Good Behavior + Beauty Norms
Updated: Feb 13, 2022
I finished Good Behavior which I read without great relish. I mostly cringed and held my breath. Molly Keane is merciless in presenting us with an almost willfully naive and self-deluding protagonist who aches for love and belonging. Although the book is a dark comedy, I found several scenes exquisitely painful, the exquisite pain of the ugly duckling who never turns into a much admired swan.
It struck me that it’s uncomfortable to have a heroine who is unattractive. I found myself wincing every time Aroon refers to herself as ugly, fat, grotesque, as if I wanted her to quit reminding me so I could indulge in the fantasy of an attractive, yet somehow disregarded, Cinderella. As I read I kept wondering how unattractive she actually is. Her mother’s barbed comments aren’t necessarily an accurate indication. And Aroon herself is a completely unreliable narrator—her description of events being constantly undermined by other characters so we must rely on subtext to adjust our image of what’s happening. But is Aroon unreliable about herself? She is unsparing in detailing the humiliation she feels at being a large young woman who's uncomfortable taking up space. ("Heaving myself up from the sofa, one hand grabbing at its arm, I towered, at last on my feet, toppling in my own dreadful height and world...") And certainly she seems to be honest about her love of food ("Tonight was real, with my cold hands on my cold dress and my longing for food, coupled to the certain prospect of Mummie's comment on my appetite."). Marianne Woodman might tell us that Aroon's eating is a desperate attempt to fill the painful void left by neglectful parents and a dull existence.
It made me consider other unattractive heroines: Hulga from Good Country People, Sarah Cole in Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story by Russell Banks ("And if Sarah were not dead, you’d think I were cruel, for I must tell you that Sarah was very homely. In fact, she was the homeliest woman I have ever known."). Anne Elliot in Persuasion has lost her bloom but her looks improve as the book progresses. Jane Eyre is small and plain. But other than Hulga and Aroon, how often are female protagonists big girls? (I haven't read (or seen) Shrill. It's on my list.)*
Samantha Irby in We Are Never Meeting in Real Life calls her reader’s attention to her weight, her physical limitations, her adult diapers, always confronting the reader with physical attributes that are the antithesis of the pretty protagonist we’re used to. Citing her qualifications for The Bachelorette, Irby says
“I’m fat and black. Isn’t it about time they had a bitch with a REAL 2 PERCENT LARGE COTTAGE CHEESE CURD ASS on this awkward date parade? I mean, come on. Welcome to your ‘after’ photo, gentlemen. Prime-time television needs some real talk from a real asshole, and that asshole should be me.”
While Irby consciously thumbs her nose at beauty standards, she also admits to the deep pain of being outside the conventional norms. Writing about being fat she says, “You hate me, and I hate me, too. We are on the same team. I guess what I’m saying is that maybe we could all just mind our own fucking business for once, and that when you can actually see a person’s scars, maybe be a pal and don’t pick at them.”
In her book My Authobiography of Carson McCullers, Jenn Shapland links Eleanor Roosevelt’s and Carson McCullers's discomfort with their appearances. We can feel the pain and longing of the misfit, the outsider. Shapland says,
“Eleanor Roosevelt writes, ‘attention and admiration were the things through all my childhood which I wanted, because I was made to feel so conscious of the fact that nothing about me would attract attention or would bring admiration.’ I see Carson’s battles with her appearance the fact of growing up without the expected or desired traits of a woman, particularly a southern woman. The woman the world wanted her to be—with dainty features and demure affect—was deeply at odds with the woman she was.”
Of course in Good Behavior, the conventionally pretty girl doesn’t get the guy either. Richard is elusive primarily because he is also a misfit in conventional society and flees the confines of good behavior, leaving the decaying gentry of Anglo-Ireland so he can farm in Kenya with his lover “who roomed with him at Eton.” (Jenn Shapland would appreciate this oblique way of referring to homosexuality.)
And that gets us into the whole kit and caboodle of good behavior: the battle between appetite/desire and decorum; everything good behavior excludes or turns a blind eye to, and all it condones when it’s done prettily enough. But, as Marion Woodman and Jill Mellick write in Coming Home to Myself,
“Living by principles
Living your own life.”
And as a mature woman, Aroon has become monstrously well-behaved (which isn’t to say I wasn’t rooting for her:)
* I also vaguely recall a trilogy that I read in middle school in which the heroine is homely. My memory may be off, but I believe the series is The Time Master Trilogy by Louise Cooper.