The South in a Koozie and Other Thoughts on Selling Regional Identity

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This spring, I visited Greenville, South Carolina, a great little town in the north west corner of the state. I went for a conference, but Greenville turned out to be a perfect case study for everything I’ve been thinking about— connections between place and history, between history and consumerism, and how consumerism shapes—and is shaped by—regional identity. My trip to Greenville came in the middle of a semester teaching my course on Southern History & Culture(s), in which we talk a lot about different ways of thinking about the U. S. South. We focus on issues of place and historical memory—we read essays from W. Fitzhugh Brundage’s great edited collection Where These Memories Grow —and we also talk some about how tourism, marketing, and consumerism have helped define the South (this semester we read selections from Tara McPherson’s Reconstructing Dixie, Anthony Stanonis’ edited collection Dixie Emporium , along with K. Stephen Prince’s Stories of the South , all books that have influenced how I think about these things).

So I had lots of ideas about Southern identity running through my head as I walked the streets of Greenville in the hours I was allowed out of the windowless conference chambers.

Greenville is an interesting mix—a revitalized, thriving small city that’s making the most of its history to attract residents and tourists, benefitting from the presence of nearby universities, a growing corporate presence, an arts scene, and a downtown that’s twice won the Great American Main Street Award.

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The downtown looks modern and nostalgic at once with brick-lined streets, nicely re-vamped historic buildings, artsy streetlights and foliage, statues and plaques commemorating people and events important to the city.

Lots to think about there in terms of marketing place.

But to move on to the koozies: I also found this intriguing store in Greenville: Southern Fried Cotton, http://southernfriedcotton.com (has another location in Clemson).

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The name is evocative, as no doubt intended—a seemingly incongruous blend of a classic Southern cooking style with a major symbol of the historical South.* Who would fry cotton and eat it? No one, probably, but that’s the point— a distinctive name that also thus implies the distinction of the products and perhaps of Southernness itself (more on this later).

The Southern Fried Cotton website promises “all things southern in all your favorite colors.” (The website is worth a visit—the imagery on the front page is striking, melding romance—a hallmark of any standard representation of the Old South, enticing flora and fauna, symbols of American pride—for Independence day—and old-style script that conjures bygone times.)

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So how can you buy the South in this shop? These photos help tell the story: Southern Fried Cotton is “inspired by southern style” and here, that “style” is wrapped up in images of the outdoors, objects that reference individualism and self-reliance (re-purposed bullets made into earrings), images of sweet and presumably loyal dogs.

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What I found most interesting (though not surprising) was the way gender norms inflected these products and this version of Southern “style.” These t-shirts and hats and decorative plaques offer more than a set of ideas about the South; they supply prescriptions for gender roles that tap into some very old ideas about (white) southern identity. So a “Southern Lady” is “someone who … has a pitcher of sweet tea at the ready-always writes a thank you note-knows pearls match everything—grows her own tomatoes and bakes pies for her neighbors….” and a “southern gentleman” can follow these “rules:” “always open doors for ladies. . . be kind. . . stay humble. . . cherish southern food. . . respect your elders. . . wear bow-ties, khakis. . .” And he can buy a “man-candle.” IMG_2017

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So these products reiterate boundaries for appropriate gendered behavior, boundaries around which conceptions of southern identity were built in the pre-Civil War era.  These lines are softer now; the consumerized (and popular culture-zed version of southern womanhood celebrates the active, steel magnolia southern woman); the gentleman memorialized on the t-shirt lacks the rigid, violent component of southern “honor.”

These sentiments echo in similar shops, on similar websites, and on myriad such products in the world of the consumerized South.

They are souvenirs, not of any particular South or part of the South but of a consumerized concept of the South. This consumer South lacks historical specificity and lacks, even, the specificity of a particular historical place.

