I write books set in the South, and it’s always interesting to hear readers ‘not from around here’ describe my leading ladies. To some, the women I pen are ruthless. To others, they are misguided. To a few, they are unimaginable. To most, they are strong, for better or worse. To me, they are simply writing what I know.
My family from north Alabama speaks in a southern drawl so thick you’d think they’d just eaten a spoonful of sorghum syrup at any given moment. They are the women I know best: my grandmothers, my aunts, my sisters, my mother. Like the stereotypes of Southern women, they can serve you hot banana pudding right out of the oven and at the same time tell you off with a smile. They stand up to difficult men, sustain unexpected loss, and get up and do it again the next day.
But what is a Southern woman? Sure, they’re often expected to be demure, gentile, lady-like, softspoken. And then, surprise, on the turn of a dime, they so aren’t. Because, here’s the thing I’ve come to realize from living among and writing about southern women: they defy expectations.
Maybe all good characters defy expectations in one way or another, but southern women do it with a panache and charm and sass that can be mesmerizing to watch. Whether it’s Grady Hendrix’s novel The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires or Hellen Ellis’s hilarious collection of essays Southern Lady Code, we want to watch these women take care of business.
One of my favorite recent books featuring Southern women is Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. I loved the book so much that after reading it a couple of years ago, I knew I had to teach it to my senior AP Literature class. The Vanishing Half begins as the story of two sisters in the 1960s growing up in a fictional Louisiana town called Mallard. Their ancestral maternal grandfather was a light-skinned African American who founded a town filled with people who looked like him. Generations later, his fair ancestresses, identical twins Stella and Desiree decide to run away together at sixteen. Months later, they separate—as if rent in half—when Stella decides to pass over and live as a white woman, effectively cutting herself off from Desiree.
Like any good Southern girl, these young women obey all the rules set forth by society, by their family, and by their small town…until they don’t. It’s in the rebellion against expectations that the heart of the story happens. That’s where family dynamics shift. That’s where difficult questions of race and love and loyalty lie.
I grew up in a conservative Southern Baptist home in the 1980s, so one of the first novels I read was Christy, written in 1967, by Catherine Marshall. The titular character is a 19-year-old who volunteers to be a schoolteacher missionary in the Appalachian mountains. As you might expect, Christy learns as much—if not more—from the people of the hills than she teaches them.
I still reread parts of this book occasionally, mostly because the way that the women in the novel speak feels familiar. Reading phrases like “purty big racket,” “come time to…,” and “runnin hither and yon” make me feel like I’m chatting with one of my own kinfolk who’s “gone on to glory.”
I also appreciate the mindset of the people in Christy’s rural community of Cutter Gap. One of the characters explains that “in these mountains, family loyalty comes before everything else—including the law.” Perhaps it’s no wonder that I wrote a book in which three Southern sisters decide to deal with a problematic man by putting him in the ground. Who wants to alert the authorities if you can take care of issues with those who know you best and love you no matter what?
Films with Southern women carry the same acts of subversion, whether blatant or subtle. With a couple of friends, Dolly Parton takes down a terrible, sexist boss representing the patriarchy in 9 to 5. Sally Field doesn’t say all the polite things to her friends as she grieves at the graveside of her daughter in Steel Magnolias, and they love her through it all. Danielle Deadwyler refuses to relent as she stands up to a racist system and demands acknowledgment and justice for her son in Till. I’ll never forget watching Fried Green Tomatoes for the first time as a kid. When those women took care of a good-for-nothin man, I was shocked, yes. But, maybe not as shocked as I should’ve been, considering how I’d grown up among these kinds of ladies.
I have to return to Steel Magnolias for a moment because that phrase has come to represent all Southern women. When Shelby, played by Julia Roberts, declares that her wedding colors are ‘blush’ and ‘bashful,’ we are reminded of the frivolity of sugar and spice and everything nice that little girls are supposed to be made of. But, when we are confronted with this same characters’ death, we find that the only person able to stay by her side is her mother, played Ms. Field. She tells her friends that, ironically, “men are supposed to be made out of steel or something.” Instead, it’s the women who are the backbone of this family, this town, and, of course, this film.
Growing up in the deep South, it seemed that every extended holiday featured the airing of the film version of Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize winning Gone with the Wind. While so many excellent writers have now pointed out the numerous flaws with the representation of black people and slavery in both the novel and film, in the 1980s in Alabama, many Christmases and Thanksgivings were spent with this four hour TV version of this movie running in the background of family gatherings.
By the time I was in middle school, I could quote Scarlett O’Hara’s lines by heart. “After all…tomorrow is another day” was not only a hopeful sentiment but a way to excuse today’s atrocities and begin fresh ones tomorrow. “I can shoot straight if I don’t have to shoot too far” was proof that women could take care of themselves if push came to shove. Scarlett, with her temper and her resilience and her “I Did It My Way” gumption, was seen as the epitome of the Southern woman while mealy-mouthed Melanie Wilkes was too sweet for her own good.
Scarlett’s ‘Mammy’ was played by Academy Award winning Hattie McDaniel who faced racism and sexism on and off screen. Quotes from Ms. McDaniel evidence that though she encountered prejudice and discrimination throughout her career, her philosophy was to stand against it while staying in the film industry—and winning a coveted screen award in the meantime. McDaniel is quoted as saying, “You can best fight any existing evil from the inside.” She lived and breathed and worked inside this mindset.
As I was writing I Love It When You Lie, a book about three sisters in north Alabama, I couldn’t help but borrow from the caricatures of Southern women that I’ve read and seen over the years. However, as someone who knows multiple generations of nuanced southern women (my great great grandmother was alive until I was in eighth grade—she married at thirteen, which is another story entirely), I also wanted to subvert the expectation, to bring layers and nuances to the stereotypes. I wanted to make my readers feel like they were drinking a tall glass of iced tea with a friend on the front porch of Gran’s house.
Perhaps any depiction of a caricature, such as that of the Southern woman, is destined to fall short, but my hope is that as we build upon the framework of representation, we will continue to see the definition of this kind of woman expand. Us storytellers must keep trying to explore alternate dimensions of expected stereotypes, to delve into the psychological backstory, to acknowledge issues of race and bigotry and sexism, to make well-rounded people come alive on the page. That’s the kind of South I want to read and write.