Reconstructing the Image of the Southern Belle

    Alabama’s history is full of mixed concepts of race, gender and class structure. There have been divisions since the settlers made their way through the state and settled the land. These divisions have since been blurred by emancipation and desegregation as well as through shifting social and economic changes. In many ways Alabama has overcome its tainted history of racism, sexism and class divisions. However, there are certain symbols that perpetuate racism, sexism and class divisions. The Rebel flag has been determined as one of these symbols, and it has been removed from state buildings and monuments. Another symbol that may continue these ideologies is the image of the Southern Belle. Many small town celebrations still incorporate this image by having Southern Belles dress up and perform for audiences.  Because of its connection to Alabama’s stained history, the image of the Southern Belle enables concepts of racism, sexism and class divisions to continue.

    Anyone who has visited a small town festival has probably seen a replica of a Southern Belle walking around with a big layered, floor length hoop dress and sporting a small umbrella to shade her from the sun. The characteristics of the Southern Belle go beyond their appearance. Temi Duro-Emanuel’s article titled “The Progression of the Image of the ‘Southern Belle’ as Shown in Gone with the Wind and Southern Belles” describes the Southern Belle as “one that was born in the American South and refers to a young, delicate, woman of the Southern upper class who is both aware of and utilizes her social graces” (2). This definition shows the class status and depicts the Southern Belle as “young” and “delicate,” which both denote a sexist undertone. This undertone is reminiscent of the Victorian ‘angel of the house,’ which is the figure of the ‘ideal’ woman—frail, submissive, nurturing.

    Biljana Oklopcic, senior lecturer at the Department of Foreign Languages, University of Osijek, Croatia studied the Southern Belle through the Southern play, A Streetcar Named Desire written by Tennessee Williams. The play “observes a uniquely Southern phenomenon: the Southern belle” (Oklopcic 1).Oklopcic describes the figure of the Southern Belle as being “founded on a canonized discourse, resting on a cultural and social personification—a description, a code, a stereotype—which legitimizes and authorizes the interpretation of culture and nature, masculinity and femininity, superiority and inferiority, power and subordination” (1). In other words, the figure of the Southern Belle is one that made positive the patriarchal system of the south. By giving women something to aspire to like becoming a belle, the patriarchal system ensured that they would strive to exhibit the qualities of an ‘angel in the house.’

    Oklopcic examines the “appearance, development and ‘purpose’ of the Southern belle stereotype” (1). She notes that

appearance was tied to the Southern antebellum chivalry and masculinity code origin of which can be looked for in attempts to preserve English moral standards in the U. S. South. They, based on the Victorian model of a woman as an angel in house as well as on the small number of upper class women who were, thereby, considered ‘custodians of culture’ (Bartlett and Cambor, 11), confirmed and authorized the hyperevaluation of upper class Southern women. (1-2)   

Their appearance continues the image of the ideal woman, who would uphold antiquated social standards. Although many people see the morals and standards as a positive aspect of belles, the other aspects of the belle image are associated with negative sexist attitudes. The submissive nature of the belle ensures male dominance over her.

    Portrayals of the Southern Belles can best be seen on film related to the Antebellum period, notably Gone with the Wind. Duro-Emanuel wrote, “Gone with the Wind is considered to be an American classic by many and introduced the movie going public of America to the archetype of the Southern Belle, represented by Scarlett O’Hara and to some degree Melanie Hamilton Wilkes” (2).   Scarlett O’Hara is by no means frail, but she does have the beauty and the commitment to a Southern way of living (Duro-Emanuel 2). The fact that Scarlett portrays a Southern Belle is disheartening because of her strength. Although Scarlett feisty and even manipulative, her strength shows a feminist attitude well out of range of the typical Southern Belle.

    The foil to Scarlett’s character, Melanie, “represents the traditional ideal of a Southern Woman. She is kind, docile, and practical and shows repeatedly through her continued friendship with Scarlett, the power of forgiveness and ignorance” (Duro-Emanuel 3). Her embrace of ignorance is perhaps the worst possible ideology associated with the Southern Belle.

    Oklopcic also describes the belle as “lively, little bit vain, rather naïve” (2). She says that belles “had few tasks other than to be obedient, to ride, to sew, and perhaps to learn reading and writing” (2). Courtship, innocent romances and marriage were the highest aspirations of the belle’s life, so her skills and energies were mainly directed to finding and marrying real Southern gentlemen (Oklopcic 2). The belle’s entire identity was based upon having a husband and being a belle.

