Southern Belle Secret Number One…(Simone de Beauvoir, Jane Austen and Dallas, TX)

Madison McClung

In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone De Beauvoir begins her discussion of freedom with the child’s experience. Children enjoy a limited form of freedom, a freedom without responsibility; they are as free to roam the backyard, the cul-de-sac or a neighbor’s yard, as they are confined to the security of the family home and the private sphere, under the loving and vigilant gaze of their guardians…“Even when the joy of existing is strongest, when the child abandon’s himself to it, he feels himself protected against the risk of existence by the ceiling which human generations have built over his head”(36). This is a situation that should be reserved for children, and when it is forced on adults, it becomes infantilization. Unfortunately, historically speaking, women have often been treated as children and confined to the private sphere; in this sense, their infantilization is a form of oppression: “There are beings whose life slips by in an infantile world because, having been kept in a state of servitude and ignorance, they had no means of breaking the ceiling which is stretched over their heads”(37). While this may still be true in many parts of the world, in the United States of the twenty first century and in first world countries generally, women have the choice to embrace their freedom. De Beauvoir suggests, however, that even privileged women often choose to remain in the protection of the private sphere, and that bourgeois women in 1950’s France are perpetuating their infantilization (38). I wish to argue here that this could also be said about middle class women in American communities today. To make my argument, I will explore the infantilization of women through both ancient and modern examples, including literature, pop culture, and social media.

Growing up in an oil money town in Texas, I can attest to this kind of willful or at least obliging ignorance among the women of my acquaintance. Southern women, knowingly or not, are brought up to follow a particular path, predetermined by their families and regional traditions relative to station and class. They are put in specific schools, sent to certain summer camps, encouraged to spend time with particular friends, pushed to go to a southern university, and pressured to join a top sorority—all to retain or marry into a specific place in society. They do not wish to break the ceiling over their heads; in fact, many women are terrified of not having this artificial shelter, and they do everything in their power to remain under it.

The question is: why would women do this? Surely contemporary society allows that a woman is perfectly competent to take care of herself. Why do southern women in particular perpetuate the cycle of infantilization?

SOCIAL CLIMBING—A TIMELESS ART:

Perhaps the most obvious answer is the pressure that society puts on women. We read about the importance of marrying well to secure status in novels such as Pride and Prejudice, written about a family with five daughters in nineteenth century England. The driving force behind the story is the confines of 19th century provincial English society and the urgency of marriage. Historically, marriage has been urgent as women have depended on men for mere survival in their society: economic support, a roof over their head, and someone to build a family with [1]. Beyond this idea of survival, there is also the potential for social climbing—that is, improving not only one’s income and the well-being of one’s family, but also one’s social standing. For the women in Pride and Prejudice and most modern middle to upper class Americans, a woman’s survival is no longer threatened, but the issue of social standing is still very relevant. Thus, a wealthy young man might arouse much excitement in a small town. In fact, Pride and Prejudice opens with this situation, and the novel begins with the statement “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”(1). To understand the options that young women are faced with and the paths that they take regarding marriage, I will explore the actions of three young women in this novel: the Bennet sisters Jane and Elizabeth, and their friend Charlotte. Jane is trapped in the belief that she needs to be rescued by her Prince Charming while Charlotte ignores her feelings entirely, as she is more concerned with her material well-being. Elizabeth, the exception, is a woman of principle who wishes to find a man of substance and character;a man she may not only love, but also respect. She is less concerned with her survival, and more importantly she is indifferent to social climbing. Although Elizabeth’s bold nature inspires her to draw hasty and sometimes undeserved conclusions about certain acquaintances (making sense of the novel’s original title, First Impressions), it also gives her a faculty for choosing a spouse that considers more than just economic and social benefits. In the novel, she rejects marriage proposals of wealthy men because they have questionable character, and is unlike the other young women of her society who use marriage primarily for social status.

