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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Honey Boo Boo and the Country Ghetto

After watching the first two weeks of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” the tragic comedy reality show on TLC, it’s clear that some “hixploitation” is going on at the network.  The cast of characters–at the center of which are Mama June and her pageant queen daughter Alana–are what you might call “country ghetto.”  They rattle off phrases (“A dolla makes me holla” and “I’m all that and a pack of crackers”) that Helena Andrews writes makes them appear as if they channeled an “angry black woman” from a ’90s sitcom. (See her article in The Root, Aug. 15, 2012).

Alana and her family

Yet, Alana (a.k.a. “Honey Boo Boo”) and her family are firmly situated in rural Georgia, and what I see is more than just the language of the ghetto.  This family literally lives IN a country ghetto.  They are, as a friend suggested, like the Evans family on the sitcom “Good Times” because they have to laugh to keep from crying about the poverty which they can’t seem to escape.

I see the cycle of rural southern poverty on full display.  Underneath all that sass is a family that struggles to stay afloat financially, while also gambling on Honey Boo Boo.  If you listen closely, in between all the colloquialisms (ignoring the subtitles even when they aren’t needed), you’ll hear Mama June tell you that her “baby daddy” works 7 days a week and that she got pregnant at 15, which meant that her education was cut short, although to her credit she finished her GED.  And now her 17 year-old daughter is repeating the cycle of teen pregnancy, and there will be one more mouth to feed.  In addition to “extreme couponing,” June also goes to food auctions and her family happily accepts a deer carcass, even if it was roadkill, because the meat they preserve from it will save them money.  Her older daughters complain that their mother considers anything over $5 expensive.

People may find it irresponsible that Mama June would spend the money she’s scraped to save to invest in Alana’s pageants. But this is consistent with people who live in poverty who pin their hopes on a gamble they hope will pay off.  It’s no different than if they were playing Powerball or scratching off tickets–maybe one day they’ll hit the jackpot, although the odds are stacked against them.

This isn’t just moralizing on my part, because I’ve experienced poverty and can remember a time as a little girl when my Mom (a single mother who scraped by on a secretary’s salary) gave me $2 to purchase a raffle ticket in hopes of winning a new car since we didn’t have one. I still remember the look in her eyes that even she knew this was a long shot.  Of course, we didn’t win, but I hoped with everything we would because it might make life a little easier.  I can see this in little Alana.  She’s a sassy kid, to be sure, but underneath she’s vulnerable and still just six years old. She desperately wants to win that Miss Grand Supreme title and it hurts her a little more each time when she doesn’t.  It hurts June, too.  This is what makes it hard to watch, because I understand how poverty makes you feel “less than” and so I also hurt a little for them.

Maybe they have hit a small jackpot with their show (no doubt TLC has).  During commercials, you’ll see that the network is offering ringtones of Alana’s sayings like “a dolla makes me holla.”  I just hope TLC is cutting Alana a check for those ringtones, since it is profiting by exploiting her.  Maybe she will earn enough to fund a college education, break her family’s cycle of poverty, and escape the country ghetto.  I’m rooting for her.