Scarlett fever

The Southern Belle, from Scarlett O'Hara to Jerry Hall and Priscilla Presley, is an enduring female archetype - one that infuriates natives of Atlanta like the writer Susan Percy
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Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, chased from sleep by hoop-skirted demons brandishing eyelash curlers. They are trying to hold me down and dab cologne behind my ears, even as their shrill voices exhort me not to wear white shoes after Labor Day. I beg for mercy: "Not the Scarlett Thing. Please. Anything but that."

It is the inescapable destiny of any human being born into this world both female and Southern to confront the expectations of other non-female and non-Southern human beings who are satisfied with nothing short of major league belle-dom. They insist on varying combinations of flirtatious, coy, scheming, demure, headstrong, wily, deferential, and small-waisted, depending on what their particular Southern Belle image requires.

Personally, I'll take on almost any other cultural stereotype you want to throw my way: football, big hair, pick-up trucks, overcooked vegetables. I'll grant you houses with columns, ramshackle barbecue joints, colourful relatives, hospitality, magnolia blossoms, dogs with skin diseases, even, if you insist, charm. But, please, no romanticisation of Southern womanhood, most especially if you really mean it as a compliment.

During the weeks leading up to the 1988 Democratic National Convention held in my Atlanta hometown, my colleagues at Atlanta Magazine and I fielded dozens of calls from national news organisations preparing their obligatory local colour stories. I remember one network producer who was desperate to find some bona fide Southern belles to interview.

"I don't know any belles," I kept insisting. "I know women who are attractive and accomplished, women who are strong- minded, courageous, determined, soft-spoken, large of heart and small of shoe size. Some of them probably polish their silver and use cloth napkins. But these are women who practise law or teach algebra or run businesses. They don't sit around practising fan manoeuvres and honing feminine wiles. The only eyelash-batters you are likely to find are contact lens wearers during pollen season. And anybody with a 17-inch waist is probably in recovery at a place that treats eating disorders."

Scarlett O'Hara, I reminded her, was a working mother.

"Right," said the producer. "So could you give us the names of a couple of Southern belles?"

Growing up female is an experience rife with contradictions, incongruities, and paradoxes. Growing up Southern provides its own ambiguities. Put the two conditions together and you have the makings of a serious breakdown or a good belly laugh. Or both.

I've noticed that when non-Southerners want to offer a compliment, they usually say I don't sound Southern, which sounds to me like code for, "You do have a three-digit IQ, don't you?"

The female/Southern combination provides innumerable opportunities for being simultaneously fawned over and condescended to ("I'm glad to see women in this kind of work," a non-Southern male business associate said to me several years ago in Florida as we passed a woman toll booth operator. I expressed surprise. "Sure," he said. "It's a simple job. Anybody can do it.")

Forgive what must certainly sound like regional whining, but truly no other female population in any other section of America has to deal with such a pervasive stereotype. Perhaps, briefly, the notion of the "California girl" as a tanned, blonde, surfing fool was a contender; but she was allowed to grow up some time in the Sixties.

It is almost impossible to drive a stake through the heart of the belle myth. And the really frightening thing is that, when it is exorcised, it is usually replaced by something worse.

When I was a student at the University of Georgia, I had a friend who went out with a guy from Ohio who apparently got his information about Southern women from the old Lil' Abner comic strip. In the course of the first-date chit-chat, he learned that my friend was from the middle-Georgia town of Warner Robins. "What do you do for excitement in Warner Robins?" he asked.

"Well, usually we just go to Macon," she told him, mentioning the city just a few miles away.

Unfortunately, he didn't know anything about geography, either, and thought she was saying "go to makin'", which he took to be a quaint regional expression for consensual sex. The evening, as you might guess, did not go well after that.

And now to let you in on a dark little Southern secret (The rest of the world believes the South is just full of dark little secrets, but they are scarcer than you might think). The worst part of this whole Scarlett Thing is that sooner or later you get tired of fighting it and you end up going with it.

My Georgia-born mother, who went to work in Manhattan more than 50 years ago, used to have to fight off friends and co-workers who gathered around at parties and coffee breaks just to hear her talk. She tried to hold out, she said, having nothing but disdain for what she called "the professional Southerner". But, sooner or later, she would give in and repeat the often-requested sentence, "I'd like a ham sandwich and a Coca-Cola, please", while her companions rolled on the floor and counted the extra syllables.