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Credit to “Southern Belle Secrets: The Master List – Girls with Pearls.” http://southernbellesecrets.tumblr.com/masterlist

Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice in 1813, and many do not understand (or wish to acknowledge) that a similar mentality regarding marriage is very much present in some modern southern societies. Just as Charlotte’s parents encourage her to marry a man because he owns a certain estate, so today parents encourage their daughters to date men who live in a specific neighborhood because it indicates family money. Not only does the South treasure the idea that marriage preserves one’s role in society, but it also keeps the notion of arranged marriages alive. So you see, the dream of Prince Charming is also very much alive in our contemporary world. As de Beauvoir observes of 1950’s Parisian society, “Arranged marriages have not disappeared; there is still a right-minded bourgeoisie perpetuating them”(445). In Southern society as well, children grow up with and eventually marry people who have the same if not higher status, religious beliefs, and education that they do. One’s neighborhood, school and church attest to background and pedigree; thus, theses families and their children often become close acquaintances. Mothers enroll their daughters in a specific summer camps at young ages (such as Camp Mystic, Camp Longhorn, Camp Waldemar), hoping that they will meet girls from rich communities who will all go to The University of Texas, Alabama, or Ole Miss and join the wealthiest sorority. [2] The goal is ultimately that the sorority sisters will mingle with the well-off fraternity, eventually producing marriages. Whether they realize it before they are married or not, the lives and spouses of many of these girls are just as arranged as they would be in past centuries.

If it is true that marriages are in a sense just as arranged as they were in England hundreds of years ago, why doesn’t anyone change this old fashioned system? Who imposes such antiquated beliefs and regulations? The answer is obvious: upper and middle class women—just as their mothers did before them. These women treasure the ceiling that is over their heads, and they view anyone who could potentially break it or any outsider in want of it as a threat. For a more modern perspective than Pride and Prejudice, one could also look to The Help, a novel concerned with the civil rights movement in Jackson, Mississippi, which highlights the motivations of southern society women. The Help offers a view into the helpless nature that society women adhere to in order to retain their protective sphere. Celia, a woman from Sugar Ditch, Mississippi, who was born and raised in a low class, moves to Jackson with her new husband, the old high school sweetheart of an influential society woman named Hilly. Because Celia is not from their town, did not grow up with high social status, and is married to the wealthy “man who got away,” Hilly vows to ruin Celia’s reputation and further establish herself at the top of the social pyramid. However, Hilly’s work to belittle Celia is underhanded, as to retain her “southern belle” appearance; she is ostensibly all politeness, keeps everyone catering to her and appears sweetly submissive to both Celia’s husband and her own. Mrs. Bennet also serves as an example of someone who appeals to this helpless, passive aggressive persona: “She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous”(7). Mrs. Bennet is uncompromising and provincial in her own ways. Whenever she is upset with her situation, she pretends to be sick and faintly in order to get her way without being publicly manipulative. Society women do not use direct insults—they are not attacking someone but rather “taking pity;” the phrase “Oh, bless her heart” is most often used in this context.

“HER MOMMA DIDNT RAISE HER RIGHT, BLESS HER HEART”

A more important aspect of the southern persona and an essential player in the scheme of willful infantilization is the pressure that society women put on their daughters, from a young age, to marry into a certain class. Mrs. Bennet herself is often the driving force in Pride and Prejudice that encourages the necessity of marriage—and not just any marriage, but a respectable one. When introducing Mrs. Bennet, Austen declares that “the business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news”(7). Mrs. Bennet spends weeks acting sickly when she is nervous, but when she hears about her daughter’s marriage her mood immediately changes, even if the marriage is under sketchy circumstances: “My dear, dear Lydia! This is delightful indeed!—She will be married!—She will be married at sixteen!…But the clothes, the wedding clothes!”(49). Austen rarely uses exclamation points in Mrs. Bennet’s statements unless she is speaking of marriage and status. She is upset with her daughters or is “ill,” unless they are receiving positive social feedback. In fact, when Elizabeth rejects a marriage proposal from Mr. Collins, the heir to the Bennet estate, Mrs. Bennet says that she will never speak to her daughter again if she does not change her mind (111). Literary critics often refer to Elizabeth as Mrs. Bennet’s least favorite daughter, as her faculty for free thinking and intelligence transcends her mother’s small mind and leads her to reject Mrs. Bennet’s ideas of marriage as a means for social climbing [3]. The early nineteenth century mother daughter relationship can be seen in late twentieth century Mississippi as well. Skeeter, a character in The Help who tries to defy the strict habits of the ignorant women in her city, has spent her time at college writing. Her mother, unimpressed with Skeeter’s studies, naturally expects her to come back from Ole Miss with her “MRS Degree:”

