I’m pleased to announce that my book Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture is coming out in paperback. You can pre-order now through UNC Press for the book’s release in August. Fun reading and great for classes!
As Charlotte inches closer to playing its role as host of the 2012 Democratic National Convention (DNC), stories of what makes it a southern city (or not) have been trickling in over the last month. Many of the local news stories, and even stories appearing in other online news outlets, let us know that business owners in the Queen City are actively playing the southern card.
In this case, it usually means using phrases like “southern hospitality” or “southern charm” to describe what’s being sold. As is often the case, these terms are tossed around without considering their historical antecedents in the plantation South. Today, however, such terms are co-opted for purposes of profit, which is more in keeping with Charlotte’s identity as a “New South” city.
So, what does the “southern card” look like?
The Sacramento Bee (among many other news outlets) published the article “Fashion Travel Tips for the South” informing both RNC and DNC delegates what they should wear to their respective conventions. “Whether you’re a first-timer or a convention pro, you may still be new to modern, Southern style,” says Arlene Goldstein, vice president of trend merchandising and fashion direction for Belk stores–headquartered here in Charlotte. Now we know this was a Belk PR piece that was picked up in several news outlets and ties back into the company’s re-branding of itself as the store with “Modern. Southern. Style.” Still, what is “modern, southern style” except brand messaging with a nice ring to it.
Then there’s Charlotte’s SouthPark magazine, which recently published the article “The DNC Means Big Business.” In it, Kelly Koepel, owner of the branding agency that created the Charlotte DNC logo played the southern card this way: “Woven throughout the image is this message: ‘Charlotte is a beautiful, clean city with a high quality of life where you’ll find both the expected comforts of Southern hospitality and exciting evidence of a forward-thinking, can-do Southern culture.’” There’s the hospitality again, with some “can-do” thrown in.
African American business owners are also playing the southern card in ways that may surprise you.
Rhonda Caldwell, owner of The Main Event, was hired to host a party at Rosedale Plantation for delegates from Florida, Mississippi and Alabama. “I’m such a history buff, and I wanted to take the history behind Rosedale Plantation and incorporate it in every detail,” Caldwell exlained. “I wanted to make the guests feel like they were back in time.” Does this mean there will be slave interpreters waiting on folks? It is a plantation, after all.
As she puts it “I think it’s going to be a lot of genteel southern hospitality because we want to show them Charlotte, [in] particular, and North Carolina in general,” adding “People know that they’re stepping back in time and if you look around at the furnishing, there is almost nothing modern here, so you get that feel of southern charm.” Genteel. Southern hospitality. Southern Charm. Stepping back in time. Say what?
I wonder if she considered what “stepping back in time” means for African Americans like herself? As a business owner Fulton is indebted to the southern civil rights movement such that I doubt she really wants to step back in time, because instead of owning the estate she’d be cleaning it. Yet, it’s a savvy business move since most of the delegates to the convention are white, some of whom probably expect to experience a version of “southern hospitality.” (The white reporter added, “no doubt they’ll be saying ‘y’all’ on their [the delegates] way out.” Um, I doubt it.)
Clearly, Charlotte-area businesses believe that playing the southern card is good for their bottom line. Still, as a historian, I know that what people believe is “southern” can cut both ways–and not just the way of hospitality and charm. I’ll be looking at the flip side in a future blog post.
Several of you followed my posts about the ad campaign for Glory Foods in which a woman named Shirley appeared in commercials and on the company website as a mammy-like character coming in to save the day in a white woman’s kitchen. Since that time, the ad campaign developed by the Brandon Agency of South Carolina has proven to be an epic fail–the television ads have been withdrawn and Shirley no longer walks across the company website with that “Lawd, honey” kind of persona that takes you back, WAY BACK, to the Aunt Jemima of old.
Shirley has returned, though, but now in a toned-down version of her former self. Instead of rushing in to help the white woman as she did in the original commercials, Shirley is actually demonstrating recipes in her own kitchen! The production levels of these videos, which are not commercials, suggest that they are clearly done on a smaller budget. This is too bad, because now Shirley is a much more respectable personality. Why didn’t the Brandon Agency (whose entire leadership team is white) show her that respect to begin with? I am left to wonder if it has something to do with the fact that McCall Farms (which now owns Glory Foods) and the Brandon Agency, who represents the company, are both located in South Carolina–probably the least progressive state in the Union when it comes to race. Let’s give them the benefit of a doubt and say that it is unfair to stamp them with the “they’re from South Carolina” stereotype. Then I’m still left to wonder, why? And, why not develop new commercials and give Shirley a second chance, but this time as the respectable woman she is meant to be?
Here’s the new Shirley:
Recently, I wrote about the poorly-conceived marketing campaign for Glory Foods by The Brandon Agency (see: Black Domestic in a Can), a campaign that introduced a new generation to the stereotypical “black woman as mammy,” and reminds us of the Aunt Jemima of old. If this weren’t bad enough, the campaign also works as a critique of white women’s abilities in the kitchen. Miss White Lady, in one Glory Foods commercial, is a frustrated failure until a black woman (known as “Shirley” in radio ads and on the company’s website) shows up to save her in time to impress dinner guests. In another commercial, Miss White Lady also fails to satisfy her bratty children. And once again, she must be saved by the modern day mammy.
