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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Southern progressives could learn a lesson from Julia Sugarbaker

sugarbaker
Designing Women’s Julia Sugarbaker, played by Dixie Carter.

Sometimes I feel like a lone voice in the wilderness when I write essays in an effort to counter some of negative images of the South that permeate popular culture or to contest the drivel that national journalists churn up in order to take swipes at a region they’ve never visited, much less know.

With the government shutdown, writers from The Nation to Salon to the Washington Post have all pointed their fingers at the South, especially conservative Republicans from the region, the most intransigent of which are members of the Tea Party caucus. Here, they say, the Civil War has not ended.  Here, they say, are nothing but a bunch of “Neo-Confederates.” I’m not suggesting that these journalists don’t have a point to make, but in making it, they are using a fairly broad brush that hits me and other southern progressives like a slap in the face.

This is when I wish I could muster up a rant that would make Julia Sugarbaker proud.  In the 1980s television series Designing Women, Julia Sugarbaker, played so well by the late actress Dixie Carter, knew how to rip someone a new one. In one particular episode, she lashed out at a writer from the New York Times for printing an article about dirt eating in the South.

Today, the articles about dirt eating may have subsided, but the stereotypes of the region remain.  The use of banjo music for television programs, illustrations of the Confederate battle flag for articles about the South, and so on. In one week John T. Edge might write a nice food article for the New York Times that gets all sorts of compliments (southerners do okay when it comes to food), but the next week a comedy-news show (The Daily Show or perhaps Real Time with Bill Maher) will interview a hillbilly type to make a point.

It’s tiresome and I wish Julia Sugarbaker were here to let them all know.