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MRS Degree Ecard, Credit to http://www.someecards.com

Mother sighs, narrows her eyes at the spaniel, Shelby, licking his nether parts. I eye the front door, tempted to ruin the clean floors anyway. We’ve had this conversation so many times: “Four years my daughter goes off to college and what does she come home with?” she asks.
“A diploma?”
“A pretty piece of paper,” Mother says.
“I told you. I didn’t meet anybody I wanted to marry,” I say (29).

As Skeeter’s mother suggests, marriage is the ultimate goal for young women: it is what they should aspire to; their equivalent of a high SAT score, getting into medical school or qualifying for Olympic gymnastics. Such mothers have carried the idea that marriage is woman’s only worthy accomplishment into the modern day. Just as there is no question that marriage is the goal for the Bennet daughters, so many modern girls—especially in the South— grow up under this impression. Mothers raise their children to have certain views toward marriage and the type of woman they must become. Their playdates are arranged at a young age, and they are advised on the clothes they should wear as well as the things they should say as they grow older. As de Beauvoir suggests, these adolescents are practically brainwashed to believe that their most important goal and contribution to the world is to marry respectably:

From childhood, the little girl, whether wishing to realize herself as woman or overcome the limits of her femininity, has awaited the male for accomplishment and escape; he has the dazzling face of Perseus or Saint George; he is the liberator; he is also rich and powerful, he holds the keys to happiness, he is Prince Charming…she has always been convinced of male superiority; this male prestige is not a childish mirage; it has economic and social foundations; men are, without any question the masters of the world; everything convinces the adolescent girl that it is in her interest to be their vassal; her parents prod her on; the father is proud of his daughter’s success, the mother sees the promise of a prosperous future, friends envy and admire the one among them who gets the most masculine admiration; in American colleges, the student’s status is based on the number of dates she has. Marriage is not only an honorable and less strenuous career than many others; it alone enables woman to attain her complete social dignity and also to realize herself sexually as lover and mother. This is the role her entourage thus envisages for her future, as she envisages it herself. Everyone unanimously agrees that catching a husband–or a protector in some cases–is for her the most important of undertakings (de Beauvoir 341).

 

PREDATOR AS PREY:

As southern girls become teenagers, their mothers will teach them this “art of catching a man.” Perhaps the most paradoxical and important part of the process is that in being the predator, the woman herself must become the prey. Simone de Beauvoir sheds light on this situation in The Second Sex:

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“What Southern Mamas Tell their Daughters that the Rest of Y’all Should Know Too,” Credit to http://media-cache-ec0.pinimg.com/originals/c2/16/5c/c2165c5dd5dd860a54a8339f087f7ec9.jpg

“In France, as in America, mothers, older sisters, and women’s magazines cynically teach girls the art of ‘catching’ a husband like flypaper catching flies; this is ‘fishing’ and ‘hunting,’ demanding great skill: do not aim too high of too low: be realistic, not romantic; mix coquetry with modesty; do not ask for too much or too little. Young men mistrust women who ‘want to get married’”(447).

