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July 17, 2017

Book Notes - Monica Carol Miller "Being Ugly: Southern Women Writers and Social Rebellion"

Being Ugly: Southern Women Writers and Social Rebellion

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Monica Carol Miller's book Being Ugly: Southern Women Writers and Social Rebellion offers an insightful and necessary exploration of both classic and contemporary works by Southern women writers.

Sarah Gleeson-White wrote of the book:

"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."

In her own words, here is Monica Carol Miller's Book Notes music playlist for her book Being Ugly: Southern Women Writers and Social Rebellion:

I am a physically active writer: I bounce, I move my head around, and I pull on my hair while I work ideas out. The times that I've worked in writing groups—getting together with others to write, as an accountability thing—I've been amused at how still and quiet other people are when they write. By comparison, I must be very annoying to work next to.

As you can imagine, as I was writing my first book, Being Ugly: Southern Women Writers and Social Rebellion, music was important thematically and as a source of energy. Contrary to popular ideas of beautiful southern belles, my book looks at the population of physically ugly female characters whose physical appearance marks them as unsuitable for traditional gender expectation of marriage and motherhood. Ugliness itself has a specifically southern definition, meaning inappropriate or rebellious behavior—those raised in the South will recognize the parental warning, "Don't be ugly!"

In Being Ugly, I examine a range of female characters who find ways of living outside of such traditional gender roles. Much of the music I listened to while writing it reflects these themes. When writing about rebellious southern women, I needed music that similarly spoke to these characters' disenchantment and disgust with traditional ways of living.

Since I first discovered the album cover to Loretta Lynn's Coal Miner's Daughter when I was three years old, listening to music has been as much about the artists' visuals and cultural connections as it has been about what the music says and how it makes me feel. Loretta's glamorous white lace dress on the album cover gave songs like the title song and "Hello, Darlin" a dimension of elegance that I might have lost without the picture. And just as I was beginning to understand the concept of the "male gaze" in pop culture, Madonna's "Express Yourself" video demonstrated that objectification did not have to be a one-way vector.

Which is, in part, what brought me to write Being Ugly. Unlike the stereotypes of southern beauty queens and southern belles and women who never wear sweatpants in public (as Reese Witherspoon once claimed in an interview), there is a tradition of physically ugly female characters written by southern women writers, who consciously choose to be physically ugly, who "let themselves go," in the words of so many Lee Smith characters. In Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People," for example, Joy-Hulga's mother observes that she would be so pretty if she would just stand up straight, put on some pretty clothes, and smile. Instead, Joy-Hulga slouches, wears a tacky sweatshirt, and sneers—and eschews courtship for a Ph.D.

It's easy to forget that the first line of the novel Gone with the Wind is "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful," because the image of Vivien Leigh in the movie is so firmly bound to the character. However, the clash of Scarlet's mother's aristocratic French features and her father's dark Irish ones keep her from be qualified as a true beauty. And when Scarlett acts up—dancing at the bazaar despite being a widow or taking over her husband's business—it is her father's Irish features that are emphasized. When I was writing my Gone with the Wind chapter, I listened to the Carter Family's "Lula Walls" quite a bit, as Lula's "aggravating beauty" seemed a spot-on description of the ways in which Scarlett chose to "be ugly" throughout the novel.

So here is my playlist:

The songs are a result of a southern suburban childhood and adolescence in the seventies and eighties, that I identified strongly with third-wave feminism and Riot Grrrl in the nineties and, yes, that I am incapable of keeping still when I write.

"Rebel Girl" by 
Bikini Kill

Riot Grrrl's celebration of female friendship. So many of the characters I write about reject marriage for friendship and alternative ways of living.

"Kool Thing" by "Sonic Youth

"Are you going to liberate us girls from male, white, corporate oppression? Fear of a female planet!"

"Twist Barbie" by 
Shonen Knife

Shonen Knife's dance-y, high energy music keeps me writing.

"Rated X"
 by Loretta Lynn

I have listened to Loretta Lynn pretty much constantly since I was three years old and I was mesmerized by the album cover for Coal Miner's Daughter. Over time, I've realized what a complex figure she is with respect to feminism—for songs like this one.

"Coat of Many Colors" by 
Dolly Parton

I am among the many who think that Dolly should be sainted.

"Lulu Walls"
by The Carter Family

I inherited my love of the Carter Family from my grandmother, whose favorite song by them was "that aggravating beauty, Lula Walls." While writing Ugly Women, I found the idea of an "aggravating beauty" to be rather inspiring.

 by P.J. Harvey

I wrote an article for the Flannery O'Connor Review about Flannery O'Connor's influence on punk music, and I continue to enjoy the wide of range music her work continues to inspire. One of my favorites is this song about one of my favorite characters, Joy-Hulga in O'Connor's "Good Country People."

"Oh Come On"
 by The Julie Ruin

Kathleen Hanna's music continues to inspire me, especially this one from The Julie Ruin's last album. It's impossible to feel tired when this is playing.

"Beautiful Red Dress"
 by Laurie Anderson

"They say women shouldn't be the President, because they go crazy from time to time. Well, push my buttons, baby, here I come. Yeah, look out, baby. I'm at high tide."

"Control" by 
Janet Jackson

Another long-time anthem of mine. To my young adolescent self, watching Janet Jackson go from Diff'rent Strokes to Fame to the Control album demonstrated what evolution and maturity could be.

"Oh Bondage! Up Yours!"
 by X-Ray Spex

The only problem with this feminist anthem is that it's so catchy that it'll lodge in my head for a day. Which, honestly, isn't that much of a problem.

"Express Yourself"
 by Madonna

This has been my go-to "I need motivation!" song since my college roommate and I used to play it while getting dressed to go out clubbing. It still gets me going.

Monica Carol Miller and Being Ugly: Southern Women Writers and Social Rebellion links:

the author's website

NCSA interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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