Belle de Jour: The Literature of Southern Babes

By  Natalie Elliot |  February 21, 2012


The Southern Belle in the American Novel by Kathryn Lee Seidel, University Press of Florida, 1985

Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful by Daniel S. Hamermesh, Princeton University Press, 2010

Perhaps there is no more conclusive study of Southern female beauty than the 1986 documentary Sherman’s March. This meandering, self-indulgent, but captivating film has the privilege of being about something it, at least at first, purports not to be about. (In so doing, it taps into the regional pastime of equivocation.) As North Carolina–native Ross McElwee prepares to leave his Boston home to investigate, with camera, the lingering impact of the Civil War–razing of Georgia and the Carolinas, his lover abruptly runs back to her old boyfriend. This shoves McElwee into a tailspin.
He decides to console himself by sticking to his film and travels. On the road, he struggles to keep his focus, and starts and restarts his Sherman stuff only to be distracted, again and again, by a female. In the end, his lens captures not the War’s long tragedy but the brazen and fickle species that we know as Southern Woman.McElwee first falls for beguiling Pat, a husky-voiced, charismatic, wannabe actress he encounters while filming and interviewing his sister Dede as they paddle around in a canoe. The interview pauses when Pat, like a freshwater mermaid, magically pops up next to the boat. Later, on dry land, with the camera still rolling, Pat blithely performs a round of suggestive squatting exercises. After several weeks of recording Pat’s legs and overconfident monologues, however, she too dumps him, and from that point on, McElwee films every woman he encounters—blind dates, struggling musicians, even his entrancing and garrulous mentor, Charleen.But back to beguiling Pat. Though in her late twenties, and hailing from what appears to be an upper-class family, she is not a husband-hunting, effusive Belle like one might expect—in fact, she’s the very embodiment of a “Southern nymphet.” I take no credit for this taxonomy—it’s McElwee’s sister who classifies Pat as a “little nymphet”—but I know these brilliantly unprogrammed, unself-conscious nymphets and have known them as long as I’ve lived in the Deep South: their downy golden hair, their perfect smattering of freckles across their little retroussé noses, their strong butterscotch legs that propel them down the sidelines of football fields, across campuses and tennis courts, and swirling through glittering swimming pools. These girls aren’t held back by a pride-weary sense of self; their jaw-dropping beauty does not in any way inhibit them. But their most enviable trait? By speaking unfettered, without self-editing, they make absurd and goofy statements that are also brain-numbingly charming.When my family transplanted from rural Virginia to suburban Alabama, I was blindsided by these pre-women and struggled to understand why they were so hopelessly radiant and I so pale, lumpy, and unpopular. Yes, they were usually of wealthy and established families. Yes, they were, for the most part, some of the more ambitious or outgoing starlets in our class. Yes, they were white.By the time I figured out what was going on, I was in eighth grade, embracing a paralyzing, writerly, outsider’s consciousness. I’d read Nabokov’s naughty tome and Tennessee Williams—and so I learned to gauge the difference between the bronze-limbed gazelles these girls were now and their trembling, neurotic, Virginia Slims–slurping mothers. It didn’t matter, though; as ravaged by jealousy as I was, I still worshipped the girls and wanted the best for them. After all, their looks affected everyone.Though we went to different high schools, I ended up attending college with many of these girls (whom I might now call still-nymphets). Knowing that I had slid off the pages of their yearbooks and into obscurity, I inspected them openly as we passed on campus or as I sat across from them at honor-society induction dinners or when I ran into them at bars during winter break. 

They were not the same. They had already lost the glint of their natural beauty; they were already over-made-up and tired-looking. I was devastated.

Because I felt someone needed to memorialize their lost beauty with something other than wallet-size prom pictures, I even creepily sat down and wrote melodramatic odes about the younger versions of all the Ashleys, Brennas, and Mandys:

Ninety pounds with the poise of a thoroughbredThat high-crowned ponytail, tossed left to right with the pitch of your hipsHairsprayed bangs silent as a photograph

It appears that due to my severe preteen self-abnegation, I seem to recall their developmental tics better than my own. I had thought their beauty was impenetrable. Now I wanted to know what had happened—as if I were owed some explanation. I was completely unaware, however, that beneath my outsider stance, and the deliberately ripped undershirts and the motorcycle jackets that I sheathed myself in, the same transformation was happening to me.

We were getting older.

And because, just like the still-nymphets, I had stayed in the South, their inevitable fate was manifesting itself on my person: I was Belle-izing. I started dyeing my hair black (influenced by watching Cat on a Hot Tin Roof too many times) to better offset my blue eyes. I fretted over not having the proper chip-and-dip service to bring to the football-game potluck. Before leaving for the grocery store, I lingered too diligently over mascara reapplication—all the while still thinking of myself as punk.