Because men do not want to be “hunted,” the young lady must make “herself prey in order to make a catch. She becomes an object; and she grasps herself as an object”(249). The woman plays a role, as if she is in a production. This passive, helpless part that young women play to snag the right type of man eventually comes to define them. The young lady lies to others and lies to herself as she tries to appear “disarmed, available…nothing but a flower offered, a fruit to be picked”(370). Young women are so taken by molding themselves to fit a man’s ideal that they carefully process every move to appear always as the damsel in distress. Jane Bennet, the eldest daughter in Pride and Prejudice, serves as an excellent example of this perfect, subdued feminine animal. Elizabeth confronts Jane: “You never see a fault in anybody. All the world is good and agreeable in your eyes. I never heard you speak ill of a human being in my life”(16). Unlike the clever, witty and sharp-tongued Elizabeth, Jane is sweet, pleasant, and above all, ingenuous. She receives positive attention from society ladies because her meek, reticent persona displays everything that a lady should be. De Beauvoir observes that many bourgeois women attempt to show themselves to be as docile as Jane:

From the most servile to the haughtiest, girls all learn that to please, they must give in to them. Their mothers urge them not to treat boys like companions, not to make advances to them, to assume a passive role. If they want to flirt or initiate a friendship, they should carefully avoid giving the impression they are taking the initiative; men do not like tomboys, nor bluestockings, nor thinking women; too much audacity, culture, intelligence, or character frightens them….to be feminine is to show oneself as weak, futile, passive and docile (de Beauvoir 347).

Jane’s passive and pleasing nature also translates to how she sees men: she naturally views herself as someone to be gazed upon and rescued, and is only looking for a well-mannered man to be her kindly provider. She falls head over heels for Mr. Bingley, simply because: “He is just what a young man ought to be…sensible, good-humored, lively; and I never saw such happy manners!–so much ease, with such perfect good breeding!”(16). However, most women are neither as genuine nor as ingenuous and agreeable as Jane; they must carefully manipulate others so as to appear angelic, as Mrs. Bennet and Hilly do when they are angry. Thus, de Beauvoir creates an excellent hunting metaphor to explain the teenage girl’s hunt for male attention while seeming acquiescent and meek:

He is only seduced by the one who sets the traps for him; offered, she is still the one who stalks her prey; her passivity takes the form of an undertaking, she makes her weakness a tool of her strength; since she is forbidden to attack outright, she is reduced to maneuvers and calculations; and it is in her interest to appear freely given; therefore, she will be criticized for being perfidious and treacherous, and she is. But it is true that she is obliged to offer man the myth of her submission because he insists on dominating…because all roads are barred to her, because she cannot do, because she must be, a curse weighs on her. As a child she played at being a dancer or a saint; later, she plays at being herself; what is really the truth? (de Beauvoir 370).

De Beauvoir’s use of diction in this description illuminates the planned, mechanical, and predator-like tendencies of this “art.” She describes the woman almost as a primitive homo sapien or an intelligent animal, as one who “stalks” prey and sets traps for survival. However, she then speaks of “maneuvers and calculations,” implying that the process by which one “catches” a man is more mechanical than natural. De Beauvoir’s choice to label woman’s passivity as “the myth of her submission” calls attention to the façade that she erects. Her use of anaphora with the word “because” suggests that there are pressing forces burdening the young lady with a role to play.

GOALS, CHOICES AND SACRIFICES:

But why do women consent to appearing as passive beings? Why should they perpetuate such games and strategies? Even if mothers are pushing the idea of mandatory marriage, younger women might reject it. However, many of these adolescents are under the impression that marriage is their only goal, or rather that they are not capable of anything greater than marrying well:

The fundamental reason for this defeatism is that the adolescent girl does not consider herself responsible for her future; she judges it useless to demand much of herself since her lot in the end will not depend on her. Far from destining herself to man because she thinks she is inferior to him, it is because she is destined for him that, in accepting the idea of her inferiority, she constitutes it. In fact, she will gain value in the eyes of males not by increasing her human worth but by modeling herself on their dreams (de Beauvoir 347).

As de Beauvoir suggests, these women sooner lose sight of personal aspirations to cherish their male companions’ passions. Mr. Collins, a bachelor in Pride and Prejudice, is the perfect example of a man who places value in ladies who model themselves after his dreams. He proposes to Elizabeth in an extremely self-righteous and unfeeling fashion:

My situation in life, my connections with the family of de Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favour; and you should take it into further consideration, that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications (Austen 106).

