For Whom The (Southern) Belle Tolls

The true southern belle from GWTW was Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, played by Olivia deHavilland
The true southern belle from GWTW was Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, played by Olivia deHavilland

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.

Debutantes in Charlotte, NC, 1951.
Debutantes in Charlotte, NC, 1951.

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.

Delta Burke's Suzanne Sugarbaker offered a modern take on southern belle
Delta Burke’s Suzanne Sugarbaker offered a modern take on southern belle

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.

Real Housewife of Atlanta Phaedra claims the title of southern belle, too.
Real Housewife of Atlanta Phaedra claims the title of southern belle, too.
Layla LaRue, drag performer from Texas.
Layla LaRue, drag performer from Texas.

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.

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DNC Watch: Charlotte Businesses Play the Southern Card

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.

During the early part of the 20th century the musicians of Tin Pan Alley, many of them Jewish immigrants, wrote reams of sheet music about the South. The cover art lets you know exactly what is meant by “That Southern Hospitality.”

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.

The DNC logo that Kelli Koepel describes, in part, as showing off Charlotte’s “southern hospitality.”

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, is hosting a plantation party for DNC delegates from southern states. Photo credit: The Charlotte Observer

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.

Local television station WCNC recently showcased another African American business owner in the news feature “Southern charm on Display at delegate welcome party,” focusing on a venue in the city they claimed “oozes southern charm.”  The Wadsworth Estate in Wesley Heights will be hosting a party for the DNC.  Historically, ideas of “southern charm” and “southern hospitality” have been associated with well-to-do white women–quintessential southern belles.  Yet, the Wadsworth estate is owned by a black woman, Shirley Fulton, and even she is playing up the southern card of old.

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.

Dear Jon: Let’s Talk “The South” when you’re in Charlotte

If you’re breathing, there’s a good chance you know that Charlotte, North Carolina, is hosting the Democratic National Convention (DNC).  This is an exciting time for the Queen City as we play host to conventioneers, politicians, and journalists.  There will also be a lot of kvetching over traffic and street closures, but I for one am very thrilled to see that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart will be setting up shop at Imaginon, home to the city’s Children’s Theatre and Library.

In fact, I’d really like to be on the show to discuss the media and its southern stereotypes.  I’ve written about it before here on Pop South (See posts on DNC Announcement and the one on Martin Bashir over at MSNBC), and I’m certainly scouting out other journalistic blunders on this score, but right now I am waging a campaign to be a guest on the Daily Show to talk about the subject.  And why not?  The Daily Show has numerous reports that have been tagged “the South.”  The earliest one, on Strom Thurmond, dates to 1999.  And the most recent?  On Chick fil A, of course.  I suppose the region is a gift that keeps on giving, as seen in the report on “Tarred Heels” (below), which led Jon Stewart to conclude that North Carolina is the Democrat’s “South Carolina.”  Ouch!

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Tarred Heels
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook
Tarred Heels (watch video above)

So, Jon, if you’re listening, I’ve got a book on the topic of the South in popular culture, this here blog, and hell, I’ve even written an op-ed for the New York Times. I’m also a fan of the show, if that helps.  And, I’d love to talk “the South” with you while you’re in Charlotte.

Pop South readers: Join me in my campaign and tweet to get @Sassyprof on the air.  Tweet this message:  Give @Sassyprof a guest slot to discuss the South and the media @TheDailyShow #CharlotteDNC

The DNC and the National Media—Bringing Southern Stereotypes to a City Near You

 

As we get closer to the kickoff for the Democratic National Convention, I thought it would worthwhile to repost a blog I wrote in February 2011 when it was first announced that Charlotte, North Carolina, would host the convention.  Look for more DNC-related posts in the near future.  Here’s the link to that post:

The DNC and the National Media—Bringing Southern Stereotypes to a City Near You.