Karen L. Cox: For Whom the Belle Tolls

No sooner had I written the last blog post about representations of the South on reality television than another show made it to the air—TLC’s 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.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

Karen L. Cox is associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is the author of the forthcoming Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture as well as Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, which won the 2004 Julia Cherry Spruill Prize for the best book in southern women’s history. You can become a fan of Dreaming of Dixie on Facebook.

One Comment

  1. It seems as though in mainstream media there is no place for just a regular person (woman) from the south. We generally are depicted as loudmouth ignorant redneck gold diggers, or these precious fragile things who can’t withstand the pressures of real life. In the case of Steel Magnolias I found the accents to be offensive, and for the most part it was drivel. Yes, the whole dying child thing was horrible, but for the most part the film is just not palatable. I also found it ironic that Julia Roberts’ speech coach for the part of Shelby told her to speak the way she did before she lost her southern accent. In later reports I have heard that she in no way shape or form had such a horrible accent, i.e. Mommah theah ahr many shades of peenk. Translation: Momma there are many shades of pink.

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