Next week I’ll be giving the annual Low Lecture, co-sponsored by the Department of History, at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. The good people there made this nice poster to accompany the talk.
It seems fitting that after posting a blog about pop culture’s southern gentleman that I should talk about his counterpart, the southern belle. What follows is an edited version of an early blog I wrote for another site.
A few years ago TLC, the channel that still airs Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, brought us a show called Bama Belles. It seems unlikely that “belle” is an appellation anyone would apply to women who don camouflage to hunt or are ready to start a bar fight. Still, the conscious decision by the show’s producers to make “belles” part of the show’s title offers an opportunity to consider the evolution of the term that is now used to describe the women on this show. (Update: Bama Belles was cancelled after only a few episodes.)
“Belle” was originally applied to white women of the southern planter class and a woman who was classified as such was as much a creation of antebellum sentimental literature as she was real. During the nineteenth century, authors North and South placed her at the center of the plantation legend and idealized her as one who was as delicate as she was strong, and as feminine as she was a dominant figure of the plantation. Novelists and playwrights of the twentieth century, too, have made the southern belle central characters in their narratives. The most famous of these was Scarlett O’Hara, the protagonist in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 epic Gone with the Wind. Scarlett, however, was more modern than her predecessors, which is one of the reasons women around the world found her appealing.
Mid-twentieth-century southern debutantes also donned the title of “belle.” No longer plantation mistresses, these belles were still members of the South’s white social elite. For its July 9, 1951 issue, Life magazine featured Charlotte, North Carolina, debutantes with the caption that they looked “as gracious as any ante-bellum belles,” a clear reference to their Old South antecedents. Being a debutante or a pageant queen has often qualified southern women as belles, and no fewer than a dozen southern contestants were crowned Miss America between the 1950 and 1980, which in its own way helped to perpetuate the image of southern women as belles. Then, in the 1980s, debutante and pageant queen came together in Delta Burke’s portrayal of Suzanne Sugarbaker on television’s Designing Women.
Over the last several years the term has been partially stripped of its “whites only” racial affiliation, illustrating how the term has evolved. Some years ago, I was having a conversation with someone who referred to the students at Bennett College (a private, historically black liberal arts college for women in Greensboro, North Carolina) as “belles.” Their student handbook is known as the “Bennett Belle Book,” their email is “Bellesmail,” and campus updates come in the form of “Belle Alerts.” Admittedly, it was the first time I had heard the term applied to black women, but it made sense given the socially elite dimensions of the term. It certainly applied to the fictional character Whitley Gilbert, an African American southern belle played by Jasmine Guy on the show A Different World (1987-1993) in a sitcom based on the fictional Hillman College. The tradition of the black southern belle continues with the most recent addition to the cast of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, attorney Phaedra Parks. She, too, is a self-proclaimed southern belle. On the one hand she is modern in her approach to “belledom,” and yet she has more traditional belle credentials, such as her participation in beauty pageants and her membership in Atlanta’s Junior League.
Some folks might be surprised that men, too, can be belles. Throughout the South they exist in the form of female impersonators. In fact, there are numerous regional pageants whose competitions are just as fierce as those held for women. I served as a guest judge for at least two such pageants in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, including one for “Miss Dixie,” and can vouch for the seriousness of the contestants to offer their best impression of the southern belle.
The one feature of the southern belle that seems to have remained consistent over time—regardless of race, class, or gender—is that it is largely a social performance.
Given that, the belle clearly tolls for anyone who’s interested in the part.
I love The Daily Show, I really do. But when it comes to segments about the South, they often do a piss poor job of it. The latest example came from correspondent Al Madrigal who did a story on the dispute between Georgia and Tennessee regarding state borders and the water supply. (Watch the segment here.)
Georgia essentially wants and needs access to the water provided by the Tennessee River, and in typical Daily Show fashion, the actual story was less important than Madrigal’s effort to highlight the stupidity of local officials. This is nothing new, because the show’s correspondents are often satirizing politicians. Where it fails is in its pitiful attempt to poke fun at the South, which can be done, but with more intelligence.
Instead, it’s so lame, it’s as if the writers dialed this one in. Want to discuss the South? Incorporate banjo music and, these days, mention Honey Boo Boo. Want to suggest that rural southerners are inbred? Incorporate a clip from Deliverance. Need to establish that people are ignorant? Mock their accents to their face or include “man on the street” interviews with people who fit the stereotype. It was on this last point where The Daily Show showed its hand, because it was clear to anyone with a keen eye that a couple of those interviews were plants, what I’ll call “hicks for hire”.
First, there were the two men in camouflage: one held a shotgun, while his friend offered a bug-eyed look. These two were obviously playing to the camera. Second, there was the guy who had mutton chop sideburns, slicked back hair, and sunglasses circa-1970s Elvis. The tip off that this guy was playing to the camera was his Unknown Hinson t-shirt. While the studio audience in New York was laughing at this guy, I knew that he was saying things Al Madrigal needed to pull the piece off. And he was probably having his own laugh at Madrigal’s expense. Like Unknown Hinson, he was portraying a character. Everything he said played to stereotype on purpose.
So, suffice it to say, I’m disappointed with The Daily Show’s latest attempt at satirizing the South. As usual, the writers relied on worn out tropes about the South and not only was it not amusing, it wasn’t even funny.
The guys with the beards are back. On reality television that is. Duck Dynasty’s new season premiered last night and its legions of fans tuned in to see the latest happenings in the Robertson family, especially those of the hirsute men of the clan.
Duck Dynasty has become the most successful of the reality shows set in the South. It’s part of what I like to call the “Louisiana genre” of reality TV that includes other successful show like Swamp People and Billy the Exterminator. Though let’s not forget the lesser known Cajun Pawn or Cajun Justice.
What makes Duck Dynasty different, for me at least, is that the guys with beards are nobody’s fool. So much of southern-based reality TV seems geared toward stereotyping people from the region. Very often they are placed in ridiculous situations for comedic effect and their speech is accompanied by subtitles. This is most famously the case with the Thompson Family in Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Not so with Duck Dynasty.
One gets the impression that Willie and the boys are very much in control of their show and while there’s humor, it’s the kind where we can laugh with them and not at them. Uncle Si might be the one in the family who’s picked on, but “hey,” he and the rest are in on the joke. Moreover, the show about these self-made millionaires, whose company Duck Commander makes duck calls among other products, seems more like a strategic move on the family’s part to further their brand. And it’s worked like a charm.
Now the brand includes the show itself. The success of Duck Dynasty has resulted in sales of all sorts of items that have less to do with duck calls and more to do with the family’s keen marketing sense. Products range from bobble heads of father Phil and his sons Willie and Jase to shirts and coffee mugs with Phil’s saying “Happy, Happy, Happy,” to images of Uncle Si and his catch phrase “Hey!” printed on t-shirts. The Robertson women are also in on the boondoggle with products of their own.
One of the reasons I enjoy the show is that I can see that the Robertsons are very grounded, self-aware, and clearly wise to the ways of the world. When their fame dissipates, they will still be doing well financially. Unfortunately, this is the exception to the rule when it comes to southern-based reality TV. True, many of those stars may temporarily be enjoying some windfall, but they are not as savvy as the beards. And that’s too bad.
This is an excellent guest post by Abigail Gautreau for Katie Stringer’s blog entitled “Something Old, Something New.” I suggest you read it and reconsider your views on Honey Boo Boo and the Thompson Family. Thanks, Pop South