"Ah! By my word! there is something singular about you..."
-Rochester to Jane Eyre

Friday, August 6, 2010

Fiddle Dee Dee!

There is something inexplicably marvelous about the southern belle in literature and pop culture. She represents dual personas: the virginal, gentile good girl on the outside and the saucy spitfire within. For me, Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara for me represents the first mainstream portrayal of the southern belle.


“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

There in the very first sentence of one of literature’s most epic novels sums up the appeal…charm. A woman does not have to be a stunning beauty, but she does have to know how to use her own feminine powers. However, as charming as Scarlett can appear on the surface, there is always something burning beneath those fiery green eyes. Mitchell turns the world of the “Old South” upside down and in doing so transforms her heroine into a righteous capitalist bitch.

 Marvelous, Oscar-winning actress Vivien Leigh as Miss O’Hara

Nevertheless, there is something almost admirable about Scarlett’s determination “to never go hungry again.” Essentially, she is a survivor. One can still wear one’s petticoat and still manage a lumber mill. One can go through multiple husbands and still come out on top. Status is very important for the southern belle. It signifies not only security, but also a significant amount of control.

Charm equals survival. And in the post-Civil War world, these southern belles knew that if they wanted to maintain a comfortable lifestyle, they needed a quick mind and a buxomly-showing dress.

Enter the second phase of the southern belle: The Early 20th Century Southern Aristocrat. Take for example, Regina Hubbard Giddens, from Lillian Hellman’s marvelous play “The Little Foxes.” Whereas Scarlett craved money and security, she also still wanted love and affection. Here, the southern belle transforms into something else…a calculating, sterile beauty.

Regina Giddens, wants her husband Horace to invest in her brothers’ scheming plans to construct a cotton mill, despite his protests. When Horace suffers a heart attack, Regina refuses to help him and watches as he clings to the stairway dying.

 Bette Davis’s Regina Giddens in Samuel Goldwyn’s 1941 classic, The Little Foxes

But Regina isn’t the only path the post-Civil War southern belle could take. Hellman gives Regina Giddens a perfect foil in her sister-in-law, Birdie Hubbard, a woman who still longs for the nostalgia of the good old days of the south, but who is so docile against her domineering husband that she has taken to secret binge drinking.

Patricia Collinge gives a delicate performance as Birdie

Hellman sets up two very distinct paths for southern woman in the play. They can either become hard and calculated or lose their ability to feel, or they can turn into nostalgic, fearful fractured creatures. It looks as if Zan (played by Teresa Wright in the film version) will remain naïve and innocent like her Aunt Birdie. However, Hellman offers a separate option for Zan, one that combines both features in these two distinct paths- survivor who has not lost her ability to feel.

Here we enter a post WWII southern belle, one that like Birdie has lost her sense of self, yet kept her sense of nostalgia. Enter Tennessee Williams and a character that gives Scarlett O’Hara a run for her money: Blanche Dubois.

 Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh

 Blanche comes to New Orleans seeking sanctuary. Gone are the days at Belle Reve, the family’s ancestral home. Williams patterned Blanche after his own fragile sister and the darkest traces of himself. It is the late 1940s and she is in her early 30s, unmarried, poor, yet still possessing a misguided romantic hope that she is 16 and the brightest belle at the ball. Like Birdie, she has turned to drink, but Blanche has also succumbed to the darkest parts of her nature.

Charm has transformed into something that was quaint, elegant, and expected of a southern belle, into innocence destroyed-promiscuity and the seduction of young boys. Her reputation permanently damaged, she goes to her sister, Stella, for a chance of redemption. There she meets Stanley. His mere presence is unsettling to the dainty, dreamer that is Blanche. She wants to create “enchantment.” She doesn’t want realism, she wants “magic.” Along with Anna Karenina and Ophelia, Blanche Dubois is one of literature’s most tragic heroines.

 Unlike Scarlett, who believes that there always is “another day,” Blanche dissipates into madness and is eventually institutionalized.

 Until know, the southern belle in literature has always been portrayed as a somewhat dainty, refined young woman. It is refreshing that author Harper Lee gives us a “stunted southern belle” in the form of tomboy, Scout Finch. Atticus Finch’s only daughter learns about life’s lessons that hard way through racism and intolerance. Scout dislikes wearing dresses. She would rather just be one of the boys.

Mary Badham as little Scout Finch with Gregory Peck

Scout paves the way for another character, one that may be unfamiliar to those who are not as fond of comics as I am— the X-Men’s own southern belle, Anna Marie Raven, aka Rogue.

Rogue was created in 1981 by writer Chris Claremont and artist Michael Golden as a villain for the popular, yet boorish heroine, “Ms. Marvel.” Under the tutelage of her foster-mother, the villainess shape shifter Mystique, Rogue attacks Ms. Marvel and accidentally absorbs her powers of strength, flight, and invulnerability. Rogue’s tragic flaw is her mutant ability. With the slightest tactile touch, she can absorb the abilities and memories of others, almost to the point of leaving the victim in a permanent coma. Rogue grew up a tomboy like Scout, and lost her first sweetheart to the tragic circumstances of her powers.

After a brief stint as a villain (kicking the crap out of Captain America and The Mighty Thor I might add!), Rogue reformed as a young X-Man. Over the years, under different writers, Rogue may have come off as a bit “ahem” white trash. However, she has matured into a thoroughly modern woman with a passionate heart for the X-Men and for the young mutants under her capable care.

Rogue is the amalgam of three of the above-mentioned southern belles, Scarlett O’Hara, Blanche Dubois, and Scout Finch. Her tomboy self matures into a fragile, yet at times coquettish woman. She cannot touch. She can only flirt. Yet even that is like Blanche, tragic because it leads to nowhere. Only recently, under the pens of writer Mike Carey has Rogue finally evolved. She now has the ability to control her life-draining touch. Hopefully, she'll dump fussy Gambit and move onto more mature men like Magneto.

The southern belle remains a permanent character throughout literature and pop culture, regardless of her incarnation. Of course, I'll be around to see it. After all tomorrow is another day!

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