- Being Ugly: Southern Women Writers and Social Rebellion by Monica Carol Miller
In Being Ugly: Southern Women Writers and Social Rebellion, Monica Carol Miller argues that the ugly woman, as written by southern women since the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, is a figure of rebellion against limiting standards of southern womanhood that hold the beautiful white woman as the ideal. The ugly woman may be ugly by chance or [End Page 501] she may choose to cultivate her own ugliness as a way of escaping stifling gender roles. She may also be, in part, a reflection of her author’s own “ugliness,” which, according to some biographers, leads some southern women writers to a life of writing rather than that of marriage and motherhood. Miller moves her argument beyond physical ugliness to incorporate the specifically southern notion of ugly behavior—behavior that does not replicate or reinforce social norms and the status quo, especially regarding gender.
Miller carefully traces the origins of her theory of ugliness from New Southern studies and its work on gender and the body, including Patricia Yaeger’s Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women’s Writing, 1930–1990 (2000) and Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan Donaldson’s edited collection Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts (1997). She also accurately categorizes her work as more than an extension of previous work on gender and bodies by noting earlier works’ emphasis on the grotesque and the gothic. In perhaps one of her boldest moves, Miller carves out the space of the ugly as distinct from that of the grotesque. She claims that
unlike the abject and grotesque, which are more excessive, hyperbolic, and—at least in the case of the grotesque—contain possibilities for connection to the sublime and the explosion of boundaries, the ugly does not so much explode or reinforce boundaries as it does threaten, irritate, and call them into question.(p. 22)
While the ugly may lack the drama of the grotesque, it is also quotidian and more pervasive, making it important to examine. Within Miller’s persuasive arguments about ugliness lies the larger claim that social rebellion within southern women’s texts may be more prevalent and more nuanced than has been previously understood. Miller’s analysis of authors such as Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty makes perfect sense in light of this topic. There are, however, a number of surprising choices here as well, including Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Margaret Mitchell, Lee Smith, and Monique Truong.
Another innovation in Being Ugly is the identification of “the ugly plot” (p. 2). Miller’s ugly plot in southern literature is framed by the concept of queer negativity, the idea that challenges to the social order serve a larger generative purpose of questioning and even rewriting social norms and values. In ugly plots, the traditional marriage or courtship narrative is disrupted, often by a body or behavior considered ugly by at least some members of the community. In these ways, Miller deftly avoids a myopic focus on the physical body and expands the concept of ugliness into behavioral and narrative dimensions, making her work an essential contribution to the field of southern gender studies.
The scope of Being Ugly is appropriate to its topic, with strong contextualization of relevant issues of race, disability studies, queer theory, “freak [End Page 502] studies,” and as previously mentioned, the grotesque (p. 22). Miller makes a strong case for why these areas of study are related to her work on ugliness, but her own fresh theorization dominates the discourse. Likewise, the range of texts under consideration makes Being Ugly relevant for a wide variety of southern studies scholars. Occasionally, the conclusions of chapters repeat the foundational argument more than may be necessary for a reader of the full text, but this reiteration also means that individual chapters could stand alone well. Miller’s conclusion helpfully links ugliness in southern literature to the role of the local or regional in relation to...