belle (bel) n. [Fr., fem. of beau; see beau], 1. A very attractive woman or girl. 2. The most attractive or most popular woman or girl of a certain place or on a given occasion: as, the belle of the ball.
This is one of those uncharacteristic times when I choose a word to ruminate on in addition to the word of the week. And this word is “belle.”
In the last month and a half, we have lost two iconic actresses who created iconic characters: Dixie Carter as Julia Sugarbaker and Rue McClanahan as Blanche Devereaux.
I have been uncharacteristically sad about these celebrity deaths. I have always loved Designing Women. As an avid fan of The Golden Girls, I grieved the loss of both Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty this past year. However, there
was something different about the loss of Rue.
Let me offer some context. I was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana—in a place where, despite modern times, I learned that women were supposed to dress, act, and behave in certain ways. I wore tights as a little girl and at about age eleven switched to pantyhose (even in summer, in Louisiana). My mother never let me leave the house without something being pressed. I learned to have pride in my appearance, in the way I dressed and the way I conducted myself.
I learned that there was no white after Labor Day. I learned about pearls and handkerchiefs and linen and seersucker. I learned the importance of presenting oneself in a certain way. I also learned that women were to be smart (but not too smart), interesting (but not too interesting).
I was fortunate enough to be raised by progressive parents, who encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to, who believed I could do anything a boy could do. They encouraged me to follow my dreams and to pursue whatever held my interest. However, despite their support, I always had a feeling that I might have to sacrifice one part of myself for the other. I would have to cover up my femininity in order to be strong. I would have to pretend to be passive to maintain my girl-ness.
I watched The Golden Girls and Designing Women during formative years in my life. The first time I remember watching The Golden Girls was when I went to my grandmother’s house after school in junior high. It was a hard time for me. My parents were separated, which had come to me as a total shock. I was at a new school for the first time, and for the first time, I was in class with boys. I felt like I didn’t fit in and had no chance of being popular. I have always loved these two shows, but it wasn’t until the stunning sadness at the loss of these two women that I have begun to understand why.
I realize now that in Julia and in Blanche, I found role models of what it means to be a real Southern belle. Not a Scarlet O’Hara or a Blanche DuBois, but a belle for modern times. A belle who is self-defined instead of defined by men’s expectations of her.
These were woman who were attractive and not just because of what they looked like. These were women who were smart and educated. They had family lives and professional lives. They had quick wits and were quick to use them. They were classy, well-dressed and gorgeous. They had beautiful, intimate friendships and sometimes challenging but fulfilling romantic relationships. They had grown into themselves and were responsible for that growing.
And they were older. Rue McClanahan once said of The Golden Girls: “that when people mature, they add layers.” And the show was a revelation of that fact, a fact that women need to hear. Because I think there is still an idea in our culture, which is much too rampant, especially in the South. That being that women are to be respected because of their beauty and when they are older, they become washed-up, objects to be forgotten about or thrown away. The show proved that women become even more assured and knowledgeable and interesting with every year that passes. Women become more beautiful with more life experiences and lessons learned, with more laugh lines and wrinkles.
The shows themselves had substance, unlike most shows today, and were not afraid to tackle controversial issues, like HIV/AIDS and racism. Because the writing was so good and the acting was so strong, these issues worked seamlessly into the dialogue and action of episodes. And one of the commonalities between them was a strong feminist thread. In their episodes, Designing Women and The Golden Girls dealt with: abusive relationships, domestic violence, sexism and sexual harassment, violence towards women and self-defense courses, expectations for women’s beauty, and sex and sexuality.
These shows weren’t produced as Public Service Announcements but as powerful dramatic and comedic programming that revealed real characters working through and struggling with these realities in their day to day lives. And so, when I was young, I learned vicariously what it meant to stand up for myself, and how I should be treated, with respect and love.
I want to use these women to redefine the conception of Southern belles. The thing about real Southern belles is that they don’t restrict themselves. At the same time, and in the moment they sashay their hips, they are feminine and strong, they are classy and kitschy, they are sweet and what some may call bitchy. They are bold with their own ideas and receptive to others’. They are sexy and innocent. They are the ultimate hostesses and vulnerable to making mistakes. They refuse to be defined as one thing or another. They can be both and all.
I learned from these women that it was okay to be myself, that it was fullness and contradiction that makes women beautiful. I learned to accept all my qualities as valuable. Some might call Julia a bitch because she spoke her mind. Some might call Blanche a slut because she took charge of her own sexuality. I call them strong Southern women who I was lucky to see as an impressionable little girl. I will always be grateful to Dixie and to Rue for creating such lovely and lovable complicated women who became role models of how to be it all, how to have it all, and most of all: how to be myself.