The aura of the Southern Woman was created not just by fey, unself-conscious warmth, but also by careful strategy. Southern Women can be beautiful for some time, or forever, and this does little to account for their undying emphasis on comely appearance and studied coyness. Whether or not anyone chooses to buy into the ridiculous argument that Southern Women are better-looking than women anywhere else—another argument related, but different, is more believable: Women here care about, cultivate, and inordinately praise beauty and “manners.” (Funny how so much is expected of Southern women and so much less of our men.) No matter how progressive we Southern women think we are, we still operate under a myth—the myth of the fluttering dew-eyed Belle archetype that even William Faulkner attempted to murder off (or, at least, prostitute).

In her poignant literary and historical analysis, The Southern Belle in the American Novel, Kathryn Lee Seidel pinpoints the Belle’s debut in fiction around 1832, when the Belle’s immediate purpose was to be prized less for her beauty and more for her virtue. As a precious pet of a (usually) widowed father, the Belle-of-literature’s chief aim was to gain a worthy husband. This prevalent cultural message amounted to little more than: Be desired, but not desirous.

The Belle’s adherence to a Victorian ideal in an ever-progressing world allowed the sentimental South an outlet for its desperation about the rapidly diminishing relevance and tenability of its cherished “squireocracy.” But most roles have to adapt with the times, and even the post–Civil War Belle is a different animal from its predecessor. Seidel sees the collapse of the Virtuous Belle model in the advent of the modern novel, including Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz (whose heroine qualifies as raucous self-portrayal) and Faulkner’s Sanctuary (whose Temple Drake is a tragic, twisted culmination).

Curiously enough, even though we continue to identify Scarlett O’Hara as the Belle stereotype, she actually epitomizes a modern, “fallen” Belle—she’s not virtuous, she’s conniving. She uses men cynically and politically (modern thinking!) and refuses to honor marriage as the holy institution everyone else reveres. Furthermore, she doesn’t fade into the background and become the sexless matron whose sole duty is yielding a sprightly young Belle of her own. In fact, her failure to renounce her Belle status seems to be celestially rewarded when her baby and Belle-to-be, Bonnie Blue, perishes in that pony accident. Scarlett’s is a narcissism that is presumably the result of being a specially and absurdly adored Belle (even by Belle standards).

As Seidel explains: 

An entire society that boasts of its women as the most splendid examples of feminine pulchritude, rivaled perhaps only by the fair Dianas of Greece, produces a woman whose appearance is emphasized from babyhood…. The girl who is told, in effect, to become a lovely object can become a narcissist, self-admiring as well as admired for her lovely shell.

In being taught how to preen and posture, the Belle is taught how to use her wiles to get the things she wants. Eventually, she knows no other way.

Gone With the Wind also effectively portrays a South that is ravaged, hungry, and desperate—a South that is crushed and outmoded with every moment. It’s exactly in this scrambling against an imminent loss of power that the beauty politic comes most bloodlessly into play. What happens after the War? The South falters economically, with no lucrative industry to supplant the loss of its slave-powered cotton capitalism. It continues, however, to produce, cultivate, and insist upon: The Belle. In effect, the Belle becomes one of the last functioning institutions in which the South invests its pride. She’s a kind of last-ditch effort, a backfiring power-grab: Whatever happens, we can at least have our women always beautiful!

In today’s generations-removed, much-mimeographed version of the Belle, the Southern Woman remains a cultural strategist who learns that if she wants anything at all, she acquires it foremost through attractiveness and soft manipulation. The difference is, her looks alone can now advance her social station. Maggie the Cat is trash, but she’s trash good-looking enough to marry into a (newly) well-heeled family of land barons; beauty transcends even a lack of class and manners.

And transcends race: In John Berendt’s 1994 bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, he recreates, in exhaustive detail, an African-American debutante ball, a prerequisite for which the maidens he saw were required to attend classes “in beauty and the social graces—how to plan a party, send out invitations, set a table, introduce people properly, and write thank-you notes.” This is just one more example of the long-standing history of black debutante balls and cotillions, which is chronicled extensively in Lawrence Otis Graham’s Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class. Should we be surprised that amidst a culture of aristocratic whites, which prizes its daughters for attractiveness and affluence, class-ascending blacks want the same for their own?

What is clear is that, for the ambitious Southern Woman of any color, the first step to winning anything at all is winning attention. Like Maggie the Cat, the contemporary Belle might feel more like a flimsy impostor agonized by self-awareness and overcautious to protect whatever display of herself she’s put on sale. Even today, a Belle suits up in almost period costume—though the period is more 1950s or upper-class 1960s. She still dabs perfume, paints her face, shows herself off as the woman she wants to be perceived as, not who she is. We Southern women can be transvestites of our own sex; our accoutrements can be more defining than our original selves—we fear we don’t exist without our finery.

