Southern Identity For Sale at the Mall

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Check out this mannequin in the window of Dixie Heritage, a shop in a Sanford, Florida mall. Draped in fragments of the Confederate battle flag, she performs her “Dixie Heritage” a for passers-by, linking female sexuality, southern womanhood, and southern identity.

Dixie Heritage continues a long tradition of marketing regional identity, packaging southernness in objects and icons. For more, see the great essay collection Dixie Emporium: Tourism, Foodways, and Consumer Culture in the American South (Ed. Anthony Stanonis, U of Georgia Press, 2008)

Though everything in this shop window epitomizes the creation of regional identity through consumerism, I find the mannequin particularly interesting. She may be the latest in a long line of women performing southernness for audiences.

If you’ve ever seen the infamous yet classic D. W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation (1915),* you may remember how the little sister of the Southern Cameron family, Flora, decorates her worn dress with cotton to welcome her older brother home to their South Carolina town after the Civil War. Because her family lost their wealth during the war, the cotton is all she can manage for adornment, so it represents her pride, the family’s lost wealth, and the defiance that would characterize Lost Cause ideology. In that scene, Flora embodies the linkage between white womanhood and the South that had been a major element of antebellum white southern identity and that continued to define post-Reconstruction depictions of the white South.

Flora was pure and chaste, as the white upper-class Southern belle of her era (and the many later iterations of her) was supposed to be.

This mannequin embodies an updated version of that image, one that makes room for working-class womanhood, for a self-defined “redneck” womanhood,*** and for sexuality. The mannequin doesn’t pretend to modesty. She celebrates her own body in a modern way that some might claim as feminist (and others might see as exploitative). Her association with camo and a reclaimed “redneck” identity (see photo below) demonstrates she is not of the wealthy belle class.

There’s something to celebrate in the broadening of idealized southern womanhood beyond the upper class, to be sure. And there’s something great about a version of ideal womanhood that challenges the very idea of an ideal; these women can be tough, gun-toting, beer-drinking, race-car driving just as a man could.

But on the other hand, having woman stand in for region is no more progressive than it ever was. Possibly this mannequin has traded one set of stereotypes for another.

I’ve used the word “embody” a lot here for a reason. The mannequin-woman trades on her body and her sexuality; her womanhood IS her body, and that reductionism has never been positive for women. Of course, she’s also a marketing tool; her clothes and her image are for sale and the allure of her bikini-d mannequin body intends to draw customers into the store. There, they can purchase southern identity made tangible in belt buckles, towels, clothing and other paraphernalia, available in shades of camo, laced through with the red, white, and blue of the rebel flag.

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* Birth of a Nation is the film about the Civil War and Reconstruction infamous for its racist portrayals of African Americans played by whites in blackface, its twisted portrayal of history, and its celebration of the KKK; classic for its pioneering film techniques)

**Flora also ends up jumping to her death, running away from Gus, a biracial man who was running after her asking her to marry him. The presumption in the film was that Gus was going to rape her, and thus she had to jump to her death to save herself. Flora’s brother and his KKK buddies lynch Gus in revenge. The whole sequence justifies the violent actions of the KKK in the Reconstruction era and previews the violence the second Klan would exert on black men following its founding in 1915. The film helped sustain the myth of “black man as rapist,” one of the most damaging stereotypes of the post-Civil War era, used to justify lynchings of innocent black men at the hands of white mobs.

***Thanks, Gretchen Wilson; the lyrics to “Redneck Woman” (2004) pretty much sum up the image.

 

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