It is no surprise that Elizabeth, who endeavors to think freely, refuses his proposal because of his lack of character; she knows that he is a fool, and she will not compromise her own happiness for his fortune. Elizabeth rebels against the demands of her family and society to disregard feelings and marry well. Charlotte, on the other hand, looks past all faults and places Collins on a pedestal: “His pride does not offend me so much as pride often does, because there is an excuse for it.  One cannot wonder that so very fine a young man, with family, fortune, everything in his favour, should think highly of himself.  If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud”(21). Collins’s fortune is enough to attract Charlotte; she arrives at the practical conclusion that they should marry primarily for the social and economic benefits:

I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done. I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state (Austen 123).

Charlotte does not care about love; she willfully accepts the security of a ceiling over her head and is ignorant to any emotional bond that might facilitate marriage. Thus, Charlotte’s feigned ignorance makes her the perfect model for many southern women; she is actually clever enough to know better, but she nonetheless willfully deceives herself. The difference between Charlotte and Jane is that Jane is naturally inclined to a subdued, futile personality—she believes authentically that Bingley is her Prince Charming—whereas Charlotte puts on this persona as if she is playing a role. Through her eagerness to snag Collins, Charlotte exemplifies the woman as predator. Immediately after she is notified that Elizabeth has rejected the proposal, Charlotte is “so kind as to listen to Mr. Collins,” walking with him all day and inviting him to dine with her family, treating him like her Prince Charming even though the only thing she fancies about him is the security he can provide (119). Although she tells Elizabeth that she is merely satisfied in being useful by keeping his spirits up, Charlotte’s true motives are shown when the couple is engaged the very next morning.

Why do young girls choose to emulate Charlotte or Jane but not Elizabeth? Why do they treasure the idea of Price Charming or social climbing so much that they abdicate responsibility for themselves—rejecting their own personalities, inclinations and often feelings—to “catch” and keep a man? In order to understand why women often embrace the notion of marriage as an aspiration to status, social standing, and happiness or why they willingly abandon any plans of their own in order to find satisfaction in their husband’s projects, one must examine how they view themselves.

HOW YOUNG WOMEN ARE DISPLAYED PUBLICLY:

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“Frieda and Diego Rivera” by Kahlo in 1931. (Oil on canvas, 39-3/8 x 31 inches
or 100.01 x 78.74 cm, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)
Credit to http://www.fkahlo.com/ingles/index_ingles.html

Understanding how young women view themselves can be done by evaluating how they are often displayed through art, media, and social media. Frida Kahlo, a Mexican artist in the early twentieth century, was famous for both her work and her marriage to another famous painter, Diego Rivera. Although she was an extremely strong woman (Kahlo overcame tremendous suffering, disease and injury in her life) and was an artist in her own right, Frida viewed herself as inferior to Diego. In her paintings of the couple, she portrays herself as smaller and weaker than her husband, standing in his shadow. “Frieda and Diego Rivera,” painted by Frida in 1931, is a perfect example of this distortion of height; Frida’s feet are abnormally small compared to Diego’s. She is holding his hand and standing slightly behind him while he holds a palette and brushes, suggesting that he is the artist and that he supports her with his work. She also makes herself uglier in her paintings and Diego more attractive. Although this troubled self-image can be attributed to an awful injury and polio in her early life, it also serves to demonstrate that this bourgeois understanding of dependency—borrowed from the even older tradition of aristocratic marriage and already over four centuries old—is lodged deep within the hearts and minds of women most especially, informing their consciousness and understanding of the self.

