Southern Belle: Playing History, Hoop Skirt and All

By Kate Sullivan Green
Posted on July 1, 2011

Southern Belle is an insider's look at the 1861 Athenaeum Girls' School where young women from around the world sign up to become that iconic and romantic image of southern identity — the southern belle. ITVS’s Kate Green discussed the documentary — which begins airing Friday, July 1, on public television — with filmmakers Kathy Conkwright and Mary Makely.

What inspired you to make Southern Belle?
Kathy Conkwright: We saw a picture in a local magazine from the Tennessee Farm Bureau and were immediately intrigued.  Being from the South, I feel like southern culture is often misunderstood and represented in a one-dimensional way. I wanted to better understand what these beliefs were and what their motivation was.
Mary Makely: Growing up in the North, southern culture was new to me, so this was a way to understand a culture I’m not born into. And as a woman I couldn’t imagine why any young woman would want to go back to and celebrate a time when your life was more restrictive. I was curious about what they hoped to gain from this experience.

What reactions have you received from viewers? 
KC: The reactions were all over the board. Some folks really enjoyed it and found it entertaining. They like the camp and want to enroll or enroll their daughters. At the same screenings, other folks were incredibly angry and upset and felt the values presented were very problematic. That’s what we intended. Our real goal was to get people in the same room to express these different reactions to it. To us, the wide variety of reactions makes it successful. 

Has anyone from the camp seen the film?
MM: We screened it at the Nashville Film Festival and some of the girls came — in period costume. They were very nervous, knowing a lot of people don’t agree with their perspective, but felt they were very respectfully and accurately portrayed in the film. 

What was the most important lesson you learned making Southern Belle
MM: That the film you start out making is never the film you end up with.  This started out about the girls’ journey and as we moved through the process we realized something else was going on — that it’s about the motivation of the teachers and what they are hoping to accomplish with the camp.
KC: I definitely agree. You go in with a hunch and then have to keep an open mind to find the story. What was important for us to do in this film was to try as human beings, not judging, to understand how people who are different than yourself come to believe what they believe. 

What’s your favorite part of the production process? 
MM: My background is in editing, and one of the ways Kathy and I work well together is sitting in front of the edit system for long periods of time hashing out how things go together. Sometimes we want to tear each other’s eyes out, but our skills compliment each other and we have a good time pulling all those puzzle pieces together. That’s my favorite.
KC: That’s fun, but I also love the honor and privilege of getting to insert yourself into an entirely different world, meeting new people, getting to know them and having them share intimate pieces of their lives with you. I just love the very personal intricate details of individual’s lives and being in this unfamiliar world, observing and trying to understand it. 

How do you stay sane when you’re in the depths of production? 
KC: Having a partner and a collaborator.  That makes all the difference.  Being able to process things, reflect upon things, even if they never end up in the film. You need a great partner and crew.  And chocolate and alcohol.
MM: I second that. And a deep trust in Kathy’s story telling instinct, even when we don’t agree. Listening is important, even when she makes more work for me, I have to go back to that deep trust I have in her as a fantastic partner.


Southern Belle is available on public television starting July 1, 2011.  Find it in your area. 
You can also watch historians’ response videos to the camp’s curriculum at


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