I’ve written about RuPaul’s Drag Race here before, exploring the fabulosity that drag queens from the South bring to the larger drag world. Southern queens are pros at drag performance, because they’ve often had great role models in straight southern women who also love big hair, wear tons of makeup, and compete in pageants.
Both are talented performers in their own right (Kennedy Davenport was a contestant on America’s Got Talent), but I live for the unadulterated comments they make during interviews out of drag. It’s very often the humor, or simply a turn of phrase, that fellow southerners who enjoy drag instinctively get.
I’m biased, but I believe the southern queens on RPDR are often the most talented, funniest, and polished. Last year’s winner, Bianca Del Rio, hails from New Orleans. One of the most popular contestants from the show has been Alyssa Edwards, also from Texas. And she didn’t even win the contest!
Regardless of who becomes the next Drag Superstar, we all win when southern queens are in the mix.
Note: All told, there are actually four southern queens. Violet Chachki, is from Atlanta but does not present herself as “southern.” Jaidynn Diore Fierce, is also on the show. She hails from Nashville, Tennessee.
During the 1970s, The Dukes of Hazzard was one of the most popular shows on American television, and while Bo and Luke Duke (played by John Schneider and Tom Wopat, respectively) were technically the stars of the show, the real star was their car. The 1969 orange Dodge Charger sped through the back roads of Georgia, leaping over hay bales, creeks, or other cars, nearly always getting “the boys” out of a jam. It was one of the most iconic vehicles ever to hit the small screen and its name was “the General Lee,” a nod to the most beloved of white Southern heroes, Robert E. Lee. And emblazoned on the roof was a large Confederate battle flag.
Well, no more.
In a new commercial for Autotrader.com, the “Duke boys” are back and so is their car. They are driving the hell out of that Dodge Charger to escape “the law,” but the car can’t seem to outrun these new police vehicles, so Luke pulls out his phone to search for a newer, faster, car on Autotrader.com.
But something is obviously missing. The “General Lee” has been stripped of its battle flag–at least the camera doesn’t allow you to see it. And the commercial lets us know that Autotrader ad execs also know that even while they wanted to use such an iconic car to advertise their business, that flag is a divisive symbol.
Who is their target audience for this commercial? According to an article on Bulldog Reporter, a website for public relations professionals, the commercial uses nostalgia to draw in people who, when they were kids, were tuned into The Dukes of Hazzard. I get that. They are also targeting consumers who like muscle cars. I get that, too. Yet, the article says nothing about the absence of the flag, which they’d just as soon not draw attention to.
In a separate Autotrader article, the writer tells the story of a how former NBA player, Jalen Rose, owned one of the many “General Lee” cars that exist. Rose, an African American, planned to sell the car at auction. As the article points out, he removed the flag “for obvious reasons.” It seems as though Autotrader doesn’t really want to discuss what those reasons are although, to save face, it does want you to know that at least one black man owned one of these cars.
So, we might think Autotrader was smart enough not to allow its brand to be tarnished by the battle flag, but has the company really fooled anyone?
Just as the car is associated with the television show, the battle flag is associated with the car–as well as having some unsavory historical ties to slavery and segregation. Fans of the show are unlikely to appreciate that the flag is hidden from view, while those who know its place in pop culture–and history–recognize that it’s gone missing.
I enjoy a good drag performance and southern queens are among the best. Some of the best-known drag performers in the U.S. are from the South. RuPaul (Atlanta, GA), Lady Bunny (Chattanooga, TN), and Lypsinka (Hazlehurst, MS) hold celebrity status in the world of drag. RuPaul achieved superstar status in the mid-1990s with his hit song “Supermodel (of the World)” and a short-lived talk show on VH1. He is once again riding high with RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Drag Race has featured many a southern drag queen in its competition to find “America’s next drag superstar” and this year is no exception. In fact, Bianca Del Rio (Roy Haylock), the winner of this year’s competition hails from New Orleans, but currently lives in New York (or better yet, hotel rooms since she is now performing around the country and out of it, too.)
I attended my very first drag show in 1990 in Greensboro, North Carolina, at the now defunct, but long-lived club known as The Palms. I was quite nervous about it and I learned my first lesson in drag shows–do not sit near the stage or you’ll likely be drawn into the performance. In my case, I sat at a table near the dance floor and before I knew it a very tall and plus-sized performer, who was offering her illusion of Madonna (circa Blonde Ambition Tour), walked over and grabbed one of my hands and placed it on one of her–cough, cough–cones. As nervous as I was about that interaction, needless to say, I was henceforth hooked on drag–especially southern drag performance.
I went back to The Palms after that and saw drag illusions of Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, and Dolly Parton–gay icons all–who were staples in the pantheon of southern drag performance. (Dolly still is.) When I moved to Mississippi a year after the cone incident, I became familiar with an entire world of drag performers with names like Misty Love, Rose Petal, Deli Delmonte, and Katrina Del Ray. I even judged a couple of pageants, including Miss Dixie and Miss Sweetheart.
Drag pageants in the South mirror beauty pageants for those born biologically female. There’s usually a talent portion, an evening gown competition, and even a question round. The effort and money put into drag performance (and especially the pageants) is really impressive, especially when you consider that many a young queen I met in Hattiesburg, MS, was working a minimum wage job or might have been a struggling college student.
Drag, of course, isn’t just about pageants, but it IS always about performance and I’ve always appreciated the talent that goes into it. Southern drag has changed a lot since I first went to a show. Today, you will see all kinds of drag performance (comedy, goth and celebrity illusion) and I enjoy the variety that’s out there, but I will always have a soft spot for the pageant girls. They are the gift that keeps on giving.
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 showA 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.
