In the South, one notion of “being ugly” implies inappropriate or coarse behavior that transgresses social norms of courtesy. While popular stereotypes of the region often highlight southern belles as the epitome of feminine power, women writers from the South frequently stray from this convention and invest their fiction with female protagonists described as ugly or chastised for behaving that way. Through this divergence, “ugly” can be a force for challenging the strictures of normative southern gender roles and marriage economies. In Being Ugly: Southern Women Writers and Social Rebellion, Monica Carol Miller reveals how authors from Margaret Mitchell to Monique Truong employ “ugly” characters to upend the expectations of patriarchy and open up more possibilities for southern female identity.
Previous scholarship often conflates ugliness with such categories as the grotesque, plain, or abject, but Miller disassociates these negative descriptors from a group of characters created by southern women writers. Focusing on how such characters appear prone to rebellious and socially inappropriate behavior, Miller argues that ugliness subverts assumptions about gender by identifying those who are unsuitable for the expected roles of marriage and motherhood. As opposed to familiar courtship and marriage plots, Miller locates in fiction by southern women writers an alternative genealogy, the ugly plot. This narrative tradition highlights female characters whose rebellion offers a space for re-imagining alternative lives and households in opposition to the status quo.
Reading works by canonical writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty, along with recent texts by contemporary authors like Helen Ellis, Lee Smith, and Jesmyn Ward, Being Ugly offers an important new perspective on how southern women writers confront regressive ideologies that insist upon limited roles for women.
Monica Carol Miller is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow and assistant director of the Writing and Communication Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Praise for Being Ugly
“Presumably like many scholars of women’s, American literary, and Southern studies, I have been expectantly awaiting something like Miller’s Being Ugly for some time. It provides a more than welcome and overdue intervention into the expressive operations of female corporeality, an area in which the now exhausted category of the grotesque has to date dominated. I now look forward to the way in which Miller’s study reorients how we read women’s writing and its tropes more broadly.”—Sarah Gleeson-White, editor of William Faulkner at Twentieth Century-Fox
“In Being Ugly, Monica Carol Miller proves it’s good to be bad. And in southern literature, one of the worst things a woman can do is look bad. The greatest sin: she makes the choice to ruin her beauty. Pretty, well-mannered ladies aren’t supposed to rebel, but when they do the plot moves, they change their lives, and become some of our favorite characters.”—Helen Ellis, author of Eating the Cheshire Cat and American Housewife
“Grounded in—and contributing to—a rich vein of recent feminist scholarship about southern women writers, Monica Miller’s new study provides a fresh angle on the ways that southern women writers have challenged and resisted a regional and literary culture that has insisted on either objectifying or marginalizing them. Being Ugly is a sassy retort to the idealized pedestal that southern women have so often been required to occupy. Supported by clear theoretical frameworks, Miller offers insightful re-readings of several canonical and recent texts, and her innovative perspective reveals how ‘being ugly’ can transform our understanding of how these southern women writers reconfigure the meanings of regionalism, of southern studies, and, indeed, the whole of American literature.”—Barbara C. Ewell, author of Kate Chopin and coeditor, with Pamela Menke, of Southern Local Color: Stories of Region, Race, and Gender