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God Still Don’t Like Ugly, by Mary Monroe

(Contains spoilers)

As some of you know, I’ve been commuting from Baton Rouge to New Orleans four days a week to teach. The drive has me in the car for upwards of three hours a day. It is exhausting and a true time suck. To make the time pass more quickly, I’ve been borrowing books on CD from the Baton Rouge library. The selection is not stellar, but because of this, I’ve been listening to a lot of books that I otherwise would probably never encounter. One of these books is God Still Don’t Like Ugly, by Mary Monroe. I had never heard of this author, but picked up the box after reading the blurb on the back cover. It isn’t a romance. It isn’t a historical fiction. It isn’t a bad mystery novel from 20 years ago. Ok, I’ll take it. And I’m so glad I did. Not only was the story fairly unique, but it turns out it features a vigilante woman character, a woman who kills—and not just once, out of necessity, as is usually the pattern. This character, Rhoda, the best friend of the narrator and main character, Annette, has killed a total of five people.

It is hard not to be at least a little sympathetic to Rhoda, despite her blood lust. She is Annette’s best friend, who stood by her through thick and thin. The first person she killed was Annette’s step father, who had been raping and molesting Annette since she was a little child. When Annette finally reveals this secret to Rhoda, Rhoda does not hesitate. She smothers the man to death with his own pillow one night while he is sleeping. Next, she “takes out” a young (white) woman who has been impregnated by her (black) brother and has threatened to cry rape if he will not comply with her demands. She murders the rapist and killer of a 7-year-old girl, a man who lives in her neighborhood and who had had her own daughter to his home for sleepovers. And so on.

Rhoda kills to protect her loved ones, as is the pattern with vigilante killers. But the book differs from the pattern in this regard—Rhoda is deemed wrong, very wrong, by Annette (the only person who knows of her deeds), and is punished by GOD for her crimes. This is an interesting twist to the standard pattern of vigilante killers. In most of the stories I analyze in my book, women who kill are either portrayed as entirely justified in their actions, or at worst, the story is left unresolved (like in Mukherjee’s Wife, which concludes with the murderous act, leaving the reader wondering what will become of the main character). Although Rhoda is never caught by the justice system, never tried for her crimes, her life slowly unravels. She gets cancer and loses both of her breasts. She has a stroke and loses her beauty and her ability to function independently. The moral of the story? God still don’t like ugly, so be careful to behave. It will be interesting for me to think about the way this book compares to vigilante fiction by other spiritual women—I will certainly return to the topic in a later post.

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Review of Country Strong, starring Gwyneth Paltrow

Last night I rented and watched Country Strong, directed by Shana Feste, and starring Gwyneth Paltrow as country music star Kelly Canter. There was no hype about this movie when it opened in theatres (Jan 7, 2011), so I really wasn’t expecting much, but country music plots rarely let me down. This movie was not great, but it definitely had some good moments. I loved the duet between Leighton Meester and Garrett Hedlund (Give into Me)—the song is beautiful, and the on-screen chemistry between the two is palpable. Paltrow did an acceptable job as Kelly Canter, even though her singing voice is mediocre and her southern accent makes me cringe. To her credit, Paltrow played a convincing drunk musician attempting to make a comeback in an industry that places a heavy value on youth and beauty. Kelly’s pain seems authentic enough as she recognizes that she is slowly and inevitably being upstaged by the sober ex-pageant queen Chiles Stanton (played by Leighton Meester). And the fact that Kelly ultimately accepts Chiles and offers her advice (although this scene is woefully short) helps to reverse (if not completely obliterate) the vile message that women are always in competition with one another.

