It’s been at least two months since I started writing this post. I’ve been mad about the concept of Southernness for my whole life, and a certain pretty pink book pushed me over the edge. I feel like I might come off as whiny here, and that’s fine, and I might be off-base, because it’s not super realistic to expect a coffee table book selling a lifestyle to discuss white supremacy, but I’m still mad, so I’m going to talk about it anyway. This post has been percolating for a while, and even so, I still feel like certain ideas are underdeveloped, but since this has been living in drafts purgatory for so long, I figured it was time to just hit publish.
Sometime before the global pandemic really fucked shit up — time is meaningless now and I could look this up on my Goodreads account but I don’t want to — I read Reese Witherspoon’s Whiskey in a Teacup. I like Reese okay. She seems like a nice enough person, considering her incredible fame and wealth. I watch Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama when they come on TV. It’s nice to see someone who you know is from the South in the movies. I feel a connection to the South sometimes, but this is a strange place to call home.
There are plenty of cultural things that make me feel alienated from the notion of Southernness in general. My mom didn’t make sweet tea growing up, and I still won’t drink it, which folks usually have an opinion about. I can’t stand monograms. I don’t wear makeup anymore, unless it’s a special occasion. I can’t and don’t want to do my hair. I also wasn’t interested in being a debutante — not that my parents have that kind of social cachet anyway. I couldn’t be a decent hostess to save my life. These are the things that Whiskey in a Teacup identifies as integral to Southern womanhood. They might seem superficial, but they are things that tie Southern women to one stifling gender expression. We are generally socialized to be genteel, gracious, conventionally attractive people-pleasers. When I attend a social engagement outside of my usual circle of friends, I find myself extremely uncomfortable, constantly comparing myself to the other women in the room.
Maybe I need to get some self-esteem, or maybe we ought to stop “selling frilly Southern womanhood,” as a Washington Post reviewer said of Whiskey in a Teacup. I’m tired of being sold monograms and big hair and candy-colored dresses and china patterns. Those things don’t tell the whole story of Southern womanhood. Those things are bundled with the imperatives of wealth, whiteness, straightness, cis-ness, and thinness. Reese makes a feeble attempt to welcome other kinds of folks into the fold, but when she talks about how sometimes it takes as much as three hours to get your hair done at the salon, I know she’s only talking to and about white women. She’s paying the bare minimum of lip service to ~wokeness~ so that nobody can ding her too hard while not alienating conservative white women. Providing substance doesn’t sell.
The real tale of Southern womanhood includes white supremacy and trauma — especially generational trauma. Someone wrote this book to fit the Reese Witherspoon brand, and they certainly accomplished that goal. The book is pretty and sweet and fluffy. Whiskey in a Teacup doesn’t acknowledge that black women still experience pain caused by the legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow South. Reese glosses over the injustices of Jim Crow, name drops a couple of civil rights icons as examples of #GirlPower, and doesn’t acknowledge the racism that still permeates American life. All of this does a good job of holding the legacy and continued presence of white supremacy in Southern society at arm’s length. Let us not forget the integral role that white women have played and still play in upholding racist practices and institutions in this country. So many white suffragists pushed for the right to vote for white women only as a method of voter suppression. In 1901, when a select group of Alabama’s prominent white men convened to write a new constitution, it was with the express goal of codifying white supremacy (dude, the slogan the Conservative Democrat newspapers used to convince the public to ratify the constitution was “White Supremacy, Now and Forever!” I mean…). A great way to do that was to implement poll taxes that would required everyone to pay $1.50 a year in cash to be able to vote. They knew that black men and women, who had significantly less access to cash than whites, would be shut out of the electoral process. But there was a small contingency of delegates backed by suffragists who pushed for woman suffrage as another way — a slightly more constitutional way that didn’t involve election fraud, since ballot stuffing was Alabama’s favorite thing to do in the 1890s — to disfranchise black voters. Their idea of woman suffrage was limited to wealthy women, of course. But if white women could vote, whites might have a better chance of outnumbering black voters, thereby keeping black people from voting and taking back a shred of the political power they gained during Reconstruction. White women actually argued this on the floor of the constitutional convention. White women were and are complicit in upholding white supremacy! We are still pulling this shit — a prime example being the 2016 presidential election. Southern white womanhood is not moonlight and magnolias, or whatever the phrase is.
Wow, I did not expect to go on a full-on 1901 Constitution rant in the middle of this, but let’s talk about mental illness while we’re at it. My Mema was the epitome of proper Southern womanhood. She was a sweet lady whom I still love very much, even though she was most certainly racist, as someone who was born in Alabama in 1931 would usually still be. When she said “Bless your heart,” she never meant it to be mean or sarcastic. Her father was on the board of Judson College, and she was the perfect Judson Girl who married the perfect Army cadet who attended the military college down the street. I still have some of Mema’s tiny day gloves and birdcage veil hats. But these things don’t tell the whole story. She was also severely mentally ill at multiple points in her life, and my mom and my aunt are still working through the trauma. That’s what happens when a physician who later goes on to lose his license to practice medicine prescribes your mother a crazy cocktail of drugs that makes her lock herself in the bathroom, climb out the window, and run screaming down the street in her nightgown that her family is trying to murder her. True story. The thing is, stories like this are true for so many people, and we would be better served by being open and talking through them. Unfortunately, constructive discussion about pain and trauma don’t have a place in the Reese Witherspoon brand. The stories that get told are ones of childhood idyll, throwing dinner parties, arranging flowers, and wearing seersucker. These stories feel hollow to me. They’re just branding.
This is all to say that I don’t feel welcome in Reese Witherspoon’s vision of Southern womanhood. I’ve been doing a lot of questioning lately. I’ve been thinking a lot about my gender. I’ve been wondering if I can sustain the tiny nugget of religious faith I have left. I want to feel validated, but so much of Southern society is just not welcoming of folks who don’t fit those ideals that Reese is helping prop up in Whiskey in a Teacup. I might just be mad that Reese is thin and beautiful and rich and I’m not, but I think I really just want to be myself without anybody giving me shit for it. There is more than one South, and there is more than one way to be Southern. The real story of Southern womanhood includes the full spectrum of genders and sexualities and personal expression and cultural experiences and values. I can refuse to cook dinner and be a horrible hostess and still be a Southern woman. I can refuse to submit to my husband as the head of my household and still be a Southern woman. I can be open about my struggle with mental illness and still be a Southern woman. I can dress like a boy or like someone’s grandfather and still be a Southern woman. I can question everything about myself and still decide — I’m a Southern woman.