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The Southern Woman Trope, Explained

With her storied charm, politesse and grit, she’s a staple of on-screen depictions of American life below the Mason-Dixon line: she’s the Southern Woman. She’s a figure that’s full of contradictions: both the polished belle and the wild country girl; spoiled yet scrappy. The Southern Woman is ultimately defined by effort. She lives by certain expectations, and she’ll stop at nothing to get the job done. Juggling a complex legacy, she’s also more than a stereotype and comes in many forms onscreen today. Here’s our Take on how the Southern Woman has grown from her roots, and what she can teach us, no matter where we’re from.

TRANSCRIPT

With her storied charm, politesse, and grit, she’s a staple of on-screen depictions of American life below the Mason-Dixon line: she’s the Southern Woman. She’s a figure that’s full of contradictions: both the polished belle and the wild country girl; spoiled yet scrappy and some find it hard to understand her. But we can find a few threads that tie the Southern Woman together:

  • She often values traditional femininity: playing the gracious hostess, being an attentive mother, and putting her own lady-like spin on the dirt and grime of real life.
  • Yet despite her impeccable manners, she’s anything but passive — she knows how to speak up and assert herself.
  • She’s deeply connected to her community, status, and heritage — which isn’t always good. Her on-screen portrayals don’t shy away from the racism, snobbery, and gossip that’s designed to make others feel left out.
  • But on the positive side, the Southern Woman can be involved, supportive, and fiercely loyal — the portrait of a true lady.

The Southern Woman is ultimately defined by effort. She lives by certain expectations, and she’ll stop at nothing to get the job done. Juggling a complex legacy, she’s also more than a stereotype and comes in many forms onscreen today. Here’s our take on how the Southern Woman has grown from her roots, and what she can teach us, no matter where we’re from.

Lemon Breeland: “I don’t need anyone to take care of me. I am Lemon Breeland, strong Southern belle.” - Hart of Dixie (Season 2 Episode 1)

Southern Femininity - A History

When we think of the Southern Woman, what first comes to mind is probably the traditional southern belle, in all her feminine, frilly, hoop-skirt glory. This poised, graceful feminine ideal of the antebellum period may not have really existed for a long time, but the southern belle remains a template with strong resonance for the Southern Woman.

The irony of the most iconic southern belle-types onscreen, though, is that they’re typically failing to live up to the belle ideal, while mourning a world that no longer has space for the kind of woman they were brought up to be. Gone With the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara with her picturesque gowns and countless suitors may be the epitome of the belle in our cultural consciousness, but even she doesn’t feel like she’s really living up to that label. It’s her selfless do-gooding mother and passive, sweet Melanie who embody the persona of the “lady” Scarlett can’t bring herself to act like. Scarlett’s true nature — what’s actually interesting about her and helps her survive the civil war’s upheaval — is her fierce vitality, impropriety, and her relentless drive, none of which is very ladylike at all.

Likewise, Blanche DuBois of A Streetcar Named Desire is a late 1940s version of the fallen southern belle, who’s trying to project that artificial image of grace and poise, after her once-picturesque world has (like Scarlett’s) fallen to pieces. Thus a central aspect of cinema’s southern belles is really delusion. Both would-be belles are fighting to preserve an ideal of the past and of themselves which no longer exists if it ever truly did — nostalgically clinging to a lost world that others can see is best left to history. Scarlett’s soulmate is the equally scrappy and conniving opportunist Rhett Butler, but she spends most of the story wrongly convinced she loves Ashley Wilkes — a human symbol of that supposedly genteel old South that she’s pining for, even though it never fit her. Meanwhile, Blanche’s inability to face the changing world eventually contributes to landing her in a mental hospital.

The belle’s devotion to the past makes her especially fixated on traditional femininity. She’s invested in upholding a patriarchal culture that prizes her mainly for being young and beautiful (the very meaning of the word “belle”), and so disempowers her with every passing year. As she ages and her looks fade, she faces a crisis of identity. We might have some sense of sympathy for this woman who’s essentially rendered obsolete by both cultural changes and time itself, but the belle can also invite our disgust and judgment for how spoiled and out of touch she appears in a world that’s progressing without her.

