DER Documentary

Southern Belle

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by Kathy Conkwright and Mary Makley
color, 57 min / 75 min, 2010

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The Civil War may be long over but the spirit of rebellion is hard to extinguish even in something as innocent as a girls' summer camp. Southern Belle examines the 1861 Athenaeum Girls' School where young women eagerly sign up to become that iconic and romantic image of Southern identity: the Southern belle, replete with hoop skirt, hat and gloves, singing the region's anthem, Dixie. While the young women are eager to learn the "art" of being a lady by practicing penmanship and learning how to deep curtsy, a larger agenda for the camp appears to lurk under the surface.

The teachers, all of whom work for no compensation, hope to instill genteel manners and build pride in Southern heritage. They have also carefully selected the time period so they can share the "truth" with the next generation about why the South seceded from the Union. For them, the Civil War had little to do with slavery and everything to do with states' rights and unfair taxation.

Critics, however, say the camp experience whitewashes history and misinforms the next generation.

Is the camp a self-esteem building, living history experience or does it ultimately reinforce divisions between race, gender, and geography in the present?

As we begin the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Southern Belle captures the divisive historical memory of an American subculture and challenges us to consider how a romantic portrayal of the past can affect current attitudes that continue to define and divide America today.

The Scholars' Responses: Southern Belle is less about historic fact and more about how people use history to form their identity and understanding of the world. The film is meant to ignite discussion and debate between people with different beliefs, experiences and worldviews. The Scholars' Responses facilitates dialogue by providing additional historical context and analysis from leading historians and scholars. Topics include:
The Myth of the Southern Belle (7:43)
How the southern belle became an idealized symbol used to maintain social hierarchy and a rallying cry for post- Civil War revisionists.
Erasing Slavery from Secession (9:42)
How the Lost Cause movement erased slavery as a dominant cause of the Civil War and replaced it with state's rights.
Justifications For Slavery (6:03)
How misleading and ahistorical arguments are used to rationalize the South's use of slave labor.
The Southern Small Farmer (3:47)
Why would the "yeoman" farmer go to war with no dog in the Civil War fight?

Scholars interviewed:
Stan Deaton, PhD, Director, Georgia Historical Society
R. Blakeslee Gilpin, PhD, Asst. Prof. of History, University of South Carolina
Tara McPherson, PhD, Prof. of Critical Studies, University of CA, School of Cinematic Arts
Carroll Van West, PhD, Director, Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area

Playing Out Confederate History (5:52)
A short video that captures the directors' interest and intentions behind the making of Southern Belle.

“...visually appealing, well edited, fascinating... The film is simply a mirror that — depending on the perspective of the viewer — reflects either a distorted view of history which glosses over the oppression and brutalization of African people for the good of the South, or the "good old days" when woman's petticoats, curtsying and knowing how to keep ones voice from being shrill were imperative to white female survival.” — Molly Secours, Huffington Post
“In the wake of national controversy over the celebration of "Confederate History Month" and ensuing... (Southern Belle) is certain to raise eyebrows. Without comment, the film depicts a tightly corseted world where nostalgia for Dixie reigns and slavery is quickly dispensed with.” — Ron Wynn, Nashville Scene
“The possibilities for pedagogically fruitful discussions of this film are almost endless… ” Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews, July 2012
“Sure to spark discussion, this is recommended.” — Heather Seggel, Video Librarian, Volume 27, Number 5, September-October 2012

Related Resources
Film's website:
Filmmakers' website: MakeWright Films

Film Festivals, Screenings, Awards
2012 INPUT Conference, Australia, 2012
SVA Ethnographic Film Festival, USA, 2012
Citizen Jane Film Festival, 2011
Oxford Film Festival, 2011
Nashville Film Festival, 2010

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