Southern? Not So Much


Years ago, Oxford American magazine published an issue with a Southern Womanhood theme, featuring Ashley Judd in a University of Kentucky jersey. Men lusted after southern women in numerous articles. One southern writer who had moved away wrote about how relieved she was to meet other southern women at parties so she didn't feel out of place with her lacquered hair and made-up face. Bless her heart.

Unmeasured was the number of readers who asked, "Ain't I a woman?ԗor more to the point, "Ain't I a Southern Woman?"

Melinda Rainey Thompson has no doubts. She claimed that title in 2006 when she wrote "SWAG: Southern Women Aging Gracefully," a book she considers a companion to "The Sweet Potato Queen" franchise. Now, she has a new book, "I Love You - Now Hush" (John F. Blair, 2010, $16.95), where she complains about her suburban life and calls it southern.

Her writing accomplice is Morgan Murphy, whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair and Esquire. It's a nice structure: Thompson goes first, like any spoiled southern belle would demand, telling woeful tales of housework and hysteria. Then, the long-suffering southern gentleman follows, making his charming rebuttal, then quickly receding. A reader can't be blamed for assuming the two are married.

Thompson and Murphy are not a couple and, as soon as that becomes clear, any appeal that "I Love You - Now Hush" may have starts to fade. A second look at the cover shows that behind Thompson and Murphy, both white, are two other people (a gardener and a maid) who are both much darker.

Thompson and Murphy take turns displaying hostility. She complains about how men don't do housework; he points out that yard work and building repairs should count. She loves to shop; he hates it. She embraces the crafty put-down with the hidden insult; he swears and says what he means. Sexist stereotyping among American suburbanites seems to be more at work here than true observations of modern southern culture.

Like Jane Austen plopped down in Alabama, Thompson writes about daily concerns, such as how to respond properly to the question "How are you?" (The only thing she wants to hear is "fine." Move along.) Murphy, a former Southern Living editor, cooperates with this insincere, shallow and sanitized version of the South. Neither share details about how these situations are uniquely Southern.

For many southerners, this sit-com version of life may well be reality, but at times, the "humor" sounds more like tragedy, and raw emotions override what humor there is.

Consider the authors' painful reflections about Valentine's Day: "I can't tell you how disgusted I feel when I hear a man say he can't think of anything to do for his one, true love on Valentine's Day," Thompson writes. "Baloney. Can't be bothered is more like it."

Murphy counters with a what's-the-use-of-trying response. "Men who think that singing, cutting up construction paper hearts, making fancy dinner reservations, saying mushy stuff on Valentine's Day, et al, will somehow give them credit for the next 365 days are sorely mistaken. They will get a romance credit that lasts until February 15."

The lesson clearly is that sexism is a stubborn beast. Men don't ask for directions; women don't get technology; communication is not an option for either stereotype. Thompson is honest about her intentions, pointing out that this collection of essays is by no means a self-help book or a serious look at gender roles, equity or psychology. She just wants to be fun and flirty and maybe go shopping later. Murphy writes he just does what he is told. What a guy!

Goodness knows that the sexes do differ; we all have problems with our partners not doing what we want the way we want when we want them to do it. We all have moments of immaturity. And truth be told, we all get a little kick out of sharing some of these stories with good friends who shake their heads along with us, ponder about the opposite sex and regret having to grow up. It's good wholesome fun. This is the spirit "I Love You - Now Hush" seeks to evoke. And maybe for a small group of white people with Mexican gardeners and black maids, this book might feel like visiting with friends. That group, though, could be almost anywhere, even places where they don't know what okra is or where they put sugar in their grits out of pure ignorance.

Maybe they subscribe to Better Homes and Gardens instead of Southern Living.

And that's the biggest problem with the book: It's not about the South at all. A few references about going to church and eating fried food aside, these stories could be from anywhere middle-income men and women with aspirations of becoming "upper class" live—in suburban McMansions, driving SUVs, carrying iPhones and spending conspicuously. They worry about not being perfect, pout about not getting their way, and then write about the "humor" they find in all this, expecting us to laugh ourselves silly.

That is just so sweet of them to think of us, bless their hearts. At 251 pages, they have delighted us long enough.

Thompson and Murphy will be at Lemuria Books to sign and read from "I Love You - Now Hush," Wednesday, Feb. 3 starting at 5 p.m. Call 601-366-7619 for more info.


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