Scarlett O’Hara: “War, war, war! This war talk’s spoiling all the fun at every party this spring! I get so bored I could scream!” - Gone with the Wind

When it comes to the legacy of a movie like Gone with the Wind, there’s a disconnect between audiences’ love for Scarlett and the racism that the film is guilty of and it helps highlight a pretty persistent problem with how the Southern Woman is depicted. While the South is actually diverse, this trope is far whiter than reality. Even when white women aren’t the only ones present, they’re still at the center of the stories being told.

Writing the belle off merely as an antiquated product of her time doesn’t do her justice, though. With a better understanding of the powers and dangers that come with her position, the modern belle can take the flair, independence, and copious bows and adapt the historical belle’s better qualities into something that works today. Hart of Dixie’s Lemon Breeland cares deeply about the belle’s legacy, which means she can sometimes get caught up in its less inclusive elements like excluding outsiders. But as she learns that it’s not all or nothing — that she can take the good and leave the bad without being disloyal to her past — she becomes a great example of how to update her values without compromising her connection to history.

Another modern application of the belle’s ideals of femininity comes in the Southern housewife character, who can find herself underappreciated. The Walking Dead viewers and in-universe characters alike at first considered Lori Grimes useless for not automatically taking to the protective, physical tasks we prioritize when society collapses, but her contributions are important in their own way. She demonstrates how emotional labor keeps everything running smoothly. It’s the housewife’s chosen jobs like making a home that separates living from staying alive.

Lori Grimes: “We are providing stability. We are trying to create a life worth living.” - The Walking Dead (Season 2 Episode 10)

Still, she shows us potential limitations. Lori can’t seem to see beyond where she is — it irritates her when other women buck this responsibility and oftentimes, she seems exhausted by the powerlessness of playing a solely reactive role while men call the shots.

In Sharp Objects, Southern matriarch Adora Crellin embodies just how much evil can hide under the guise of hospitality and motherhood. With the Southern Woman, we ultimately get a better look at how performing traditional femininity can be used for bad or good.

The Southern Woman’s Grit

Not far beneath her ladylike surface, the Southern Woman has a natural boldness that shines through. She’s far too dignified to let anyone disrespect her, and any conflict brings out her inner fire. Reese Witherspoon, a real-life Southern Woman, summarizes it well in her book Whiskey in a Teacup: What Growing Up in the South Taught Me About Life, Love, and Baking Biscuits: “We may be delicate and ornamental on the outside [...] but inside we’re strong and fiery.” And not every Southern Woman even cares about being seen as dainty and demure—some versions of this trope are more focused on speaking their mind than minding their manners.

In some stories, counter to our assumptions, the Southern Woman’s role as a wife gives her the space to be assertive. The culture she grew up in embraces the Southern matriarch in charge, a woman who makes the important decisions even when the men in her family are the primary breadwinners. Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights may be known as the wife of her Texas town’s celebrated football coach. But Tami’s a tough talker with her own career and authority in their community and nothing gets done in the Taylor household without going through her first.

Her no-nonsense persona echoes a lot of Southern Women who do even more to buck tradition. Independence beyond personality, like real freedom in their work and love lives, became especially common in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Designing Women‘s classy, opinionated Julia Sugarbaker proved that the Southern Woman could be a feminist figure. And like any good feminist, she defended a woman’s choice to align with more traditional achievements, too — like her sister Suzanne’s beauty pageant success. Feminist organizer Natasha Murphy explains how many underestimate the Southern Woman, saying, “We get the rap for being demure and dewy-faced in the big poofy dress and the big hair. We’re not really quiet. We’re not dumb. We want to change our communities.”

While the belle may choose tradition in a modern world, other nontraditional Southern Women play an important role in making new paths seem possible. On-screen, we see lots of ways that Southern Women reject convention, and accept that their lives don’t live up to some kind of picture-perfect ideal.

Joy Turner: “You know the kinda woman who could’ve been the next Faith Hill but somewhere along the way discovered peach daiquiris, put the diaphragm in wrong, and wound up smack dab in the middle of trailer hell raising two kids?” - My Name is Earl (Season 2 Episode 13)

The rebellious daughter sub-trope is a rejection of the Southern Women’s lifestyle altogether. The rebellious daughter renounces any assumption that she’ll be a good girl by doing everything she can to act out.