What really prompted me to write about this film, however, was not the acting or the music, but the anti-women connotations in the underlying plot (note, from here spoilers will ensue). Beautiful successful Kelly Canter has it all, but is miserable. Miserable enough to drink herself into oblivion and fall from the stage one night while she is performing, causing herself a miscarriage. This seems to be the one thing for which she is unable to forgive herself. There are two issues here, both equally problematic. First, as the New York Times Movie Review from Jan 6, 2011 points out, (http://movies.nytimes.com/2011/01/07/movies/07country.html), “the only successful woman is a desperately unhappy woman.” This message is sadder than a washed-up country music star. And it is a message that does seem to proliferate in popular culture. But what the New York Times review missed was how this message is complicated by Kelly’s miscarriage. For example, Kelly blames herself for the miscarriage instead of a music industry that drove her to drink, or her husband/manager who seems more concerned with making money than with her health and mental status. Kelly cares for an abandoned baby bird (yeah, this one is over the top) because her maternal instincts have no other outlet. Kelly overcomes her aversion to Chiles and offers the younger woman motherly advice about stardom. Do you see where I am going with this?

Kelly Canter personifies not only the successful women who is unhappy, but more importantly, the successful women who is unhappy (or crazed, or mentally unsound) because she does not have children (the Cate Blanchett character in Hanna also fits this bill: see my earlier post ). I suspect that portraying childless woman as aberrant in film or fiction is a backlash to the increasing number of women who are choosing to forego motherhood in favor of other options. I suspect that mainstream society still fears and/or resents women who remain childless, and especially fears women who are sexually active (like Kelly Canter) for pleasure rather than for purposes of reproduction. The stigma that women without children are terribly unhappy thus proliferates, to deter real women from remaining childless. Portraying Kelly as an addict who is unable to heal because she is unable to conceive sends a clear message: If you have no children you are going to regret it. It may even drive you to suicide.

And that’s the final thing I want to mention, how much I hate that Kelly kills herself. In my book about vigilante women I discuss how authors condemn their heroines to mental or physical illness as a way for their characters to resist emotional entrapment (like the nameless narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the mother character, Anna Holbrook, in Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio). Writers alternately invent heroines who attempt suicide to escape constrictive circumstances (such as Edna Pontellier from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Esther Greenwood from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar). Contemporary authors more often amend these dismal endings by featuring empowered heroines who turn their resistance outward– to oppose the laws that restrict their personal rights, or toward the people who most represent oppression in their lives. Such characters are modern day vigilante women. A better ending (in my estimation) for Country Strong would allow Kelly Canter to live up to the movie’s title—she would find the strength to oppose those who disregard her best interests, thus permanently improving the country music industry for other women artists (like the up and coming Chiles) in some small way.

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Female Vigilantism

What exactly do I mean by female vigilantism? In Vigilante Women in Contemporary American
Fiction, I explain,

“Female vigilantism is most often a recuperative act that addresses systematic flaws
in the American system of justice. Contemporary heroines commit illegal, extralegal,
and at times, deadly, acts in their quest for justice, including the destruction of
property, banditry, robbery, armed combat, and/or even murder. However, because the
women who commit these acts do so for ethical reasons and to establish or protect
their own right to full personhood, their actions assume a significance that manifests
as an equitable view of individuality” (4).

As you can see, I do not uphold the traditional “masculine” version of vigilantism,
which defines the vigilante as “a private individual who legally or illegally punishes
an alleged lawbreaker, or participates in a group which metes out extralegal punishment
to an alleged lawbreaker (OED, second edition, revised, 2005). In fact, I find fictional
female vigilantism to be much more exciting, because the disruptive actions of vigilante
heroines are part of a much wider struggle for women’s rights. The authors of such novels
are participants in a collective movement designed to achieve a more equitable place for
women. The current era of female vigilantism thus involves individualized lawbreaking for
the sake of a common goal.

What makes this topic even better is the way that women in stories of vigilante justice
move beyond prescribed social roles to take action, sometimes for their own protection,
sometimes for the protection of others, sometimes for a moral ideal. As I note in my book,

“Such stories are shocking because the laying aside of typical “womanly” behavior
reveals the “assumedness” of femininity. Within such acts, the heroines of these
fictions demonstrate their ability to act in a “masculine” manner when necessary,
thus exploding gender myths of what constitutes “masculine” and “feminine” conduct” (6).

Rock on, sister soldiers.

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