The Ideal Southern Girl
What comprised the image of an ideal girl during the 1930’s? Well, it was definitely not pants, misbehavior, and “improper” language. No, the ideal girl was one who wore skirts, and dresses; it was one who was polite and had manners. During the 1930’s, girls and women had to live their lives based on the expectations the community had for how they dressed, the language they used, and the activities they did. Even though, the 1930’s was a decade of evolution for many women after gaining the ability to vote in the 1920’s, many of these customs were still present and are quite evident in Harper Lee’s masterpiece, To Kill A Mockingbird.
Scout, the protagonist of To Kill A Mockingbird, is presented as a girl with a tomboyish behavior. She gets into fights, is misbehaved, and doesn’t use language considered proper for a girl. It was expected that girls would play with baby dolls and bridal dolls; that they had tea and dress-up parties. It was seen improper for them to participate in rough games, something that Scout is very much involved in.
In the book, The Charm of Fine Manners written by Helen Ekin Starrett, the expectation for girls in the South are quite evident. The behavior of girls and women were seen as obnoxious and disagreeable if they demonstrated forwardness, boldness, and pertness; if they spoke loudly, and expressed their opinions towards everything with lot’s of self confidence. These rare girls would usually attract lot’s of attention and disgust from the society, something that might happen to Scout due to her self confidence while expressing her opinions, and bold behavior.
Furthermore, in an interview that took place in 1993, three women talked about their childhood, and their experience of growing up on the south of the United States in the 1930’s. They were asked if they remembered a special dress code for little girls, and most of them responded to that question referring to the use of trousers (jeans) in comparison to the use of dresses. Mary Ann, one of the three women interviewed said, “We were definitely not allowed to wear pants to school.” Adding on to that, Cecil, another of the women interviewed, stated that wearing blue jeans was seen as informal, and represented poor taste, especially when worn by a girl. In addition, they also discussed about the importance of footwear, and how they weren’t allowed to go barefoot anywhere, since that was seen as pitiful.
In the interview the importance of proper language was also discussed. The three women were asked if there was a special code of behavior for little girls who were expected to grow up to be southern ladies. They immediately answered that girls weren’t supposed to fight or resort to violence while boys could, instead, they were supposed to solve their issues with speech. As well, they were never allowed to use coarse words, and in order to do that they were never allowed to hear them, and most of them never did until they were full grown adults.
The gender norms established during the 1930’s set up expectations for how girls and women dressed, the language they used, and how they behaved. Scout, the protagonist of To Kill A Mockingbird, challenges these norms with her bold attitude, how she dresses, and how she speaks. As a result, this makes me wonder how will her behavior be seen by the small town she lives in, and how might this affect her identity.