Jezebel's Summer of Bad Books Club: What Does It Mean to be a 'Good Woman'?

Illustration for article titled Jezebels Summer of Bad Books Club: What Does It Mean to be a Good Woman?
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Emily: In the last installment of our Summer of Bad Books Club, I asked what characteristics a Good Woman has in the world of My Sweet Audrina. The ways in which VC Andrews and, by extension, Audrina, attempts to classify women’s behavior is fascinating, deeply flawed, and, contradictorily, a bizarrely accurate reflection of what it is like to be an actual 12-year-old girl.

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First, there’s the character of Audrina, surrounded by women her father has labeled bad, forced to sit in a dead girl’s rocking chair to somehow inherit her “gifts,” which seem tied to her womanhood. But there’s a second person who also seems to be puzzling over the complex puzzle of ideal femininity—the author herself, who appears to be working out whether Vera, Aunt Ellsbeth, and even Audrina’s mother are villains or victims as the story unfolds. These questions reach a boiling point at the end of this week’s section when Audrina is presented with a choice: she can parent her two-year-old sister despite being only 12 herself, or she can selfishly choose Bad Motherhood by leaving her father to parent his own child.

But the third group I envision grappling with the question of ideal womanhood is the legion of pubescent girls who read this book at Audrina’s age, myself included, while trying to figure out how to be a woman worthy of love and admiration, like the first and best Audrina and not the cast-off, jealous villain with the second-prettiest hair, like Vera.

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In the world of VC Andrews, a woman has to first be beautiful in order to be good. The first and best Audrina and the narrator were both beautiful girls with interesting hair and light-colored eyes, a genetic gift from their equally beautiful mother. To be a woman second in beauty to the main character in a VC Andrews novel is to be automatically jealous of the “better” woman’s beauty. (Though the beautiful but bad mother in Flowers in the Attic exemplifies the idea that beauty is only the first step.) Secondly, a woman must not be proud of her beauty, any mention of it must be from an admirer, and any advantage gained by that beauty should be completely unwittingly obtained. Only bad women like Vera and Corrine Dollanganger consciously use others’ admiration of them to gain any advantage, especially over men.

And finally, a good woman wants love but never sex, or at least she doesn’t know she wants sex until she finds love. Vera and Aunt Ellsbeth have both used their runner-up beauty in an attempt to secure less precarious existences—Vera in the affair she brags about with the piano teacher, who she hopes will take her away to New York City, and Aunt Ellsbeth in her failed attempt to win Audrina’s father. But in both endeavors, they are seemingly bested by Audrina and her mother, who are not only more beautiful, but also painted as more virtuous for seemingly having no designs or plans for the love bestowed upon them by men impressed with their humility and enraptured by their superior physical beauty.

And as convoluted and oftentimes downright offensive as this novel is, these mixed messages still feel very close to my own sense of confusion over what was expected of me when I read this book at Audrina’s age. I knew that the women who were treated best at my school and in my town were the pretty ones who won beauty pageants and took dance classes and waved to us from parade floats. And I knew that the bad ones were the ones who were rumored to have had sex in high school and middle school, which I was told at church would make it much more difficult to find husbands and could even lead to future sexual assault, since, as one adult once told me, “Once you let one boy do that to you, the rest will think they can too.” Being good—humble, virtuous, and beautiful—was the only weapon offered me around this age against the myriad dangers adults always hinted were waiting for adult women, and it was around the age of about 11 when those rules went from theoretical to practical, as my friends and I started trying out makeup and paying close attention to older girls with boyfriends. In this section of the book, Audrina’s relationship to womanhood goes from sitting and thinking about it in her dead sister’s chair to an expectation placed upon her in the form of a disabled two-year-old sister presented to her by her father with the expectation that she will be her sister’s parent, just as her dead sister, in many ways, guided Audrina to her current understanding of womanhood. Being good or bad is presented as a binary. Audrina must either be a humble, beautiful, selfless mother to Sylvia or a bad, selfish woman like Vera or Ellsbeth.

But is it truly wrong to put one’s own needs first? Audrina isn’t so sure when she meets Sylvia. The novel seems positioned to grapple with this question in the coming chapters as Audrina ostensibly grows older, deals with her sexual feelings for her attractive neighbor while keeping those desires hidden from her violent, sex-obsessed father, and becomes a parent to a child that, according to the text, repulses her. Like so many of the ideas presented by Andrews’s novels, these are questions much greater than those generally tackled by grocery store books buried beneath layers of poorly executed sentences and plot points that seem to get tangled on themselves.

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Megan: Audrina’s struggle with Sylvia and her personal turmoil about being a mother to her new sister raises some very important questions about sisters, in general, and the expectations placed on that relationship. Audrina spends her life living in the shadow of her dead sister and is now presented with a new sister, Sylvia, whose life she is seemingly responsible for shaping. Being a sister means being a best friend, a mother, a nurse, a confidant, and a dictator all at once, and for Audrina, being a “good” sister is inextricably tied up with her notions of what it means to be a good woman. When reading next week’s five chapters, think about the impact of sisterhood in Audrina’s world, and consider how the boundaries of that definition are stretched. Fun! Light summer fare! Catch you next week!

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