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.
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.
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.
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.
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: