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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Being Gay in the South–Uncle Poodle Is Beside the Point

I wish to take a few minutes, in the spirit of civility, to respond to Jonathan Capehart’s Washington Post columns (in spite of the condescension and the personal barbs) which have taken aim at my New York Times op-ed “We’re Here, We’re Queer, Y’all.”  For the record, the idea of using Uncle Poodle’s appearance on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo as a hook (not an argument) was not my own, but that of an editor. The real argument was based on my own personal experience.  I could have shared dozens of stories, because as he learned from my friend Helen, both she and I and all the other gays and lesbians I know living in the South are indeed consequential and not because we were or were not raised in an urban environment.  I made it clear in my editorial that there was a real limit to acceptance in the region.  The point was that being gay in the South should not be seen in black or white, all or nothing, because there are clearly shades of grey.

What I saw coming out of Capehart’s columns and also some messages I received was a disagreement with me for countering the narrative about the South as a cold, angry, place where gay people could not possibly want to live and would set out for New York, DC or San Francisco as soon as they got the chance.  Some of them surely have, but many others have not.  And the decision to leave may have to do with the limits of acceptance, and maybe not. Perhaps they simply want to experience a different part of the country. The decision to stay, however, is often (in my personal experience) that they don’t want to leave their families or communities.  If they leave the small town South, they often move to larger cities in the South.  New Orleans, Dallas, Atlanta, even Charlotte.

As this map shows, New Jersey had the highest hate crime rate in the nation in 2008–more than any other southern state, including Texas. For more recent statistics from the FBI see: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/hate-crime/2010/tables/table-12-agency-hate-crime-reporting-by-state-2010.xls

Capehart used the case of the gay Texas couple who was recently harassed by the local minister and received threatening messages from his followers to make his point “that this says more about the South than ‘Uncle Poodle’ ever will.” Really?  Is this a southern phenomenon?  To read his piece, you’d think it is.  I know that it was timely in that it fit his argument, but hate crimes take place in the urban North (New York, DC, Minneapolis, etc) that don’t receive nearly the same amount of media attention. Yet when it takes place in the South, the national media makes hay of it, because it supports the narrative of a sinister South where such things must only happen here.  This does not mean that I don’t condemn what happened to the couple in Texas because I absolutely do.

The Uncle Poodle reference–again, an editorial decision–was used because of it’s pop culture relevance, but is beside the point.  I have lived a very rich and wonderful life in the South and wouldn’t choose to leave.  Has it always been easy? No, but I could have said this had I been raised in another region of the country.  Are there problems still? Yes, and here in my own state of North Carolina I voted against the marriage amendment and will support Equality NC in its efforts to derail it. I’d also have to do this in several other states, not all of which are in the South.  However, neither that amendment nor a hateful evangelical minister (there is one who proselytizes in the free speech zone on the campus of UNCC with some regularity) is enough to make me flee because this is my home.

In the end, and despite the criticism, I am pleased that my editorial ignited a conversation about the South as a place where LGBT people can and do live happily, work, and have families, etc. because it’s a much more complicated and nuanced region than it’s given credit for being.