Sometime between Reconstruction, this episode of MTV: True Life, and the hundred-thousandth wedding held on a plantation in South Carolina, the term Southern Belle became just another friendly identifier to put in your Twitter bio, a throwaway regional label no weightier than Cali Surfer Dude. But the difference between SoCal pride and honoring your Southern gentility is that the latter celebrates the ugliest stain in America's history.
The notion of the Southern Belle dates back to the 19th century, when it was a cheery name given to a specific sort of white person who flourished in the American South before the end of the Civil War. Belles were a few very specific things: white, bourgeois, and almost certainly beneficiaries of the slave trade, married to the plantation owners whose wealth was secured through black chattel. From an encyclopedic entry provided by the University of Richmond:
She was beautiful but risky to touch, like porcelain. Every southern belle was expected to be up-to-date on the latest fashions, which often proved tricky and expensive because fashion was constantly changing throughout the nineteenth century. A true lady embodied the ideals of the South, and was thus hospitable and graceful.
Today, the image of a Southern Belle is not just some strange collage on Blake Lively's mood board, but a commonplace compliment used frequently in sorority recruiting and on Tumblr, an inane cheer for a vague kind of Southern pride. Thought Catalog, our most accurate trove of inanities, defines the Southern Belle as a "mindset" that doesn't even have much to do with geography anymore:
Not knowing how to cook is just not an option for the Southern Belle. They were raised to know how to make a good meal, to feed themselves and the people they love, and to have people looking forward to coming over for dinner. When you go to their house, you know that you are going to leave full and happy.
Southern Belles don't care if not every woman wants to be like them, or if they're considered too "traditional" or "old-fashioned." They are happy to live the life they have, and be who they are, without pleasing some feminist or businesswoman who wants them to be more "modern." They know how much better life is when you live it in style.
The Southern Belle, you see, knows better than you do. She knows what is right—for her family, for herself, and for her country. The modern Southern Belle is a paragon of conservative values, warmth, light, quiet strength, and happiness. It may seem retrograde, but it's just what genteel society women have been doing since the days of the Confederacy.
From the September 7th, 1861 issue of Harper's: "A Female Rebel in Baltimore"
But praising the loyalty and generosity of the Southern Belle is about as cheery as celebrating the camaraderie of the Hitler Youth, the fresh air of the Trail of Tears, or the cardiovascular benefits of the Bataan Death March. You can find something fun in any horror of history! And the Belles of today do exactly that—if you bring up sl*very, they'll point to all the nice parts about the Old South. The architecture, the parties, the sipping of cool drinks on warm porches. Oh, the fields? Those fields are just for growing delicious strawberries and tomatoes for folks to enjoy. Nothing more.
Every perk and beautiful part of white plantation life was created through black slavery. If Belles were patient and gracious, it's because forced black labor enabled it. If the Southern life was pretty and sophisticated, it's because slavery afforded it. Everything pleasant about Belle-hood was a function of human suffering on a vast scale—it's conceptually impossible to separate the society bankrolled by slavery from the slavery itself.
Americans love myopia and general narrowness. Think of how great it would be if we could treat history like a buffet and just pick out nice parts? The chic tailoring of SS uniforms, the athleticism of Roman bloodsport, the loyalty of feudalism.
Unfortunately for the nostalgics, the Old South is synonymous with the Antebellum south, which in turn is synonymous with the slave economy. Bu-bu-but tradition! Sorry. Your tradition was someone else's nightmare. Pining for those days, even if you're too detached from national history to realize it, is pining for the comforts of whiteness when black people were property. You ignore it, you can romanticize it, and you can deny it, but you don't get to pick and choose the portions of history that actually happened; the Old South is a soiled rag, too rank with national shame to be wrung out. Antebellum America cannot be redeemed for the sake of your wedding, fraternity mixer, or lifestyle website.
So: Please pick a different party venue, because otherwise your wedding is going to be shitty and racist.
Image by Jim Cooke