender roles of the distant past as a way of commenting on the ways the world has, and has not, evolved in its take on gender, sex, and equality.

The Complete Woman, which runs about an hour in full (roughly the size of the typical podcast), is posited as the audio companion to the best-selling book of the same name by housewife, author, and sad human being Marabel May (Lund). The idea of the book, and its audio sibling, is to give housewives nervous about a changing world the tools they need to become worthy of the largely worthless, and almost assuredly gay (or at least bisexual) men they are unhappily married to.

The key to a Complete Woman making her husband happy (which the mini-series depicts as the ultimate, and also only goal any woman should ever have), it soon becomes obvious, involves committing herself, on a deep and profound level, to being absolutely miserable herself.

The Complete Woman depicts the masochism endemic in the Eisenhower-era conception of the perfect housewife as a societally condoned form of insanity. The author and host gets so little from her husband, who, in keeping with the standards of the time, has no obligation beyond pursuing his own pleasure every moment of every day, that she’s reduced to having elaborate and involved relationships with her household appliances. It goes deeper than that, however. Marabel is so miserable that she assigns her kitchen appliances the voices and personalities of dashing men feverishly competing for her romantic affections.

Throughout The Complete Woman, Marabel checks in with her fellow housewives/stoic sufferers of domestic hell, who run the gamut from an anachronistically sexually fulfilled and confident woman whose lusty life with her husband stands in sharp contrast to the loveless, sexless marriages of her peers, to a woman clearly teetering on the precipice of suicidal despair, who is, astonishingly, even more hopeless than the woman around her.

The fellas are notable mainly for their absence. While Marabel is trying to manipulate and bully her peer group into being just as miserable in their marital prisons as she is (she is trying to recreate them all in her image, which is itself a form of sadism), the husbands themselves are off on thrice-monthly men’s only “camping trips” where the gents, liberated from having to give a moment’s thought to their wives, are liberated to enjoy fresh air, the great outdoors, and the pleasure of gay sex.  

The Complete Woman gets all the details right, from background music that suggests the elevator muzak of an endless descent into the fiery flames of hell, to the crackle of ancient vinyl to the gently narcotized voices of women tranquilized and terrorized into a state of unquestioning submissiveness.

To be a woman devoted to diligently following the rules and conventions society has laid down for you in The Complete Woman is a form of self-torture. It’s a prison of the mind more than the body, and Marabel’s marriage to her Freck, which is posited as something all women should aspire to, is clearly more like a torment of the damned.

The Complete Woman ends with its claustrophobic, tragicomic take on Eisenhower (or Kennedy) era gender roles giving way to the looser and more empowering sexual freedoms of the 1960s, as epitomized by the free love movement. It’s a clever ending that pointedly illustrates that while times change, sexism and regressive gender roles are weirdly timeless and dispiritingly universal.

Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

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