The South and the City

One version of the Southern Woman is the rural ‘country girl’; her comfort with dirt, grime, and hard work might make her something of a tomboy. Like Maggie Greene on The Walking Dead, this type might be more concerned with getting to work on her daddy’s farm than fitting into the belle’s shoes. But that doesn’t take away from her own style of femininity — Maggie’s not quite hard-pressed to find someone who sees her as a woman.

In most people’s minds, ‘southern life’ usually equates to rural areas, which means there are countless stereotypes about country living for Southerners to reckon with. On-screen examples of the South sometimes portray these rural settings as pretty backwards; in Sweet Home Alabama, Melanie is so ashamed of her upbringing in Pigeon Creek, Alabama, that she tries to forget it all when she moves to New York. But as she comes to realize, the ‘sophistication’ Melanie feels as a city girl doesn’t justify the superiority complex it gives her over the good people in her hometown she’d ultimately rather embrace both sides of herself.

Similarly, fish-out-of-water stories show the same benefits of country life from an outsider’s perspective. On Hart of Dixie, Zoe Hart demonstrates the culture shock of adjusting to a small Southern town as a New Yorker but eventually, her appreciation makes her an honorary Southern Woman of sorts; it’s just impossible to spend so much time in Bluebell and not to see the charm of a place where people look out for each other.

Zoe Hart: “Do you think all small towns are like this one?”

Wade Kinsella: “I’d like to think so, but… something tells me probably not.” - Hart of Dixie (Season 4 Episode 10)

These stories do speak to important parts of Southern culture — like the value of a close-knit community and the pride Southerners take in their hometowns — but they don’t tell the whole story. For one thing, the allure of small-town life isn’t uniquely Southern; finding peace outside the daily grind of a bustling city is the plot of countless rom-coms and Hallmark movies that take place in rural hideaways all over the map.

And the underlying assumption that the South is all country isn’t true, either three out of every four Southerners reside in metropolitan areas. As we get better about representation, the Southern Woman character onscreen starts to better reflect the variation she has in real life. Atlanta’s Van, a biracial, German-speaking, working mother, proves it’s not the style or accent or white femininity that defines the trope, but a willingness to speak her mind. Van works hard to take on the responsibilities of the people who depend on her — and that’s about as Southern as a woman can get.

Earn Marks: “She works, she raises our child, she’s smarter than me, better than me.” - Atlanta (Season 1 Episode 9)

Conclusion

At first glance, the Southern Woman trope might seem like nothing more than a bunch of one-dimensional sub-tropes; we’ve seen more than enough exaggerated belles, country girls, and matriarchs for this to seem true. But her presence in film is actually as complicated as the person she’s meant to represent: a contradictory mix of sweet and sour.

As more people learn to stop romanticizing the larger picture of her past, the Southern Woman takes the best of her traditional values and attitudes into the future — where they make her extraordinarily strong. And her lesson isn’t just limited to the South; we can all learn something from her self-assurance — and she’d tell us so, too.

Adora Crellin: “These country folk, our backward ways… I just want to remind you, there’s good here too.” - Sharp Objects (Season 1 Episode 5)


SOURCES

Paschal, Olivia. “The Rural South Defies Demographic and Political Stereotypes.” Facing South, 16 June 2017. www.facingsouth.org/2017/06/rural-south-defies-demographic-and-political-stereotypes

Rawls, Kristin. “5 Big Media Stereotypes About the South (And the Real Story Behind Them).” Alternet.org, 3 Apr. 2012. www.alternet.org/2012/04/5_big_media_stereotypes_about_the_south_and_the_real_story_behind_them/

Wilson, Matthew. “15 Stereotypes about the South That Just Aren’t True.” Insider, 22 Apr. 2020. www.insider.com/stereotypes-about-people-in-the-south-that-arent-true-2020-4

Witherspoon, Reese. Whiskey in a Teacup: What Growing up in the South Taught Me about Life, Love, and Baking Biscuits. Touchstone, 2018.

Zernike, Kate. “Where a ‘Southern Girl’ Is Also a Feminist.” New York Times, 22 July 2002. www.nytimes.com/2002/07/22/us/where-a-southern-girl-is-also-a-feminist.html