Thus in Greenville, you can buy a piece of “Southern Fried cotton” that proclaims (or asserts, or borrows) a southern identity, but there’s nothing there to remind you that you got it in Greenville, South Carolina, a South that is different from Greenville, NC or Greenville, FL or Greenville, LA or Greenville, GA. And so, in the end, there’s really nothing distinctive inside the distinction of the fried cotton. Once the cotton is fried, the product is generic.

*and not surprisingly, the images of cotton are fluffy and nostalgic, devoid of the circumstances of production under first the plantation slavery system and then in the rigors of the post-Civil War textile industry. I don’t expect a t-shirt or drink koozie http://southernfriedcotton.com/collections/koozies/products/sofrico-navy-koozie to offer a history lesson, but it’s worth noting that such imagery is one small piece of the processes—in consumerism, in tourism—in popular culture that disassociate the nostalgic images of the Southern past from the gritty realities of that history (and its connection to equally grittier realities in the larger American history). (Tara McPherson makes great points about this type of nostalgia in Reconstructing Dixie.)

And yeah, I bought a couple of koozies.

Your Childhood Teddy Bear Grows Up

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Apparently, the Vermont Teddy Bear company has produced a “Fifty Shades of Grey” bear for Valentine’s Day, complete with handcuffs. I thought this was a joke when I heard about it on a news show. ( I’m still not convinced it isn’t, though evidence suggests otherwise, in form of the company’s website. And if it is a joke, then multiple news outlets include The Today Show were also taken in. It would be a great hoax, for sure.)

The copy on the company’s website reads: “If you want to dominate Valentine’s Day, skip the roses and send the limited-edition Fifty Shades of Grey Bear. Inspired by the best-selling book, the adult gift is specially designed for fans obsessed with Grey, biting their lips with anticipation over the movie. He features smoldering gray eyes, a suit and satin tie, mask – even mini handcuffs.”

Only 89.99.This particular bear comes with a safety warning: “Contains small parts. Not suitable for children.” Indeed.

The 50 Shades Bear is only one of a panoply of special Valentine’s Bears. They include: “The hoodie-footie bear,” “The I-Love-You-More-Than-Bacon Bear,” and the “Zombie Bear.” These specialty bears all average around $80.

I want to write about how the Fifty Shades bear shows an interesting trajectory for the classic teddy bear–from kids’ toy/love token/ to BDSM signifier (or at least, the book’s version of that). There’s really something rather brilliant and hilarious about turning a cuddly teddy bear into a symbol of sexual domination. As irony, it works. But here, I get caught in the conundrum of questioning intent–is the bear supposed to be funny? a pricey gag gift (surely no pun intended) as Today wondered, in a typical product placement bonanza on its website listing listed multiple Fifty Shades products? Or is it just seizing an opportunity? Who will buy the bear?

This column from The Daily Beast by Melanie Berliét makes very interesting points about how BDSM has been used as an advertising tool in recent years, along with critiquing the film and book’s portrayal of the practice.  Seen in this light, the Fifty Shades Teddy Bear is certainly nothing new. But the trend that Berliet describes raises another perpetual question in popular and consumer culture–once a subversive or alternative viewpoint or lifestyle becomes commercialized, what happens to it and its perception? Does the commercialization increase knowledge and change attitudes or just dilute the meaning of the original? Though Berliét’s article–and the teddy bear–reference a specific set of sexual practices, this question exists for lots of trends in popular culture.

Thus, the universe of “Fifty Shades” themed products merits discussion, though such cross-marketing is no surprise. We’d be more surprised if a potential movie block-buster did NOT arrive with products in tow. (And of course, this movie, given its subject matter and arrival on Valentine’s Day Eve, just begs for marketing tie-ins. The marketing of the film itself–with its emphasis on romance and its promise that love is sometimes neither black or white–is also intriguing, perhaps casting the book in a softer and more romantic light for film audiences?

Also, of course, this bear is just one artifact in a universe of Valentine’s Day goods, itself worthy of another post I promise to make soon.

And now I see my own Vermont Teddy Bear (very plain, devoid of props, received as a gift to celebrate some long-ago accomplishment) in a totally different light.