An example of a role model that American girls follow is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who twice married for wealth and status. She is most beloved however as Jackie Kennedy, wife of President John Kennedy, and this stead she is known for standing by her husband—not a bad reputation to have. Jackie’s reticence and demure manners extended to her reception of her husband’s well-known and often public philandering; Jackie maintained her composure with expensive hats and pristine gloves. Although many women attest that Jackie made a noble sacrifice and that she represented an ideal ‘lady’, her experience encourages women to aspire to a lonely life of masking your feelings to preserve appearances and status. Yet, as this first lady persona is very much alive in certain American communities as an effective model for a woman’s character and appearance, and young women still aspire it, let us endeavor to understand it.

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Dress Like Jackie Outfit Assortment
Credit to http://www.milkandhoneynyblog.com/blog/?p=3402

According to the official website for the first ladies, the most successful women “have carefully balanced being perceived as a ‘Queen’ of the people while also being a ‘commoner’ who understood their problems and lives…maintaining a degree of dignity or even sometimes doing so through their visual persona yet expressing warmth with people from all levels of society…being as interested in legislation as they are in entertaining.” In attempts to embody warmth and dignity, many first ladies appear reticent—Jackie hid her true feelings to exemplify this “balanced,” ideal lady, and she certainly used a visual persona which many women still aspire to. Even Michelle Obama, an attorney by training, endeavors to appear with reference to Jacqueline Kennedy. We make much of her clothes, her garden, and her work on the proper nutrition of children. Because this first lady persona is closely connected with maintaining physical appearance, the importance of motherhood and using marriage not as a means for survival but rather to gain status, it is respected and imitated in Southern society: women must be first and foremost entertainers for social events—they have impeccable manners, excellent cooking, developed taste in both fashion and home decor, and are perfect mothers—all without encroaching into their husband’s occupational sphere. They stay in their own sector: aspiring to be president of “The Junior League” rather than CEO of a company. The southern wife, similar to a first lady, must appear high in status yet sweet and pleasant—she must gain power through supporting her husband and entertaining his associates, but never quite through being completely involved in legislation, or rather occupation.

Princess Diana was also a woman in the public eye and victim of an arranged marriage who struggled with infidelity. She was conflicted between the burden of the identity bestowed upon her as a princess and the person who she was inside. The pressure put on her by the royal family, the media, and her admirers world-wide led to eating disorders and extreme unhappiness. Diana too, suffered from this first lady persona: standing quietly near her husband and waving politely; serving almost as a life size cardboard cut-out—both as a princess and a wife. Her life did not give her the option to be a three dimensional human being, and she only found comfort and joy in her role as a mother: “Any sane person would have left long ago, but I cannot. I have my sons.” A new mother the modern day of royalty, Kate Middleton, is watched by teenage girls everywhere—they still evaluate her wedding dress and debate her post-baby body. Even princess Kate, who has a reputation of a stronger, modern woman, will wear the occasional Jackie-inspired pillbox hat, suggesting that Jackie has left her mark on the way women should be viewed publicly.

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Kate Middleton with Pillbox hat. Credit to Chris Jackson/Getty Images
http://news.instyle.com/photo-gallery/?postgallery=92122

Especially in the social media world of the twenty first century, girls are often given examples of what women should be that mold the way they see themselves. Pinterest—a forum used to share different interests including fashion, artwork, and decor—is a website viewed often by young women. When one owns a Pinterest account, she can pin whatever interests her and focus on specific ideas. Pinterest accounts among southern girls are full of pictures and links regarding “the southern way of life”—including iced tea, the “do’s” and “dont’s” when wearing outfits, the necessary monogrammed items to take to Ole Miss, and quotes about finding a man. When a young woman of 17 logs on to her Pinterest newsfeed and is bombarded by pins and repins regarding the ideal southern girl and her aspirations to marriage, it is understandable why she might give the utmost importance to these topics. In fact, every picture used in this paper thus far has been taken from my Pinterest newsfeed.

WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE:

We now know of the very long history of marriage for status, the ideal found in a Princess Diana or a Jackie Kennedy and how it is perpetuated even in contemporary societies. This process of “arranged marriages” could indeed work well for those who want to keep their place or move up in society. Why am I rebuking it? The simple reason is this: not only are girls purposefully rejecting or compromising their own potential, but they are not marrying for love either. They marry for money:

A girl’s choice is often very limited: it would be truly free if only she felt free enough not to marry. Her decision is usually accompanied by calculation, distaste, and resignation rather than enthusiasm. ‘If the young man who proposes to her is more of less suitable (background, health, career), she accepts him without loving him. She will accept him without passion even if there are ‘buts’ (De Beauvoir, 447).

Most marriages in Pride and Prejudice and The Help are business transactions, not personal relationships. While many of these relationships may grant both parties social and economic advantages, they do not give them happiness, which is ironically why women marry for money in the first place. Despite all of the careful planning that is done for southern marriages, these couples often become extremely unhappy and dysfunctional as both spouses realize that although they have the same values, there is no spark—they do not truly know one another, and woman has been playing a particular role for so long that she doesn’t even know herself. Mrs. Bennet clearly did not marry for love, and in terms of character, intelligence, and even shared principles and values, the pair is exceedingly ill-matched: “the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character”(7). Furthermore, eventually the husband may catch on that he was the prey. He then feels trapped in the snare of a woman who isn’t even real, and often realizes that he should have married someone who inhabited her mind and body. Mr. Bennet is in this situation, and Elizabeth’s childhood exposes her to the problems with the lack of an authentic relationship between her parents:

Had Elizabeth’s opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing opinion of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort.  Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown…To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement (Austen 42).

Elizabeth’s intelligence and her courage to think freely open her eyes to the problems associated with arranged marriage and a woman’s dependence on others. She sees that her parents do not even respect one another, let alone share affection for each other. Her father is unhappy, and her mother is too ignorant and too busy perpetuating this tradition of marrying off daughters to care about or even see the tragedy in her situation. Elizabeth understands that simply using beauty to captivate a man for his money will not produce “domestic comfort.” Likewise many southern “arranged” marriages are confining and unhappy, as money and the projection of falsified personalities do not create a sound foundation.

A LIBERATED UNDERSTANDING OF THE THREE DIMENSIONAL WOMAN:

Although this type of marriage is encouraged in Pride and Prejudice, Austen is actually disproving the notion that happiness comes from marrying for status; she proves instead that one may indeed freely choose a mate, marry a man she respects and maintain her dignity, in spite of her precarious condition. Unlike the stereotyped characters in The Help who each have one specific motive and psyche, Jane Austen’s characters are complex, dynamic women with conflicting personalities and shifting thoughts. She imbues them with a nobility that transcends their social status, giving the readers a more realistic depiction of the choices that women face as they confront their futures. Elizabeth, Charlotte, and Jane represent three different reactions to the same socioeconomic condition. As we have seen, Jane embodies the ideal woman for “catching” men; she is authentically submissive, quiet, pleasant, passive, and naturally agreeable to putting anyone’s aspirations above her own. Charlotte seems to be more practical, with a certain talent for facilitating opportunity, but she is uninterested in Collins’s character and primarily concerned with marriage as a means of social climbing. Elizabeth, however, is an independent spirit; she makes radical observations, speaks her mind, and is little concerned with social status since it is rarely earned and usually has nothing to do with merit. All three women eventually marry, but two operate within the confines of their society while the third does not comply—to her credit and eventually to her advantage. Elizabeth refuses to mitigate her personality or to underplay her strength of character, and these qualities earn her the admiration of her future husband and others around her. Elizabeth’s experience suggests that liberated thinking does not exclude marriage and family. In this way, Austen provides readers with the obvious yet nonetheless overlooked fact that women are complex beings with contradicting desires, goals and duties. When it comes to a woman’s life, history and experience lead us only to an ambiguous piece-meal, and often contradictory conclusions. Through her example of Elizabeth, Austen demonstrates that a housewife is not necessarily imprisoned and that she may indeed be seen as a partner in the enterprise of living. Austen illuminates the complexities of womanhood: being the bread-winner does not necessarily equate with happiness, and motherhood may be wholly fulfilling. In my critiques of southern society and mentality, I do not mean to imply or suggest that marriage is a form of oppression but rather I intend to rebuke marriage without authentic bond, friendship or mutual respect at its foundation. De Beauvoir herself, in a interview with Margaret Simmons, admits that romantic relationships do not necessarily trap women: “Yes, we [she and Sartre] were very, very close. But that’s nothing contrary to feminism. Because I believe one can be close to a man and be a feminist”(24). De Beauvoir, like Elizabeth, respected relationships while still being an enlightened being who had the courage to use her own understanding. In Kant’s What is Enlightenment, he postulates that “Enlightenment is mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity”(58). Kant’s idea of “self-incurred immaturity”—not having the resolution or courage to make original observations or actions without the guidance of another—is clearly seen in Mrs. Bennet, Jane and others in Pride and Prejudice. Kant theorizes that free thinking enables free acting, but a society has to be enlightened gradually and as a whole to create the room for this freedom to spread to its full capacity. So long as there is not a liberated understanding of womanhood, individuals may continue to be enlightened, like Elizabeth Bennett, but society in general will remain ignorant.

