Barbara Pym's Excellent Women portrays the life and thoughts of a single woman in her 30s named Mildred. Set in 1950s England, this novel depicts the societal views of women who live in discordance with the patriarchal expectation that they should permanently attach themselves to a man in marriage. Pinning Mildred's independent existence against the lives of married women, Pym brings into question the cultural values that have traditionally been based on marriage. This novel accentuates the differences that society sees between married and single women, especially pertaining to use of makeup in female competition for mates. The women in Pym's story are often competing to attract male attention, which is accentuated by wearing makeup to make themselves look more attractive to the men in society. This female competition, which is perpetuated through patriarchal expectations, can easily be seen in a ladies' restroom. Though a women's bathroom is often considered a place of sanctuary where women can go for privacy to get away from the public, masculine eye, the two bathroom scenes in Excellent Women suggest that the ubiquitous male gaze is so powerful that it even has the ability to penetrate into this private female space.
The first instance in which Mildred goes into a public restroom is after she and her friend Dora go to a school reunion and then run into a Wren officer who tells them about Rocky's infidelity while he was in Italy. After hearing about his disloyalty to his wife, Dora says to Mildred that they have "had a lucky escape" (Pym 114). By not submitting to the patriarchal expectation to marry, they have avoided having to deal with a cheating husband, but they have also missed out on all of the good things that can come with love and marriage. As Mildred asks herself, "would we have escaped, any of us, if we had been given the opportunity to do otherwise?," she points out that maybe the only reason anyone would remain single is because they never had a choice in the matter (114-115). Mildred does not say this out loud, however, but instead replies "perhaps it's better to be unhappy than not to feel anything at all" (115). Dora reacts to this statement with a look of surprise on her face, but all she says is that she wants to go to the restroom. Though Mildred "did not really want to go" to the Ladies' room, she goes with Dora anyway. Once there, Mildred sees this private female space as "a sobering kind of place to be in" (115). Looking in the "dusty ill-lit mirror," all she can think about is the importance of appearance in finding a husband (115). She says that this one "glance at [her] face . . . was enough to discourage anybody's romantic thoughts (115). This supposed sanctuary for women only brings Mildred to think that no one would find her attractive, which is how she manages to "escape" marriage (114-115). Men become omnipresent in the women's bathroom by being the focal point of the female mind and, thus, thoroughly penetrate into the woman's private sphere.
A second scene in the novel that takes place in the Ladies' restroom occurs immediately after Mildred purchases Hawaiian Fire lipstick. She buys this lipstick after having lunch with the beautiful Allegra Gray, who tells Mildred that she is going to marry Father Julian Mallory. Brought into female competition over mates, Mildred only purchases this makeup in order to feel like she is playing her part as an attractive woman who wants to find a man to marry. Once in the Ladies' room, this idea of women competing over men is further exacerbated. Mildred emphasizes for a second time that restrooms are "a sobering sight" and she is reminded of her "own mortality" (Pym 131). Most of the women that she sees here are looking into mirrors and "working at their faces with savage concentration" (131). There is no doubt that these women have men on their minds, since they are applying makeup as one expectantly would to attract a mate. They are so focused on this task that Mildred refers to it as being "savage," which implies that the women are brought down to simple animalistic urges to push forward evolution (131). According to some evolutionary theories, women use their attractiveness to compete for mates and, since makeup is supposed to make a woman more attractive, these females are only trying to get ahead in the game of reproduction. In order to produce offspring, a woman needs a man to contribute sperm, suggesting that the male gaze is reflected in the mirrors that these females are looking into.
Mildred explains that the women in the restroom are "biting and licking their lips, stabbing at their noses and chins with powder-puffs" (Pym 131). While applying makeup, the women are seen as violently attacking their own faces. By "biting" and "stabbing" themselves in order to attract a man's attention, Pym emphasizes that the women are essentially mutilating themselves for marriage (131). Covering their faces with caked on makeup masks who these females really are as individuals and accentuates their willingness to change who they are as people to go along with the societal expectation to marry. Not only violent towards themselves, the women in the bathroom are also fighting with each other. Though they may not be physically combating, they are mentally competing with the other females by their use of makeup. Determined to attract a man to marry, the ladies applying makeup are giving into patriarchy. Mildred, too, is submitting to this male dominance by purchasing the Hawaiian Fire lipstick and then going into the restroom with the other women. She is aware of the female competition that this makeup use implies, however, because she notices that "some" of the women "had abandoned the struggle to keep up" (131). By referring to this restroom scene as a "struggle," Pym implies that the perpetual drive to make oneself look good just to get a man is essentially a constant fight with nature, as well as a battle between females (131). The ladies in the bathroom that had given up applying makeup had also given up trying to compete with the other women for male attention. These women were left worn out and defeated with "their bodies slumped down" on the restroom furniture (131). Being in the public restroom makes Mildred feel shy and embarrassed for being a part of this fight to win a husband, as she "tiptoe[s]" past an extremely worn out woman who may have fallen asleep from exhaustion (131). She realizes that women are pushing themselves to extreme measures in order to play the part that society has planned out for them and gain the marital title of wife. The ladies' restroom is a "sobering sight" because it is a place where women blatantly display their submission to patriarchal society, which exacerbates the permanent male presence inside this private female space, as the male gaze is a constant focus of the female mind (131).
Though a bathroom is supposed to be a private place away from men, Mildred's experiences in public restrooms suggest that this privacy is virtually unobtainable. As the women peer into bathroom mirrors, they are not only seeing themselves, but also a reflection of the omnipresent male gaze. Females looking into mirrors are prone to judge their own attractiveness according to male standards of beauty. By using makeup, the women are attempting to make themselves more attractive so that they can get men to marry them. This self-masking for beauty also displays female competition for mates. Mildred sees the women in the restroom applying their makeup in a violent fashion in attempt to get a man's attention. Those in the ladies' room that cannot "keep up" with the others due to exhaustion are defeated in the fight to attract a husband (Pym 131). Men are always on these women's minds, as the ladies continue to "struggle" with their own attractiveness and fight against each other for a male to marry (131). Being in the restroom, Mildred is "sober[ed]" by the "sight" of these females because they are continually viewing themselves through the male gaze (115, 131). By being in the women's minds and, therefore, reflected in their mirrors, men gain a constant presence in the privacy of the Ladies' room.
Pym, Barbara. Excellent Women. 1952. The Penguin Group: Plume, 1978.