    This aspiration to get married was often actually detrimental to women’s identities, and marriage was a form of oppression. According to William Warren Rogers, et al. in Alabama: The History of a Deep South State, “Antebellum Alabama society was male dominated, and there were more males in the state than females” (114). Once women were married, they were under the rule of their dominating husbands. Rogers wrote, “The wife’s sphere was to obey, and in the words of Henry W. Hilliard, society expected ‘to see every man manly, and every woman womanly’” (114). This meant that women were to be “pious, modest, compassionate, quiet, and dainty, by nature self-denying and soft-spoken, a paragon of virtue” (Rogers 114). In other words, women were to keep their mouths shut, obey their husbands and be beautiful while doing so. Rogers continues to paint the real picture of the wife’s life during the Antebellum period:

Once married, a woman was to be a submissive wife whose only reason for being was to amuse and serve her husband, bear his children, and train them in the ways they should go. Southern society decreed demanding rules for a genteel woman’s behavior: she was to entertain graciously, receive callers, and return the calls promptly. She was to be chaste and pure, hiding any suggestion of pregnancy in public while enduring the pain of childbirth with silence. Many women chafed under the social restraints society placed upon them, noting in their diaries the similarity between women and slavery. (114)

Rogers portrait of the Belle’s place as a wife is certainly not a picturesque one. Women who perpetuate this image must have no idea about the treatment of Belles. Who would want to be treated this way?

    Oklopcic also argues that “the Southern belle stereotype rested on a set of very strict class, race and gender traits” (2). Perhaps the most prominent aspect of the belle is the racist undertone. Oklopcic remarks that “the belle was white and of aristocratic origin” (2). There are no pictures of African American or Indian belles. Only white women represent this image.  Duro-Emanuel argues that Gone with the Wind “is a love letter to the glorious old American South and as with all love letters, the movie chooses to highlight the positive (wealth, gallantry and happiness) and largely disregard the negative (slavery and racism)” (3). This is the same portrait that those who still view the Southern Belle as a positive portrayal of Alabama’s heritage want people to see–the positive.

    Believe it or not, there is still a large amount of people who try to uphold the image of the Southern Belle. All over the web, there are images and brands that cater to the Southern Belle. A tee-shirt company bares an emblem and makes shirts with sassy sayings about being southern. As previously mentioned, many festivals still recognize the belles with performances. So, the question is, is the image of the Southern Belle actually a proud part of Alabama’s heritage or should it be dismissed as a symbol of racism, sexism, and class divisions.

One instance of the modern Southern Belle is the beauty pageant queen. Blain Roberts wrote an article titled “The Ugly Side of the Southern Belle” in The New York Times that explains the Southern Belle’s reign in the Miss America pageant. This year’s winner, Mallory Hagan, lived in Brooklyn, but she was actually born in Tennessee and raised in Alabama. She moved to the city to attend school. This is only peculiar because of the seemingly Southern dominance in the pageant, which Roberts investigated. He wrote,

From 1921, when the contest began in Atlantic City, through World War II, only one woman representing a former Confederate state won the competition. Then, beginning in 1947, when a woman from Memphis earned the top honor, the fortunes of Southern contestants rose precipitously. From 1950 to 1963, seven southerners were crowned (each served the following year), including back-to-back wins by Mississippians in 1958-1959–though southerners made up only one-fifth of the possible winners. (1)

A person may not find this to be extraordinary information. It could mean that Southern women were just more beautiful and entertaining. However, Roberts goes on to explain that it was during this time that “black Southerners opened a full-scale campaign against Jim Crow, prompting a bitter backlash by white Southerners” (1). He also remarks that “White resistance began in earnest in 1954, when the Supreme Court issued Brown v. Board of Education, its decision to desegregate public schools” (1). So, what does this have to do with the image of the Southern Belle?

    Roberts shows how there was a connection between the white Southern women’s popularity and the racist attitude coming from the South. He writes,

This wasn’t a coincidence. Images of white Southerners spitting on black students, and news of white lynch mobs killing children like Emmett Till, shocked the world. Other whites, many of them pro-segregation themselves but fearful of the national reaction brought on by anti-civil rights violence, understood that Southern beauty queens could serve as persuasive public relations agents, a genteel veneer to cover up the region’s unsavory behavior. (1)

Presenting a pretty, innocent looking face to the world would take away from all of the negativity coming from the South. The winnings of the pageant brought positive publicity to the South, all through the image of the Southern Belle. This Southern beauty served as a cover up for the cruel acts of racism.

