“Gentlemen Prefer Slaves,” or, “Why 60s Feminists Had Trouble Getting Dates”

Because of a sort-of dare, I sort-of read a 1964 book entitled Gentlemen Prefer Slaves by Lucille Keller.

The dare went like this:

FRIEND: *posts fuzzy snapshot of book from a used-book sale* Oh man, look at this book! I bet it’s awful!

ME: Too bad you didn’t buy it, or I’d read it and tell you how awful it is.

FRIEND: *buys it for $1 off Amazon and mails it to me*

Being the honorable person I am, I began reading it immediately. Well, half-honorable: I started skimming. Shredding my honor with my own bare hands, I skipped to the end just to get it all over with.

I’m trying to be fair. When book was first published (under a less inflammatory title), the subject matter was current and the snarky tone was pretty fresh. Also, it’s a satire… at least, I think that’s its excuse… and I don’t do well with that genre. It’s too artificial.

All that said… it’s a terrible book.

It’s as if Lucille Keller, the author, sat down with some friends over gin and vodka, and they made a list of all the annoying things about being a wife, mother, and working woman in the 60s. They came up with a few funny sketches—oh you are a scream, Vicki!—and then Keller glued all their ideas together with lots of words. The word count, considering what actually happens in the book, is astronomical.

The result is a dense novel that reads like somebody who is blogging for self-therapy.

Ruth is the narrator. She starts out complaining that she’s not even sure who she is anymore. By page 23, she still hasn’t talked about anything except herself.

Her husband is Alex, and he’s fresh off the rack of “Chauvinist Pig for Feminist Propagandist Book.” He sure did deliver for the price. (He was a premium purchase at the time. Now the shop just throws him in for free as a minor villain in romances).

Alex moves them out of New York City (of course it’s New York City) in to the suburbs, where he settles into the role of a happy homeowner. Ruth isn’t very happy there, but Alex doesn’t let that bother him. Their marriage has stagnated. He never listens when Ruth tries to tell him how unhappy she is. When she gets a job, he gets sullen and then angry. As the book progresses, he becomes steadily less human and more baffled, hurting beast.

Ruth writes a story and has a friend who can get it to a television producer. Because, you know, that happens. It’s optioned to be a sitcom, and Ruth is hired to help write it. The middle part of the book has lots about television writing. I suspect that the author had way more experience writing sitcom stereotypes than she did actually living in the suburbs with two children.

(Oh, I forgot, because Ruth tends to—they have two children. A boy and a girl named David and Sooz. I presume Sooz is Susan but nobody ever calls her that. I hold it against Ruth.)

So Ruth is making her way in the world of fast-paced TV writing. Meanwhile she has to find household help, and her kids get sick, and her husband gets more and more vindictive about her job, plus expects her to do all the housework on Saturdays while he just lazes around. Ruth makes snarky observations about all of it, in what’s supposed to add up to a devastating expose of the plight of women.

Unfortunately, the author has no idea how to tell a story. Clive Cussler runs laps around this woman as a storyteller.

Again, it’s not quite fair that I’m reading this 50 years later. We live in an era when a couple can each have a career and split the householding and child-rearing; or run a business together; or decide to put her… or his… career on hold to raise the kids while the other works. In our household, DJ took over half the schooling, weekend meals, and all of the laundry so I could write a novel.

Now, I did spend my teen years in the hyperconservative patriarchal culture, where the men cry “ungodly!” if a woman aims for some independence. I myself just wrote a whole novel about that. (Currently being printed and converted to eBook. Stay tuned.) So I understand Ruth’s plight to some extent. But in the culture at large, while women are still struggling against masculine territorialism, we don’t generally encounter outright disdain, hostility, and skepticism just for building our own career. I owe a lot to women like Ruth.

Except not Ruth herself, because she’s a whiner and apparently doesn’t have any non-bestial men in her entire acquaintance. Even her boss, with whom she’s writing this sitcom, isn’t so much “devoted” to his wife as “counts” on her, and if something happened to her, he’d feel the deep grief of the loss of a faithful servant. (I didn’t make that up.)

The edition I got was printed in 1973, so the cover featured the midsection of a woman wearing nothing but a miniskirt made of chains (everybody was kind of crazy in the 70s, weren’t they?). The back blurb mentions an “extra-marital affair.” Well, I don’t really like stories about adultery, but I have to admit it’s a compelling plot device, especially for the time it was written.

But it takes until the last fourth of the novel to happen. Oh, we meet Mike Garnett at least by Chapter 5. He’s got magnetic eyes (that’s how she describes them), laughs at her jokes, thinks she’s a good writer, and starts coming on to her like Richard Burton to Elizabeth Taylor.

And I sympathize with Ruth, I really do. Fortunately I got that whole package in DJ, but let me tell you, it’s pretty hard to shrug off a man like that. And the reader knows very well that Ruth isn’t going to shrug for long.

But first we’ve got to slog through “Exhibit #s 12 – 16 of Alex being a cad” and “Mention something about the kids” and pages and pages of “working as a television writer” before we ever get to Mike kissing Ruth at the train station.

But they finally get to the hotel room—not that anything in the text justifies the cover art—and start getting to it. But while Mike is busy with his hands, Ruth is distracted by a letter from his wife that fell on the floor. She’s shocked that Mike just tosses it aside without reading it. How can he treat his wife so cavalierly?

(Because any decent man would pause in his illicit sex with a co-worker to read a letter from his wife…?)

Mike explains that he doesn’t have to read the letter to know what it says. It’s the same thing his wife has said over and over and over for years. She’s miserable, wants to get out of the house, wants more to life… he’s just sick of it. No reason why he should have to listen to her complaining anymore.

And that’s the dealbreaker. That’s what shocks Ruth back to reality. She pushes him away, gets dressed, and walks out. Because she can’t bear to have an affair with a man who doesn’t care that his wife is miserable.

*blink* I guess if he’d felt sorry for his wife while he was cheating on her with yet another woman, that would be different?

After that, the book wraps up quickly… haha! That’s a joke. Ruth decides to quit her job, which makes Alex—who has regressed at this point to the level of an emotionally-stunted ape—very happy. But she’s depressed and boring, which makes Alex angry. Then she decides to keep her job, and everything kind of works out.

The kids (psst, mention the kids! Nearly forgot them again!) are happy because their mother is happy again. Alex enjoys having a wife with personality. “It won’t last,” Ruth observes. “In another two weeks he’ll be mad at me again. Integration isn’t easily won.”

But she lifts her face to the October sun and smiles.

And that’s it. It was like reading a 125,000-word blog rant by someone who is pretty funny on occasion, but hasn’t quite dealt with some emotional issues stemming from her childhood and marriage.

But then, that kind of sums up the 60s and 70s in general, doesn’t it?

For a book that makes many of the same points, but by telling a real story with real people (and, if I recall, pretty funny lines) check out The Cracker Factory.

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