Coincidentally, “lookism” is now entrenched in the cultural lexicon. The economist Daniel S. Hamermesh’s recent book, Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, examines what he’s dubbed “pulchronomics”: the socioeconomic advantages of good-looking people in business and other power-contest environments (like, ahem, marriage). Hamermesh cites data that reflect what tend to be real economic advantages (say, earning around ninety thousand dollars more over a lifetime than plainer people), but asserts that the difference is enough to declare that being beautiful just about constitutes a charitable act, in so far as 

good-looking people also earn more and also create more sales for their employers.... Beauty is clearly privately productive; but thinking about it this way, in some cases it might be viewed as socially productive too—as benefitting society as well as those who are fortunate enough to be born beautiful or the employers who obtain their services. It is reasonable to argue that some services offered by the beautiful are inherently different from those offered by the ugly, and that society is better off by having the beautiful provide these services.

It seems that Southern women have known Hamermesh’s insights all along, but, to the rest of society, beauty prejudice is now a social science.

In a chapter about dating and marriage, Hamermesh mentions a study that surveyed coed Southern universities. The aim of the study was to prove that female students aggressively enhance their looks in a man-scarce dating environment since, as we all “know,” women dress up mainly for other women. But, as any young lady who’s attended a Seven Sisters has learned, the reality is different: “Increases in the percentage of women up to 60 percent (well above the national average) were accompanied by increases in the average attractiveness of a campus’s coeds. Above that, the beauty of the women decreased as the campus became even more heavily female.” Read: If the husband selection is slim, why bother?

Another regional flourish—makeup, one of our costume’s most necessary garnishes—has also been validated on a national level. Hamermesh himself was recently quoted in a highly divisive New York Times article that discussed a study conducted among nearly three hundred participants, both male and female (but majority female), and which concluded that wearing makeup “increases people’s perceptions of a woman’s likability, her competence and (provided she does not overdo it) her trustworthiness.”

So the votes are in, and the grand traditions of Southern-female lookism are, if not justified, at least supported by national standards. If this means the South’s antiquated ideals have helped us stay one step ahead in the beauty race, does it follow that, well, we’ve won?

Perhaps. But consider that Hamermesh defines lookism as “pure discrimination in favor of the good-looking and against the bad-looking.” Oh yes, discrimination; is that not another favorite regional pastime?

Whatever the case, I do not mean to suggest that we should be ashamed of Southern Women and their beauty—any poetry-writing, nymphet-praising aesthete can hardly make that argument—only that we can interact with it, and telegraph it, differently. For one, why must we still convey through our literature, media, and thinking, not only that the Belle lingers on but that she should? Why can’t we ungrasp her? Have you seen the photo spread from last February’s Vanity Fair of “Atlanta’s literary sorority” (is there such a thing?) that describes the gaggle of female authors (black and white) who “look like belles but who write fearlessly about the region’s troubled legacies”? Why must they look like belles? And, if they didn’t before, the shoot-stylist certainly does a bang-up job of importing wide-brimmed hats, ruffly bell-shaped skirts, and taffeta shrugs primly deposited over the authoresses’ bare shoulders. Then there is, of course, reality TV, like the series Southern Belles: Louisville, on SoapNet, which conducts itself more or less like a slightly younger and openly unwed Real Housewives franchise (complete with toy-dog-breed collecting and Botox appointments). Can’t we take a photograph of a female Southern author in a black turtleneck and dorky spectacles? (Flannery O’Connor wore horn-rims—and her powers of influence and value have only deepened across the years.) Shouldn’t we have a television show stocked with Southern women who entertain us through their wit and perspicacity and who do more than agonize over bad dates? I still love Maggie the Cat, but all she really did was teach me how to be desperate.

If we can admit that other sociopolitical Southern institutions were failures (feudalism, slavery, segregation), why is the same internal interrogation not taking place for this other very peculiar institution? Insisting upon the narrative of the Belle is identical, is the flip side, to insisting upon the narrative of slavery. The Belle is not a quaint or cute cultural artifact—the Belle is failed propaganda. However much it shocks us, there is true advancement in acknowledging Southern women are no more beautiful than any other population of women, no more graceful or virtuous or charming. Instead, they need to be praised for what they really are: the unaware key holders of the unnameable thing we lose the moment we let a societal fiction prescribe who they, or we, are supposed to be. (And if Southern women aren’t strong enough to own up to flaws, we are doing no more than playing the longest-running—and soberest!—game of cultural dress-up ever known.)

Of those girls I wrote poems about, one had her ears pinned back as a small child. Her mother thought they stuck out too much. The girl was hopelessly dim-witted, but funny. What kind of woman she’s grown up to be, I can only venture to guess, but I imagine, even with them “fixed,” she’ll never not be aware of her ears.

Note: For a much rosier take on the Southern Belle, OA Editor Marc Smirnoff recommends reading Allison Glock's article for Garden & Gun magazine,"Redefining the Southern Belle," in which readers can find lines such as "Southern women are willing to give, be it time, hugs, or advice about that layabout down the road. Southern women listen and we talk and we laugh without apology."