Roberts continues his argument to show that the Southern pageant winners were also a sort of argument against desegregation:

Southern Miss Americas also symbolized what was at stake in the battle over desegregation: the possibility of interracial sex. Their scantily clad bodies splashed across newspapers nationwide, young white women were the Southerners who would supposedly suffer most if schools were integrated. They would become vulnerable to black men in other public facilities as well, especially swimming pools. Indeed, precisely because they were “more sensitive than schools,” a judge upheld the segregation of Baltimore’s municipal pools in 1954. (2)

Presenting these ladies as innocent victims doomed if integration occurred was what the South hoped would win their argument. Southerners had gotten comfortable in their ways of living, and they were not prepared to give them up.

    Roberts demonstrates the extreme adherence to the views of the South:

The Southern Miss Americas of the 1950s and ’60s embodied the Southern “way of life” and justified its defense, however strident. “The winner always carries the ideals of her city and state throughout the world,” Miss South Carolina, Marian McKnight, announced during the 1956 finals (she won the crown). She added that those of her home state were “the finest ideals there are.” (2)

The Southern “way of life” was strengthened by white aristocracy. Rich white people were afforded privileges such as basically private education, separate facilities, etc. They enjoyed these aspects of their lives, and they certainly were not prepared for change. Although the reign of the Southern beauties has waned over the years since the Civil Rights Movement, Roberts says that “we would do well to remember the troubling historical links between Southern beauty queens and racial politics, even when the winner lives in Brooklyn” (2).

    The modern day Southern Belle is represented by Garden and Gun, an online magazine. Three beautiful white women dressed in white posing on the front porch of a large, expensive house are in a picture above the article, “Redefining the Southern Belle.” The title, however, is a bit ironic as the article does not address much about “redefining” anything. In fact, it is almost like a rule-book or definition for the original Southern Belle:

Southern women, unlike women from Boston or Des Moines or Albuquerque, are leashed to history. For better or worse, we are forever entangled in and infused by a miasma of mercy and cruelty, order and chaos, cornpone and cornball, a potent mix that leaves us wise, morbid, good-humored, God-fearing, outspoken and immutable. Like the Irish, with better teeth. (Glock 1)

The tone is already judgmental and pretentious, poking fun at others. The author goes on:

To be born a Southern woman is to be made aware of your distinctiveness. And with it, the rules. The expectations. These vary some, but all follow the same basic template, which is, fundamentally, no matter what the circumstance, Southern women make the effort. Which is why even the girls in the trailer parks paint their nails. And why overstressed working moms still bake three dozen homemade cookies for the school fund-raiser. And why you will never see Reese Witherspoon wearing sweatpants. Or Oprah take a nap. (Glock 1)

First of all, what distinctiveness? What are Southern women representing if their distinctiveness comes from a past full of hatred? Why use the language “even the girls in the trailer parks”? Are girls in the trailer parks a part of this distinctiveness? The tone of the article reiterates the feelings that the image of the Southern Belle conjures: feelings of entitlement and privilege afforded only to those who were lucky enough to be born white and rich.

    Many feel that this ‘luck’ of being born white and of privilege has nothing to do with race. However, the image of the Southern Belle is an image of white privilege. There were no black Southern Belles. There were no poor Southern Belles. By upholding this image, people are upholding white privilege. Peggy McIntosh’s essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” gives an interesting look at how white privilege is a form of racism. McIntosh’s view comes from her work in women’s studies. She noticed that while men “say they will work to support women’s status, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s” (1). She argues that by men’s advantages are continued through women’s disadvantages, which protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened or ended (1). Her thoughts about male privilege lead her to examine white privilege.

    She writes, “As a white person, I realized that I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage” (1). This teaching continues as a part of the privilege. People are taught not to recognize how their privilege is oppressive to others. McIntosh notes, “I remembered the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are justly seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way” (1). McIntosh’s colleague, Elizabeth Minnich, points out: “whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow them to be more like us” (1). McIntosh points out the ways in which she daily enjoys white privilege, such as:

1. I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area that I can afford and in which I would want to live.

3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

4. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

6. When I am told about our national heritage or about civilization, I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.

9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can deal with my hair.

10. Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

12. I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes or not answer letters without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.

13. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.

14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.

15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

16. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color, who constitute the world’s majority, without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.

18. I can be sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge” I will be facing a person of my race.

19. If a traffic cop pulls me over, or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.

20. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.

21. I can go home from most meetings or organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in rather than isolated, out of place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.

22. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.

23. I can choose public accommodations without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.

24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help my race will not work against me.

25. If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.

26. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in flesh color that more or less matches my skin. (2-3)

McIntosh’s list is full of experiences that white people in particular take for granted. Overall, McIntosh argues that the idea is that our society opens doors for certain people through no virtues of their own; what should be normal for everyone in our society is still not normal (3). For McIntosh, she realized that there was a pattern in her examination: “There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turf, and I was among those who could control the turf” (3). She found, “My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make” (3). It was not that McIntosh was born white that afforded her these privileges, just like this is not the reason that all whites have some of these same experiences. It is more a matter of a system being continued in this direction.