Does any of this sound familiar? It should. Fans of The Help will recognize in Shirley two different characters from the book. In one commercial, Shirley is essentially Minnie who rescues the bumbling, naive, and helpless character Celia Foote who cannot cook to save her life. In the second commercial, Shirley is something of a mix between Minnie and Abilene. She’s sassy like Minnie, but like Abilene she also fills the role of surrogate parent–taking charge and getting the children to “eat their vegetables.” Clearly excited about this campaign, Dan Charna, vice president of operations for Glory Foods is quoted as saying, “We hope everyone will invite Shirley into their kitchens via Glory Foods products.” (See, The Businesses Journal, April 11, 2012)
Thank goodness Dan Charna didn’t get his wish. The television campaign for Glory Foods, while it fails to understand the complex history of mammy in the kitchen, also insults white women by suggesting that they can’t cook and need help with their children. As one woman of color suggested in a discussion of these ads on Facebook, “It serves nobody to depict a ‘hapless white woman in the kitchen’ nor a ‘buxom black cook in the kitchen.’ It’s demeaning not only to each race but to women in general.” And from another woman of color, “There are [many] other ways you can sell Glory Foods without the maid/Jemima/mammy aspect. And I fail to believe that only white women are helpless when it comes to soul food.”
So, in sum, the campaign strikes a nerve on issues of both race and gender. And that’s too bad, because if Glory Foods makes a good product–and I have no reason to believe it doesn’t–then why resort to southern stereotypes of both black and white women?
The Latest: Since posting and tweeting about this ad campaign, the Brandon Agency has pulled the ads from television and YouTube, and “Shirley” no longer walks out onto the Glory Foods website to introduce herself. So, what does this mean? Neither the agency nor the company were able to “see” what I and others saw before rolling out this new campaign, and seem caught off guard by the criticism. To its credit, the agency is reassessing the campaign. So, we shall see.
IMPORTANT UPDATE: After tweeting Scott Brandon of the Brandon Agency about these offensive commercials, they have been removed from YouTube. Coincidence? I think Pop South as well as viewer comments must have gotten their attention. (4/19/2012)
I wonder if you have seen these commercials by Glory Foods? It’s a company out of Columbus, Ohio, that specializes in canned goods they call “Southern food with a soulful heritage.” In one, there’s a frustrated white housewife in the kitchen and she’s having trouble in preparing dinner for her guests. What’s she going to do? Not to worry, a black woman (known as “Shirley” on the company’s website) busts through the door to help! As she prepares the food, a can of Glory collard greens, the white woman can relax. Not only does she have a black woman working it out for her in her kitchen, she’s got food that already has its southern seasoning. Even better, Shirley plans to stay hidden in the kitchen as she shouts to the white woman “Now get on out there, and take all the Glory!”
I thought this was an unfortunate commercial, until I saw a second and related commercial. It’s the same white woman, although this time her two children are involved, shouting and banging their forks and knives on the table. Who’s going to rescue Miss White Lady now? You guessed it, the canned black domestic.* She’s going to set those mouthy children straight, make sure they eat their vegetables, and guess who gets to take “all the glory?” Miss White Lady.
I wonder what is going on here, because it looks like Glory Foods is taking its cues from The Help. But this isn’t 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. I went to the website of the company and that’s where I discovered that this is a black-owned business with an African American CEO who has an MBA from Duke University. So what gives?
Who is the company trying to reach with these commercials except, perhaps, all those white women who read The Help and are looking to recapture some of that for themselves? It’s certainly an interesting marketing ploy. Perhaps that is the point. And guess what?
The Brandon Agency, a South Carolina-based advertising agency with offices in Myrtle Beach, Charleston, and even Charlotte, North Carolina are behind the TV commercials. The agency was hired by Glory Foods back in February, which explains why these commercials have recently appeared in Charlotte. Take a look at the agency’s website and you’ll find something very interesting–the entire leadership team is white. That’s right. White “originalists” (the term the agency uses to describe company leaders and probably found in the bottom of a cocktail glass) from South Carolina came up with the Glory Food campaign featuring a modern-day Aunt Jemima.
However, this shouldn’t let Glory Foods off the hook. If this company were run by whites we’d be all over it with this analogy to The Help, which is why I don’t understand why Glory Foods and The Brandon Agency aren’t being called out for perpetuating this particular southern stereotype.
Maybe not enough people have seen these commercials or realize the underlying assumption (or history) of mammy in the kitchen. If they had, they’d be as concerned about this image of black women as I am.
*Thanks to La Shonda Mims for the phrase “canned black domestic.”
Recently, I caused quite a stir among friends on Facebook when I suggested that today people think of the southern belle as a young woman who has blonde hair–in addition to a having a southern drawl and other character traits people associate with someone being a “southern belle.” This discussion was originally prompted by a post I made about an ad that appeared in a local issue of Creative Loafing for the show “The Bachelor.” The ad was to announce the show’s casting call, which read “Calling All Southern Belles.”
What did they mean by that exactly? Should she have a southern drawl? Was she blonde? What sort of stereotype were the producers looking for? Several of us weighed in and there was considerable disagreement among my fellow southerners, especially when I suggested that the current point of view held in pop culture was that a southern belle should be blonde. This certainly didn’t apply to the most popular belle of all time. I mean, Scarlett O’Hara had black hair for crying out loud!
So, I decided to go to the casting call and interview people for their opinions as to the questions “What is a southern belle?” “How would you describe her?” There was general agreement on her traits–many said she was polite, well-mannered, etc. But there was more than one person who responded that a southern belle had blonde hair and blue eyes.
One of the young women I interviewed was actually asked to come in based on a video she submitted to the show. She had the requisite southern drawl and guess what else? Blonde hair and blue eyes.
Perhaps the idea that southern belles have blonde hair and blue eyes is generational or maybe even regional. Most people associate the intangible qualities that make a woman a southern belle–not her physical traits. Yet in popular culture you get a bit of both.
Clearly, the makers of Butterfinger Snakerz think a southern belle has blonde hair, blue eyes, has a southern drawl (no matter how bad) and is even a little stingy.