Episode Five: Let Yourself Go

This week, we sit down with southern studies scholar Monica Miller to talk about ugly women in southern literature and popular culture.

In the U.S. South, parents frequently tell misbehaving children to stop “being ugly,” but according to Monica, there is a certain power in being ugly, especially for southern women who want to escape traditional expectations.


 Photo of Minnie Pearl wondering if her latest male interest loves her or not. Grand Ole Opry, 1949. Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Minnie Pearl wondering if her latest male interest loves her or not. Grand Ole Opry, 1949. Wikimedia Commons


Although southern women are often stereotyped as “prettier” than women from other places, Monica offers that southern literature by women writers such as Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker, Eudora Welty, and Margaret Mitchell often feature ugly women. According to Monica, ugliness enables characters like Katherine Anne Porter’s Cousin Eva — who was “doomed” because of her weak chin — to subvert the expectation that her life would be defined largely by marriage and children. Similarly, Joy / Hulga in Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” chooses ugliness. She changes her name from Joy to Hulga because its “uglier,” and she adopts “ugly” habits which enable her, in part, to obtain a Ph.D. For many of these southern literary women, ugliness provides another option.

Revisiting the phrase that kicked off our discussion, Monica describes how the conflation of behavior and appearance in the phrase “being ugly” is particularly fascinating given the particular set of strict standards governing femininity and womanhood in the South.


 Kim Fields listens to Kenya Moore's lesson on makeup historiography at her "Beatless Brunch." Watch the clip from Season 12 of  The   Real Housewives of Atlanta  "Beauty & the Beat"  here .

Kim Fields listens to Kenya Moore's lesson on makeup historiography at her "Beatless Brunch." Watch the clip from Season 12 of The Real Housewives of Atlanta "Beauty & the Beat" here.


Monica brings up the drag version of Designing Women, in which Julia Sugarbaker is played by Topher Payne, to demonstrate the performative nature of southern womanhood as the male actors reproduce their female counterparts from the show.


Julia Sugarbaker has had enough of GOP presidential candidate Donald J. Trump's misogynistic views on women and now, the iconic steel magnolia has a few words of her own to share with the reality TV star.

Dolly Parton, who is also frequently played by drag performers (some of whom “look more like me than I do,” according to Dolly) also seems to underline southern womanhood as a construction or performance. Long before the Kardashians, Parton embraced the idea of a constructed reality of womanhood.



Finally, after discussing how even make-up terminology seems to emphasize construction (e.g. “foundation” and “primer”) we end this episode by discussing one of Monica’s favorite southern ugly icons: Minnie Pearl.


Minnie Pearl - Looking At Fellers


In short, while Reese Witherspoon may not wear sweatpants in public, there are definitely southern women who do.

In public.

Your About South co-producers included.

So #letyourselfgo and tweet us your photos—you wonderful, empowered, southern women—proudly wearing your sweatpants in public @aboutsouthpod #southernwomenwearsweatpants.

We would like to thank today’s special guest, Monica Miller. She is a Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow and Assistant Director of Writing and Communication at Georgia Tech. We are very excited about her forthcoming monograph, Being Ugly: Southern Women Writers and Social Rebellion, which will be published Spring 2017 by LSU Press’s Southern Literary Studies Series.

Other things we mention in this Episode:

Gretchen E. Henderson, Ugliness: A History

Blaine Roberts, Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South