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Race and Femininity: Southern Beauty

Thursday, March 23, 2023 at 4:30pm to 6:00pm

Virtual Event

Southern Beauty explains a curiosity: why a feminine ideal rooted in the nineteenth century continues to enjoy currency well into the twenty-first. Elizabeth Bronwyn Boyd examines how the continuation of certain gender rituals in the American South has served to perpetuate racism, sexism, and classism.

In a trio of popular gender rituals--sorority rush, beauty pageants, and the Confederate Pageant of the Natchez (Mississippi) Pilgrimage--young white southern women have readily ditched contemporary modes of dress and comportment for performances of purity, gentility, and deference. Clearly, the ability to "do" white southern womanhood, convincingly and on cue, has remained a valued performance. But why?

Based on ethnographic research and more than sixty taped interviews, Southern Beauty goes behind the scenes of the three rituals to explore the motivations and rewards associated with participation. The picture that Boyd paints is not pretty: it is one of southern beauties securing status and sustaining segregation by making nostalgic gestures to the southern past. Boyd also maintains that the audiences for these rituals and pageants have been complicit, unwilling to acknowledge the beauties' racial work or their investment in it.

With its focus on performance, Southern Beauty moves beyond representations to show how femininity in motion--stylized and predictable but ephemeral--has succeeded as an enduring emblem, where other symbols faltered, by failing to draw scrutiny. Continuing to make the moves of region and race even as many Confederate symbols have been retired, the southern beauty has persisted, maintaining power and privilege through consistent performance.

Please join us for an interview of Elizabeth Boyd by Tara McPherson, moderated by Riche Richardson, with follow up Q&A from the audience.



TARA McPHERSON is the The HMH Foundation Endowed Chair for the Study of Censorship in Media and Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and Director of the Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Studies, and also an affiliated faculty member in the American Studies and Ethnicity Department.  Her research engages the cultural dimensions of media, including the intersection of gender, race, affect and place.  She has a particular interest in digital media.  Her most recent book, Feminist in a Software Lab, was published by Harvard University Press in 2018 and received the 2018 Garfinkel Prize in Digital Humanities.  Her Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender and Nostalgia in the Imagined South (Duke UP: 2003) received the 2004 John G. Cawelti Award for the outstanding book published on American Culture, among other awards.  She is co-editor of Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture (Duke UP: 2003) and Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, the Arts, and the Humanities  (California UP: 2014) and editor of Digital Youth, Innovation and the Unexpected, part of the MacArthur Foundation series on Digital Media and Learning (MIT Press, 2008.)   Her writing has appeared in numerous journals. 

ELIZABETH BRONWYN BOYD is an interdisciplinary scholar whose experience growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, during the civil rights movement and its aftermath inspired her to study, teach, and write about the American South. She has served on the faculties of Vanderbilt University, the University of Mississippi, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She lives in Takoma Park, Maryland.


Moderated by Riche Richardson, Professor, Africana Studies & Research Center, Cornell University.


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