The Value of Intelligence in Southern Women’s Wardrobes

The airheaded Southern Belle is practically a Jungian Archetype. Long ago, pop culture shrink-wrapped Southern women in tight wholesome packages, saddling them with ideals of propriety and pride in being the perfect bridge party hostess, always trimming the crust off the cucumber finger sandwiches. In her Garden and Gun article Southern Women: Redefining the Southern Belle, Allison Glock asserts traditional Southern womanhood “means handwritten thank-you notes, using a rhino horn’s worth of salt in every recipe, and spending a minimum of twenty minutes a day in front of her makeup mirror so she can examine her beauty in ‘office,’ ‘outdoor,’ and ‘evening’ illumination. It also means never leaving the house with wet hair.” In other words, poise, manners, and beauty are the most valuable attributes she offers. But, essayist and native North Carolinian, Meghan Florian challenges these cultural mores.

In her essay collection, The Middle of Things, Florian, a writing teacher at William Peace University and the Center for Theological Writing at Duke Divinity School, describes her shifting roles as she seeks her identity as a feminist amidst the conservative morality of the divinity school world. Using herself, famous female icons, and her own family members as models of femininity, she delivers an unmediated perspective on the labels too often projected onto Southern women.

Florian’s musings begin by depicting the personality mutations that occur while assimilating into various conversations or occasions. Upon meeting two younger women at Camp Kierkegaard, she tells herself, “I am the Cool Girl” to muster up confidence. Only moments later, she states, “In ordinary life, I am less Cool Girl or even Smart Girl than I am Invisible Woman. I am no longer simply uncool; now I am aging.” This faltering and later shedding of a false identity cycles throughout her time at the camp like having a wardrobe where every outfit demands its own shoe. Florian dons Smart Girl when speaking to an attractive band member about her studies in philosophy, deciding she likes that outfit for that sort of situation. In fact, she favors Smart Girl. Florian details how a friend once commented on her voracious reading habit and how a sign reading “Kierkegaard Scholars Residence” made her grin like an idiot. “That was me,” she remarks upon the discovery of her niche.

In contrast to Florian’s changes in wardrobe, a later essay appropriately entitled “What About Breakfast at Tiffany’s?” compares her sister Holly to Audrey Hepburn’s beloved character, Holly Golightly. She notes the movie character’s “stylish clothing, the way she carries herself, and the way she receives bad news, which seduces even me.” Her sister and Holly Golightly represent the traditional image of the Southern woman: well-spoken, tasteful, and socially aware. However, she also highlights the reality of this graceful seduction. A phone call between the two betrays a sliver of the truth in sister Holly’s performance: “I can feel the tension between awkward realities and the calm, graceful persona she wishes to portray.” Despite the appealing poise that her sister and the fictional character possess, Florian makes the difference clear. Her Holly lives independently as an educated, hard-working woman, while Hepburn’s Holly largely depends on men despite insisting on purchasing her own whiskey.

In “Must Love Radiohead,” Florian draws the connection between her awkward “Smart Girl” ramblings and her sister’s strained attempts at maintaining a refined presence. Southern women can be intelligent as long as their male peers don’t feel emasculated. As Florian writes, “Intelligence in women is a turn on so long as ‘intelligence’ means a willingness to listen to her date mansplain without dissenting…” The South allows women to be smart enough for entertainment and conversation; however, should she come off as too smart, her attractiveness diminishes. With Florian’s lack of confidence in presenting herself as nerdy and her sister’s carefully coiffed demeanor, readers understand the danger of undesirability in women deemed “too smart” by male standards, threatening the patriarchal standards that maintain white male privilege as the status quo.

The Middle of Things intends to explore Florian’s struggle coming-of-age as a feminist woman in the “ethos of the theological academy and the church.” Florian notes how attempts to “critique dominant male narrative of theological orthodoxy” were “shut down,” while observing that “transcending gender in the early church meant transcending femaleness.” However, much of the collection fixates over dating sites, outward appearance, and personal relationships. She makes no mention of how women of color experience a higher level of discrimination in professional pursuits or that the gender pay gap dominates much of the South. If she hasn’t encountered these sexist inequities, she’s been doubly blessed. What could make a strong, inclusive argument about the undermining of a woman’s intelligence risks drifting towards a confessional from a brainy Carrie Bradshaw. The intelligent Southern lady’s struggle doesn’t revolve around comfortable social niches or romance. Just as every woman needs a little black dress in her closet, the New South must include women in intellectual pursuits or risk being dropped like last year’s trend.

Tagged: academia, book review, essay, fashion, feminine, feminism, intelligence, Meghan Florian, North Carolina, Southern women, theology, women