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Southern Lady Code

June 23, 2019

Trying to court the same audience who loved Steel Magnolias, A Southern Belle Primer, Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love, Helen Ellis’ new Southern Lady Code is less funny and more pitiful.

Although there are a lot of things I like about the Sweet Potato Queens series, there were parts (for instance, about the “junior league”) that I chalked up to an effort to court women in the 1990’s Republican south. I learned a new phrase from these books: “out of pocket.” Do you know what it means? It means that you’re spending your own money, doing something unrelated to your profession, and are therefore unavailable in a way you can’t be when you’re responsible to others. Helen Ellis takes that kind of stuff a whole lot further, although much of it is wrapped up in her identity as a New Yorker rather than a southerner, like the Burberry trench coat she spent $1,895 on to replace one she already had that cost $795.

Rather than quirky, it’s just sad to read about Helen’s belief that the state of the place she lives in reflects on her (rather than on her and also anyone else who lives there). I’m not charmed by “dusting is meditative. Boiling the fridge relieves PMS. Making the bed is my cardio, because to make a bed properly, you have to circle it like a shark.”

It’s not funny, in June 2019, to read Helen’s pronouncement that “Alabama was not—and I don’t think is—an abortion-friendly state.” She tells a terrible story about being nineteen years old and going to a doctor to get a birth control pill prescription: “when I came out of the exam room I was crying. The doctor had put his hands on me in an unprofessional way and lectured me about the sin of premarital sex. He’d said ‘I’d never let my daughter go on the pill.’” Helen thinks it all turned out okay because her mother found a new gynecologist, never once seeming to wonder what happened after the “high school girls” who “really did have babies in my high school bathrooms” had to raise those children, presumably with fewer resources than a woman who moved to New York City to write books like the Southern Lady Code.

Helen is so self-absorbed that she doesn’t stop to ponder what life must have been like for her own “Grandpapa” or any of the other southern men she describes as genteelly closeted gays but crows about how wonderful it is to meet gay men in New York: “to me, a room full of gay men is like Narnia. It’s a place I hoped was out there, on the other side of a closet door, full of talking lions that I always deep down suspected could talk.” Here’s a hint, Helen. If you want magic, you need to help make it. Maybe you could write a book that encourages the women you left in Alabama to vote for reproductive health care, rather than the kind of patriarchal laws that wouldn’t seem out of place in the 17th century or Margaret Atwood’s neo-puritan Gilead.

Another part of the book that comes to us straight out of the New Dark Ages, where people believe in ghosts but think that feminism means letting women talk occasionally and take care of getting the children their vaccinations, is this:
“When their daughter, Katy Belle (who was named after Great-aunt Belle), spoke to the People in the Fireplace at four years old, and then at six woke to see a man drink a grape soda in her bedroom, and then at seven asked my sister if ghosts are real and Elizabeth said ‘oh yes, we are a family that likes ghosts!’ Stefan didn’t contradict her. He is helping to raise a funny intelligent glamazon.” Or, you know, a superstitious child.

Being “southern” is evidently the same as being so damaged you can’t even tell because everyone around you is also damaged:
“Our principals patrolled the halls with wooden paddles. Some drilled holes in the inch-thick wood in shop class so the paddles whistled when they swung. One vice principal never sat because he kept a yardstick down the inside back leg of his pants. We’d all been threatened or spanked at school or hit at home with a switch or a belt.
And everyone’s parents had guns.”

Other things this author claims are particularly “southern” are good manners and good sense, like writing thank-you notes and knowing when to say no thanks. And if she believes that the food her grandmother served in the 1970’s is particularly southern (“Hawaiian cheese log” and “Nutter Butter snowmen”) I’d like to introduce her to James Lileks and his “gallery of regrettable food.”

It’s not “southern” to make fun of someone and pretend they don’t know, despite jokes about “bless her heart” preceding insults in the south and Helen’s claim that she speaks in “code” because “if you don’t have something nice to say, say something not so nice in a nice way.” Animals may sometimes be fooled by that. Humans are not … unless they’ve completely tuned you out.



8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 23, 2019 1:46 am

    Commenting on things doesn’t build empathy. Living them – from the inside out – does. That’s what good fiction attempts to do, to let you be someone else.

  2. June 23, 2019 8:16 am

    So many people have loved this book so I listened to it and, like you, was not charmed by it and I consider myself a Southerner. I felt it help perpetuate some myths about the south that just aren’t true – for example, we don’t own guns and our friends don’t own guns and my principals didn’t roam the halls with paddles and neither did our son’s. I felt like the author just tried too hard.

    • June 23, 2019 8:58 am

      Yes, she definitely tries hard. I kept being amused when she referred to herself by her first and middle name, which is very southern, because her names are not particularly southern. As someone who grew up in the south but left, she could have given more perspective on that.

  3. elizabeth permalink
    June 23, 2019 9:11 am

    I hope you’re getting a palate cleanser of a book to read now; the last few have sounded awful. At least, awful to me!

    • June 23, 2019 9:26 am

      I’ve been checking out a lot of books from the library– all kinds of books, and some I’ve never heard or read about, but just thought I’d try. At other times of the year, I can only make time to read books I’m pretty sure I will like.


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