Reese Witherspoon and the Fallibility of the Southern Woman as “America’s Sweetheart”

Celebrity culture is an interesting phenomenon.  We come to know a celebrity’s public persona and many people assume they “know” the person.  And in some cases, the celebrity assumes that “the people” know him or her.

Reese Witherspoon's "sweet" mugshot.
Reese Witherspoon‘s “sweet” mugshot.

Enter Reese Witherspoon, or better yet a drunk Reese Witherspoon, whose celebrity persona is “America’s sweetheart.”  Except that this past week the nation learned something about her true personality when, while driving in Atlanta, her husband James Toth was pulled over and arrested for drunk driving.  She was in the passenger seat and instead of keeping calm and letting the officers do their job she got out of the car to announce to the officer “Do you know my name?” This was followed by “You’re about to find out. . .”  Blah, blah, I’m an entitled Hollywood actress who should get special treatment and I have lawyers.  Um, Reese, this is being videotaped.

Since this is a blog about the South, I wonder why it is that southern women often get the title of “America’s sweetheart?” We’ve had Mary Lou Retton (West Virginia), Julia Roberts (Georgia), Taylor Swift (from rural Pennsylvania–also known as North Alabama–and in country music she might as well be from the South), Britney Spears (Louisiana) and Reese Witherspoon (Tennessee). There have also been a number of beauty queens from the South who’ve won Miss America.

After shaving her head, Britney Spears had this "umbrella incident."
After shaving her head, Britney Spears had this “umbrella incident.”

I have a theory that white southern women who supposedly exhibit a certain feminine innocence and charm, not unlike the southern belles of old, are still held up as models of femininity for the nation.  Even if their private behavior isn’t innocent, very often their public personas suggest that they are well-behaved, models of traditional womanhood.  So, when they show their human frailties (Britney Spears) or that they aren’t sweet at all (Reese Witherspoon) it seems like they’ve taken a big tumble from their pedestals.  Except they shouldn’t have been placed there to begin with. It’s a precarious perch and they were bound to fall.

It is inherently problematic to assign southern women the title of “America’s sweetheart.” Southern women are not the mythic creatures of traditional femininity, nor do they embody the behavior that Americans and the media continue to portray them as having.  They are, like other American women, fallible human beings who can sometimes behave poorly.