How then can one cure the mental confines blocking this liberated understanding of womanhood—placed around young women by society, their families, fairy tales, pop culture and social media—while still respecting the institution of marriage? If one believes Kant’s proposal that liberating a public culture is easier and more productive, then the best way to change this traditional view of femininity is to urge feminine “scholars” or women of all professions—from the house-wife and mother to the partner in a law firm—to reconsider the understanding of womanhood, authentically, in a public forum. Women need an inspiring new vision that doesn’t objectify and classify them: like Elizabeth, they should not be denied socially the right to speak their mind nor the right to marry for love. Women should be recognized as complex, dynamic human beings who are not categorized simply as the “strong working woman” or the “meek housewife” and who do not have to put on a façade be successful. In fact, there should be a new idea of “success” itself for women—not necessarily in being the breadwinner or the housewife, but in pursuing their passions while allowing themselves to be emotionally vulnerable to a relationship. We need a new way to theorize femininity that inspires young women, especially in the south, to break free of social constrictions to be who they want, marry who they want, and live the lives that they want to.

1.History on the Institution of Marriage:
http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200505/marriage-history
http://www.sexarchive.info/ATLAS_EN/html/history_of_marriage_in_western.html
2. For Fraternity/Sorority Life:
http://totalfratmove.com
http://tusb.stanford.edu/2010/12/totally-despicable-frat-move.html
3.Mrs. Bennet’s least favorite Daughter: http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number23/wiltshire.pdf

WORKS CITED:

Beauvoir, Simone De. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Trans. Frechtman Bernard. New York: Citadel, 1962. Print.

Austen, Jane, and Vivien Jones. Pride and Prejudice. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Beauvoir, Simone De. The Second Sex;. New York: Knopf, n.d. Print.

Stockett, Kathryn. The Help. New York: Amy Einhorn, 2009. Print.

“Articles about First Ladies’ Role.” Articles about First Ladies’ Role. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.firstladies.org/firstladiesrole.aspx&gt;.

“Southern Belle Secrets: The Master List – Girls with Pearls.” Girls with Pearls. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://southernbellesecrets.tumblr.com/masterlist>.

Hockey, Jenny, and Allison James. “Finding the Child in the Woman: The Post-mortem Infantilisation of Diana.” Journal of Gender Studies 8.3 (1999): 303-11. Print.

“Kate Middleton’s Most Memorable Outfits Ever!” Instyle.com. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://news.instyle.com/photo-gallery/?postgallery=92122>

Simons, Margaret A., and Jane Marie Todd. “Two Interviews with Simone De Beauvoir.” Hypatia 1989, Vol. 3 ed., Issue 3 sec.: 11-27. Web.

Kant, Immanuel. An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment? What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-century Answers and Twentieth-century Questions. By James Schmidt. Berkeley: University of California, 1996. N. pag. Print.

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