This winter Atlanta, (and the South more broadly), got skewered in the media when a snowfall of just two inches snarled traffic on the interstate highways that cut through the heart of the city, causing several hundred people to abandon their cars and walk home, in some cases, for several miles. Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update covered the news story in classic SNL style by having “Atlanta resident” and storm survivor “Buford Calloway” offer a firsthand account.
The character of Buford Calloway is one in a long line of southern gentleman and a central figure in the pop culture pantheon of southern icons who make up the plantation legend. The southern gentleman, in fact, has a history in popular culture that extends well into the antebellum period. One of the earliest descriptions of the southern gentleman can be found in John Pendleton Kennedy’s book Swallow Barn (1832), who appears in the character of Frank Meriwether, a 45 year-old Virginia planter. Kennedy introduces him this way:
“Good cheer and a good temper both tell well upon him. The first has given him a comfortable full figure, and the latter certain easy, contemplative habits, that incline him to be lazy and philosophical. He has the substantial planter look that belongs to a gentleman who lives on his estate, and is not much vexed with the crosses of life.”
The southern gentleman has long been seen as an insular man who doesn’t venture far beyond his homeland (the South) or, in the case of Frank Meriwether, his estate. He is well-read and attentive to his personal appearance, but he’s not really a man’s man. He’s a tad soft, because he owns the land and doesn’t work it. You can see hints of these character traits in SNL’s Buford Calloway. He clearly doesn’t venture beyond Georgia, or even Atlanta, and lumps South Carolina in with “the North.” And, he’s a well-groomed fellow who not only doesn’t appear to engage in manual labor, he likely gets manicures.
A century after Americans were introduced to Frank Meriwether, the southern gentleman of popular culture had changed very little. He made regular appearances in films of the 1930s. He was Duncan Bedford (played by Randolph Scott) in “So Red the Rose,” Herbert Cary (played by John Boles) in “The Littlest Rebel,” and Preston Dillard (played by Henry Fonda) in “Jezebel.” More than anyone, he was Ashley Wilkes who Leslie Howard brought to life in “Gone with the Wind.” (Sorry ladies, Rhett Butler was not a gentleman.) More recently, Tom Hanks offered his interpretation in 2004’s “The Ladykillers,” a Coen Brothers remake of the 1955 film set in London, as Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr.
The southern gentleman has also been used as an advertising icon, most often for the sale of Kentucky bourbon, but also beer. There’s even a southern gentleman “costume” that can be purchased for special occasions.
What’s notable, of course, is that there’s nothing modern about the southern gentleman. At least not in popular culture. He’s still a character of the Old South. He has a mustache and goatee. He probably drinks bourbon. He may even dress like he’s still wedded to the land of his ancestors.
He’s Buford Calloway. The only difference is Buford’s modern suit of clothes.
When I first wrote about the South in reality television a few years ago, it seemed like a disturbing trend that would hopefully die a quick death. But no. Today, the reality shows that exploit the region have expanded from a trickle to a flood. And even within this genre of programming there are state “franchises,” so to speak, with Louisiana being the best example. Nearly every state in the region has served as a backdrop for a reality-based show, but not all. South Carolina? It’s your turn.
The state usually takes it on the chin for its conservative politics, or more pointedly, conservative politicians who draw the wrong kind of media attention. Think of former governor Mark Sanford’s tearful display of love for his mistress after he went “hiking on the Appalachian Trail.” Or of Joe “You Lie!” Wilson. Even the Democratic Party was put to shame when Alvin Green–an unemployed veteran indicted for showing pornographic pictures to a female student at USC–became the party’s candidate for Senate. And on it goes.
This spring, however, South Carolina is being showcased in two new reality shows, making this a total of three for the Palmetto State. It is already the site of TLC’s Myrtle Manor, a show that covers the hijinks of people who live in a trailer park in Myrtle Beach. But, I digress. The new shows include CMT’s “Party Down South,” filmed in Murrells Inlet (near Myrtle Beach), and Bravo’s “Southern Charm,” featuring a group of poorly-behaved Charleston socialites, a show locals have condemned to no avail. Hint: there’s nothing charming about this bunch.
“Southern Charm” will be out in a couple of months, but “Party Down South” (PDS) has already cranked up. The show is produced by SallyAnn Salsano, who is the “mastermind” behind MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” and it does what MTV’s “Buckwild” couldn’t manage to do, which was to create a southern equivalent with characters like Snooki and the Situation.
The gist of the show is that the cast (most of whom hail from Deep South states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama) is staying at a rented house near the beach, where they share bedrooms, go to bars nearly every night, get drunk (a lot), fight (this goes with drinking), have sex, eat meals together “like a family,” have a “job” by the marina, and show their collective asses. Sound familiar?
So what is southern about the show? Essentially, the setting, the accents, colloquialisms (“pop a squat,” “cooter,” and “coon ass”) and some good ol’ redneck fun, which usually involves trucks and mud.
CMT has become the primary network for redneck television and “Party Down South” is one in a long line of shows that hit the same tired notes of southern-based reality television. The formula involves working-class southerners, in this case young ones, as imbeciles willing to do anything for a little cash and attention. Being on the show is likely going to be the biggest thing to ever happen to them, and producers know it. No doubt there were several hundred “hopefuls” who wanted to be on the show.
The thing is, I knew people like this in high school. Girls that drank too much and got into fights. Guys that would do anything for a laugh. Many of my classmates may have found them amusing in the moment, but they also felt embarrassed for them. The difference today is that the cast of PDS may never be able to escape their immature past, because it is forever preserved on film and has been shared with millions.
CMT and SallyAnn Salsano are the real winners here, as the network may boost its youth demographic and Salsano her financial portfolio. The losers, of course, are South Carolina and this cast.
Bravo promises a different group of southerners in its series “Southern Charm,” but don’t expect much different from what’s on over at CMT.
You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.