    While whites are enjoying their privileges, the opposite is occurring for those who are not white. McIntosh wrote, “In proportion as my racial group was being made confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated” (3). For example, if a baseball team wins, another team has to lose. So, if white people are given all the comforts of life and being made out to be the “norm,” then other racial groups are being made to feel less than normal. McIntosh wrote, “some of the conditions I have described here work systematically to overempower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one’s race or sex” (4). These privileges do not only form a sense of ‘normal’ versus ‘less than normal,’ but they also secure a certain amount of dominance for the privileged.

    McIntosh explains the differences between earned strength and unearned power. She writes,

I want, then, to distinguish between earned strength and unearned power conferred systematically. Privilege can look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or to dominate. Power from unearned privilege can look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or to dominate. But not all of the privileges on my list are inevitably damaging. Some, like the expectation that neighbors will be decent to you, or that your race will not count against you in court, should be the norm in a just society. Others, like the privilege to ignore less powerful people, distort the humanity of the holders as well as the ignored groups. (4)

These ideas demonstrate how oblivion can continue the oppression, the racism. White people are taught that racism is an act or speech against someone of a different color. But, domination over others is the ultimate form of racism. By leaving out people of other races, white people are dominating. So, when someone says that he or she is not racist because he or she does not perform racist acts, that person is actually overlooking the truth of white privilege: that the system that afford white people ‘normalcy’ is racist.

    So, white privilege is not necessarily easy to be seen. It is something that white people take for granted. But, this is part of the system that has been constructed to ensure the Southern ‘way of life’ despite integration. By teaching white children that racism is in acts and negative words, white parents are teaching them to overlook the privilege that allows whites to remain the dominant race. The same domination occurs in all forms of oppression: sexual, racial, and socioeconomic. The first step to overcoming the ignorance of white privilege is to recognize it, and the image of the Southern Belle is one of the most prominent pictures of white privilege.

    Virginia Foster Durr, “a Southern White woman, born in 1905” (Tatum 1), wrote a book called Outside the Magic Circle in which she describes her life as an anti-racist. According to Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph. D.’s article, “Outside the Circle? The Relational Implications for White Women Working Against Racism,” Tatum recognized the problems of racism. Tatum writes, “She described her early life as one of great privilege and of pervasive racism, a world of Black servants and assumed White superiority. She was raised to be a ‘Southern belle’” (1). Durr recognized her position as one of dominance over others. She wanted to escape the identity of being a Southern belle because she recognized the image’s work in continuing the attitudes associated with Alabama’s history of cruelty and entitlement.

    Overall, the image of the Southern belle reinforces many negative aspects of Alabama’s history. The image represents the Southern beauty whose aspiration was to become a wife and mother despite the horrible treatment of wives by their dominant husbands. Ultimately, the image therefore represents the sexist attitudes of men of the antebellum period in Alabama. The image also represents the racist attitudes as only white women were raised to be Southern belles, and only white women were praised for their beauty, which left those of other races to be viewed negatively. Belles were those born of privilege and money, so the image also perpetuates the division of the classes. The attitudes of the belles were snooty and snobbish. For someone to want to continue these ideals in this day and time is ridiculous. While people should be proud of their heritage, this is only the case when the heritage is one of merit and goodness. Women must get beyond the negative image of the Southern Belle and truly redefine the Southern Woman as one who is intelligent enough not to want to perpetuate the ignorance that originated the image.


Works Cited

Duro-Emanuel, Temi. “The Progression of the Image of the “Southern Belle” as Shown in Gone with the Wind and Southern Belles.” Media and Difference in Southern and Jewish Films. 25 Apr 2010. Web. 11 April 2013.  

Glock, Allison. “Redefining the Southern Belle.” Garden and Gun. Aug 2011. Web. 11 April 2013.

McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Independent School. 1990. Web. 11 April 2013.

Oklopcic, Biljana. “Southern Bellehood (De)Constructed: A Case Study of Blanche DuBois.” E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary. Web. 11 April 2013.

Roberts, Blain. “The Ugly Side of the Southern Belle.” The New York Times. 15 Jan 2013. Web. 11 April 2013.

Rogers, William Warren, et al. Alabama: The History of a Deep South State. Tuscaloosa: U Alabama P, 1994. Print.

Tatum, Beverly Daniel, Ph.D. “Outside the Circle? The Relational Implications for White Women Working Against Racism.” Wellesley Centers for Women. 1996. Web. 11 April 2013.