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Looking ugliness square in the face.

SINCE THE 2000 PUBLICATION OF THE LATE PATRICIA YAEGER'S DIRT AND Desire, I have been among many scholars who have been ready to take up Yaeger's challenge that we should "dynamite the rails" of the traditional southern literary canon (34). In response to Flannery O'Connor's characterization of writing in the shadow of William Faulkner as being borne down upon by the Dixie Limited, Yaeger, in her germinal study of southern women writers, exhorted us to focus on the wreckage: the damaged, fractured, and excessive bodies which she saw as "omnipresent" in the work of southern women writers (xiii).

To be fair, I enjoyed the rallying cry to explode and smash and tear things up. I've written elsewhere of my identification with characters such as Flannery O'Connor's Mary Grace, whose anger at anti-intellectual busybodies like Ruby Turpin leads her to bean the "old wart hog" with a heavy book. Nevertheless, fifteen years out from Yaeger's big book, I'm beginning to weary of the extremes and excesses, the blown-up tracks, so many shot-out jukeboxes and fractured bodies. Even our arguments are deployed like soldiers.

Yaeger describes her experience writing Dirt and Desire as being "mesmerized by a spectacle of regional trauma" (1)--and I am troubled by the potential paralysis of such mesmerism. What are we missing in the shadows of the gargantuan, amidst the wreckage of the tracks? For every grotesque McCullers character like Miss Amelia there's a Mick Kelly, not so much grotesque as she is awkward and unattractive; for every Louvinie in Alice Walker's Meridian, with her severed tongue, there's Celie in The Color Purple, who's ugly but can work like a man. From Katherine Anne Porter's Cousin Eva, whose weak chin doomed her to a life of spinsterhood and suffragism, to the scrawny and square Esch in Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones, twentieth- and twenty-first-century southern women writers have created what I see as a genealogy of physically ugly female characters in southern literature: differing from the norm just enough to catch and hold the attention of the viewer while simultaneously repulsing her.

At the risk of adding to Yaeger's already robust schema of categories, I propose that we look at the less extreme but equally important category of ugly women in southern literature. Ugliness as a category is important because, unlike more extreme categories such as the grotesque, ugliness is quite everyday. Where the grotesque shocks its audience, the ugly is near enough to normal that it can go almost unnoticed, seeping through boundaries that the grotesque explodes. To date, scholarship addressing the figure of the ugly woman has generally conflated ugliness with other categories, such as the grotesque and the freakish. By differentiating the more quotidian characterization of "ugly" from more extreme descriptors, I argue that ugliness, particularly given its regionally-specific meaning, has a specific function in the work of southern women writers: ugliness marks those who for various reasons are not suitable for the expected roles of marriage and motherhood.

"Don't be ugly!" is a specifically southern expression, a warning that someone is misbehaving or acting inappropriately. The ubiquity of ugly female characters in this fiction calls into question what southern scholar W. J. Cash termed "gyneolatry," the worship of the beautiful white woman upon which so much of southern ideology has been based (86). The purity and protection of middle- and upper-class white women have been evoked when defending not only retrogressive gender roles in the region, but also its history of Jim Crow laws, lynching, and other race-based violence and practices of exclusion. I propose that southern women writers have consistently used the figure of the ugly woman as an act of rebellion against this ideology which insisted upon limited roles for women. Indeed, it's too easy to forget that the first line of Gone with the Wind is "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful." What should we make of the fact that even the quintessential southern belle fails to meet ideals of southern beauty? If the south, as many scholars observe, functions as an internal other for the nation, then examining the multiplicity of ugly women in this fiction illuminates the ways in which women defy not only the expectations of southern gyneolatry but also those of the larger American culture, in which the southern woman often acts as a representation of the south in general.
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Author:Miller, Monica Carol
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1U600
Date:Dec 22, 2015
Words:723
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