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Angels and Insects: Resisting Society’s Perceptions of Femininity Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Feb 24th, 2022

Introduction

“Angels and Insects” depicts a character known as Matilda(Matty), who defies society’s expectations concerning a person of her nature. Likewise, the movie “Ugly Betty” also challenges stereotypes about femininity by curving out a new path for the protagonist – Betty Suarez.

Description of the passage

The passage chosen for analysis occurs before the protagonist – William Adamson – marries the exquisitely beautiful Eugenia during one of their nature trips. This scene involves three key characters; Eugenia, William and Matty. It also had some servants who accompanied Mr. Adamson in his escapade. Shown below is an excerpt of the passage:

“He was aware of the limpid blue eyes resting on him, and felt that behind her delicate frown, she was…. And then felt that his thoughts smutched her, that he was too muddied and dory to think of her, let alone touch at her secret thoughts. He said, “Those floating grasses remind me of the great floating islands.

I used to compare those to Paradise Lost. I thought of the passage where Paradise is cast loose.” Matty Crompton, without lifting her eyes from the stream, provided the quotation “Then shall this mount, of paradise by might of waves….”. “Clever Matty”, Said Eugenia. (Byatt 69)

William was a naturalist who worked for Eugenia’s father. He had a fascination with Eugenia because he thought she was the epitome of femininity. At the time, he barely noticed the other girls that accompanied him in his adventures. Their average looks paled in comparison to Eugenia’s beauty and splendor. However, in this passage, one realizes that there is more to one of the girls than meets the eye.

Matty Crompton was a governess whose social position prevented her from tapping her full potential. She is surprisingly witty and insightfully; even though Eugenia tries to pass this off as irrelevant. After Matty quoted a passage from paradise lost, Eugenia calls her ‘clever’, in a bid to trivialize her accomplishment.

Later on, one appreciates that although Matty lacked the physical appeal that Eugenia had, as well as the right social position, she was the one to watch in this novella. Through Matty’s intelligence, as depicted in the passage, Byatt has challenged stereotypes about the feminine ideal.

‘Ugly Betty’ is a television sitcom that stars Betty Suarez, an editorial assistant working in Mode Magazine. She comes from a loving but financially deprived Mexican family. Betty does not fit into society’s understanding of the feminine ideal. She is unattractive and clumsy. Further, she has no fashion sense, yet she works in a firm that specializes in fashion. At first glance, one may imagine that Betty will buckle to pressure from her workmates to look like they do.

However, she stays true to herself throughout the show; Suarez wears braces, loves brightly-colored, heavy sweaters, and her hair is always frizzy. Through shear hard work and compassion, Betty wins the hearts of her colleagues who eventually look beyond her outward appearance and respect her for her character. This portrayal of the main character challenges stereotypes about femininity.

While Betty may have appeared unattractive to others in her organization, this should not be regarded as the end of her story. The producer of the screenplay wanted to demonstrate that there was more to women than just what society prescribed for them. Even when one’s social status boxed one into an undesirable situation, as was the case with Betty Suarez, she chose to fight back by her commitment and hard work in Mode.

Byatt also wanted to challenge stereotypes about what was permissible and desirable in women through Eugenia and Matty. At first impression, Matty seems to possess very few likeable traits. When Byatt introduces her, she is described as a dark shadow that was both tall and thin. There was nothing dramatic or fancy about her hair; her complexion was ‘dusky’ and her gown was black (Byatt 27). She did not smile or offer any hints of interest when looking at William.

Furthermore, her features were somewhat similar to Adamson’s; as she has a mane of hair (Byatt 9). As if this was not enough, Matty did not care much for niceties. She often moved quickly and decisively, so one would imagine that she was a cynical and negative person (Byatt 96). Even her voice had no exceptional quality to it. In fact, William could not tell the difference between ordinary indifference and cynicism when she talked (Byatt 39).

On the contrary, the author initially describes Eugenia as a white and idealistic female. She was almost as white as the lilies and snow; therefore, it was difficult for William to approach her. In the passage, it became clear that Eugenia was the ideal representation of beauty in Victorian society. She seemed innocent and incorruptible. Nonetheless, as one reads the rest of the narrative, one recognizes that her outward appearance contradicted who she really was.

Eugenia hid a dark secret from William and the rest of her family. After he found out, William realized that the person who he thought was beautiful and innocent, was actually mentally twisted, dark and immoral. Conversely, the bronze governess was perceptive and intelligent. She was the new type of woman in Victorian society. She chose not to be bogged down by her social status or her gender. Matty emerged as the deliverer of the protagonist owing to these qualities.

The characters of Betty Suarez and Matty Crompton are highly related because both women are independent-minded and they take initiative in their lives. Betty came from a poverty-stricken home where her father had immigration-related issues and her mother struggled to provide.

Her workplace was chaotic, demanding and hostile. She could have chosen to throw in the towel and look for a low-wage job where she could fit in. However, Betty decides to fight against these injustices in an uplifting way. She does not play the passive role of modern-day Cinderella, who undergoes a makeover or physical transformation instigated by her colleagues.

Instead, she chooses an unconventional route for success; that is, one that does not require physical appeal. This means that women can curve their own place in life by being independent-minded and daring. In the chosen passage, Matty comes off as a similar character. Not only is she intelligent, but she is not afraid to show this to the world. In the passage, she could have chosen to remain quite when William talked about ‘Paradise Lost’.

However, Matty was bold enough to express herself, even in the presence of the intimidating Eugenia. In subsequent portions of the novel, Matty’s initiative also comes out when she talks to William about Eugenia’s rotten behavior. Instead of waiting for William to notice that she is the better choice, she brings this out by talking about Eugenia’s secret. If it wasn’t for Matty’s intervention, it is likely that William would have stayed married to his wife, and be condemned to a miserable existence.

In ‘Ugly Betty’, the producer wanted the audience to think about the difference between sexuality and humanity. Betty was hired by the President of Mode because of her perceived unattractiveness. Her boss, Daniel Meade, loved flirting with assistants, and this had landed him in a lot of trouble. Therefore, Betty would protect Daniel from future problems because she was sexually neutral. However, as the protagonist works for the editor-in-chief of Mode Magazine, she wants to get recognition as a person.

Her neutral and butch looks probably placed her in a category of people who Daniel never bothered about. Later on, she changes Daniel’s perception about what she is because she ceases being just another worker, and is now a friend. Likewise, the same concept is visible in “Angels and Insects”. In one instance, William compares Matty to a worker ant (Byatt, 129). She is sexless and neutral; even her name represents the matte worker. However, Matty wants William to recognize or see her.

To Matty, it was not only important for him to perceive her as a sexual being but also as a person. She did not want to be just another member of a group. Matty was aware of her unattractiveness, and wanted William to move beyond it. Nonetheless, she did not use conventional methods to achieve her goals, such as changing her dress or physical appearance. She stuck to her intellectual pursuits and thus ended up leaving with William for the Amazon.

Conclusion

The passage portrays an intelligent, spirited and independent-minded woman in the form of Matty. Likewise, the representation of popular culture also resisted society’s perceptions of femininity by proving that women can make it in life even when they lack conventional signs of beauty.

Work Cited

Byatt, A. Angels and insects. NY: Random House. 1995. Print.

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