A good audience is a powerful intoxicant - much more potent than magnolia blossoms. I blush to say I have a hoopskirt story that has accompanied me to innumerable cocktail parties. The story itself is unspectacular, involving a hoopskirt made of plastic, unfortunately old and brittle plastic, that snapped at a crucial point during my high school prom, threatening to envelop bystanders in a sea of sky-blue tulle. But it always gets a laugh, especially when I add a few embellishments.

I'm not entirely sure why this is so, but food seems to be the topic that most often breaks the resistance of belle-bashers like me and brings out the most blatant regional chauvinism. I'll be doing just fine, and all of a sudden somebody mentions cornbread and I hear myself proclaiming that no self-respecting Southerner puts sugar in cornbread and that only a cast-iron pan will cook it properly. This is particularly presumptuous, since I've never made cornbread in my life. I'll think to myself, "I'm doing it. I can't help it. It's the kitchen version of the Scarlett Thing."

When my husband and I were newly married and living in San Francisco, we happily accepted friends' invitation to join them for Thanksgiving dinner. I insisted on bringing something (Yes, I know, that's very Southern and very female.). "Well, since you're Southern," the hostess said, and I knew already I was in trouble, "how about a pecan pie?" The appropriate response would have been: "I don't know how to make a pecan pie. How about I just pick up something from the bakery that looks good?" But, of course, I agreed with great enthusiasm. Then I called my mother.

"I need your recipe for pecan pie."

"Who is this?"

"I'm serious. I need to make a pecan pie."

"Don't you have a cook book?"

The really hard part was finding the pecans, which are considerably less plentiful in California than in Georgia. I finally got them from a health food store for roughly the per-pound price of Beluga caviar. I produced a pie, but never summoned up the courage to try any of it. Nor, judging by the left-overs, did anybody else.

A friend who gave up cooking for her family in favour of the joys of take-out, none the less waxes sadly eloquent over what she sees as "the guilt of the modern Southern woman over her failure to cook for the dead". In the small north Georgia town where she grew up, this woman says, "a person simply didn't die without my mother taking a ham or a cake or a casserole to the family."

It's naive to ask what fuels this Southern woman business, in or out of the kitchen. We all know the answer. The belle myth has been around for a long time, but it is clearly The Book - Gone With the Wind - that cemented the image in the public's mind. Literary merit aside (I shouldn't even mention the English professor I had in college who dismissed the work as "mere historical fiction" and Scarlett O'Hara as "a third-rate Becky Sharp"), it continues to astound and frustrate me that generations of Southern women have been defined by a ruthless green-eyed mankiller who never existed. And that people actually use Gone With the Wind as a source book for information on things Southern - particularly female things Southern.

Still, I've been known to get a little overwrought on this particular subject. So I decided to seek a second opinion; I called up a tough, wise- cracking journalist type, one of the most clear-eyed and outspoken Southern women I know. I mentioned The Book and waited for her to light into it.

And waited.

Finally, in hushed tones, she whispered, "I read it for the first time when I was 13 years old. I stayed up all night to finish it. When my sister complained about having the light on, I went into the bathroom and lined the tub with towels and lay there all night reading. I sobbed my heart out."

Well, OK, there's no accounting for adolescent hormones. Had she looked at the book recently?

More reverent tones. "I re-read it as an adult," she said, "and I was just as thrilled."

And does she think the book accurately portrays the South? Hardly the point, she says. "It's good storytelling. It's romantic."

But doesn't it cloud the rest of the world's perceptions about Southern women?

No, she thinks we do that all by ourselves. "Of course, it's ridiculous when some ignoramus comes down here and thinks every woman is a Scarlett or a Melanie - or a Mammy, for that matter," she says. "The whole Southern myth is just some benighted romantic version that's not accurate. All that stuff about a noble cause that wasn't very noble at all. But we all want to believe in the romance."

Besides, she says, some of that Southern belle stuff works. "When I was a reporter in South Georgia, interviewing cops and sheriffs, I'd use it. "I'd call up and say, 'Sheriff, I'm just so stupid about this stuff, I don't understand. Could you explain it to me?' That always worked. If I had gone at it head on and said, 'All right, I want this information and I want it now. Don't screw around with me', they would have thrown up road blocks, and I would never have gotten anywhere. So I did the Scarlett Thing"

Susan Percy is a writer and former managing editor of 'Atlanta Magazine'