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Reese Witherspoon’s New Book Proves She Knows A Thing Or Two About Southern Charm


Reese Witherspoon—actress, producer, and entrepreneur—is evidently a Democrat of some sort, according to the internet. Yet somehow I’ve never expected to see her dressed in a red Handmaid’s burka throwing herself at the doors of the Supreme Court in a screaming, pounding fit of political pique. Nor do I ever expect to read an emotional rant from her calling a candidate for governor in the Volunteer State a woman-hater, even if she might think it.

Why? Because Witherspoon tries to be, like her mother and her grandmother before her, a Southern lady. And Southern ladies are often far more caustic and effective in pronouncing their judgments through the very act of not being vulgar. At least that’s what I’d expect judging by the persona Witherspoon presents in her new book-cum-coffee-table-fixture, Whiskey in a Teacup: What Growing Up in the South Taught Me About Life, Love, and Baking Biscuits.

Contrast Witherspoon’s approach with the recent coming-out rant of singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, who cast vile shade and calumny on Republican candidate for Tennessee governor Marsha Blackburn, implying Blackburn is a sexist, racist homophobe because she doesn’t support gay marriage.

The point is not that Swift, a Pennsylvania native who is 29, expresses her political opinions like a teenager. It’s that Swift has one job. That job is being an entertainer.

Witherspoon, Nashville-born and somewhere in the vicinity of forty, is likewise employed. Both had, until recently, exhibited marvelous artistic decorum in maintaining a public face. Before her next Instagram post, Swift should maybe ask herself: what would Bob Dylan do? Witherspoon already has her model. It’s her grandmother, Dorothea Draper.

I saw Witherspoon’s book out on pre-printed display stands all over my local Walmart last week. The big box stores do not participate in publishing’s kind-of-insane, kind-of-endearing consignment sales system to booksellers, so that likely means Walmart has made a huge direct buy on the book and can’t return them. The store must expect them to fly off the shelves in the next few weeks. I think that’s a safe bet.

The main portion of Witherspoon’s book is a celebration of Southern . . . well, nouveau riche kitsch from the upper middle-class suburbs of Nashville is one way to put it. The book is, for the most part, a very pretty promo publication for Witherspoon’s clothing and home goods company, Draper James.

Draper James is obviously modeled partly on celebrity brands like Joanna Gaines’s Magnolia, and partly on the plethora of prep T-shirt and yoga-wear shops that have all but taken over the malls and upscale shopping centers where the Southeastern middle and upper middle classes shop—stuff like Simply Southern, Vineyard Vines, Lily Pulitzer, and the like. Witherspoon will probably make another fortune off it.

Grace and Respect

If there’s anything common to all such Southern upscale Basics, it is the monogram. On everything. You come from a family of some eminence, don’t you? No? Would you like to? Identify! Without a monogram, that piece of fabric is merely a pillowcase. With three letters etched on it, it becomes a potential murder weapon in a Southern cozy.

Or, as Witherspoon puts it: “We have a saying in my family: If it’s not moving, monogram it.” There are, according to Witherspoon, many subtleties:

I have a typical long southern name: Laura Jeanne Reese Witherspoon. I married someone with a last name starting with a T. So my current, more modern monogram is, reading from left to right: R with a large T and a W. A more classic monogram would be L, T, J. There are also nuances of font. A curlicue script is traditional and formal. Some wild and crazy young upstart monogrammers use bold, modern fonts. Fascinating, right? Well, to me it is!

Maybe to you. And definitely to my 15-year-old daughter. But following along with a Southern upscale casual approach, let me say here and now that it is hard to keep typing “Witherspoon” over and over and pausing each time to recall if you have to put an “h” after the “W.” Let’s go with RTW from here on.

While RTW’s “Whiskey in a Teacup” looks and feels like a pure brand play (even the prose is team-styled, much like RTW’s hair and makeup, judging from the acknowledgements), where Ada Calhoun (whose grandfather invented the airsickness bag!) gets the nod as ghost writer, at least the textual portion of the book is built on fairly sound philosophical foundations.

RTW’s grandmother Dorothea’s aphorisms and recipes can be found throughout, lending weight to what are otherwise pretty pictures of a movie star in her Faux Provencal-styled house, located in what is at least a Nashville of the mind. RTW seems to have adored her memaw, and modeled her public personality upon her. One could choose far worse influences.

Dorothea always said that it was a combination of beauty and strength that made southern women ‘whiskey in a teacup.’ We may be delicate and ornamental on the outside, she said, but inside we’re strong and fiery. Our famous hospitality isn’t martyrdom; it’s modeling. True southern women treat everyone the way we want to be treated: with grace and respect — no matter where they come from or how different from you they may be.

We used to have a term for this. It is perhaps irredeemably racist and sexist, but very sweet—also extremely useful. The term is “Southern charm.” RTW exudes it.

I’ve learned to appreciate so much about my childhood—from the lessons I learned about treating people fairly to the way I was taught to tend a garden and bake a casserole. Back when I was younger, I fought to lose my accent. But today I’m so proud of where I’m from.

There is sometimes deep wisdom in RTW’s words. I can attest to this one:

Now, heaven forbid anyone spills salt during a family dinner. You have to throw it over your left shoulder immediately, or . . . Well, you know, most of us growing up in the South never quite knew what would happen if we didn’t abide by the superstition, but we knew it was bad.

I would add: never put a hat on a bed. Don’t ask why. Just don’t.

We also learn of RTW’s near obsession with Dolly Parton—GOOD!—and her libro-racialist tendency to shelf her books not by author or subject, but by color—BAD! RTW also greatly admires the fiction of Donna Tartt. Bless her heart.

A Role Model For All of Us

Throughout, you get the sense the movie star was built on top of the Southern girl, as it were, instead of the other way around. Swift tried for a while to maintain a semblance of such sweetness, but her unfortunate Yankee roots likely doomed her from the start. That doesn’t mean Southerners can’t be blunt in their way, but it is usually in the service of greater civility.

Someone once told me they thought people in the South were passive-aggressive in their politeness. Certainly not! In my experience, a southern woman will tell you right to your face if she doesn’t like something. If my mother or grandmother wasn’t pleased with my behavior, she’d say, ‘I don’t like that. The way you’re behaving is ugly. I don’t like when children behave ugly.’

We learn that RTW is a practicing Episcopalian. Even for agnostics and atheists of generous heart, it is extraordinarily refreshing to hear a well-known person state that he or she is believer, if for no other reason than to break up the usually unrelenting media monotony denigrating Christianity.

Unfortunately RTW immediately qualifies her statement of affiliation with a flurry of progressive spew. In her youth, she “learned that Christianity is about making people feel welcome and reserving judgment of them,” RTW writes. “The church for me has always been a safe place to learn about doing work for others, being respectful, and being part of a community.” There’s also that small claim about the divine nature of Jesus of Nazareth, a hypermasculine carpenter sort, even for Episcopalians.

One nice aspect of the book is that RTW mercifully sets off the progressive petards only in a few spots, usually after she has praised some irredeemably feminine and unarguably conservative virtue her grandmother possessed and wants to do a quick round of virtue-shelling to keep the identity-Nazis at bay. This lasts until she needs to do it again in a chapter or two. RTW is so nice that she doesn’t even want people who hate everything she stands for to feel excluded.

What does RTW stand for at the end of this Southern lady cri de coeur, statement of aesthetic principle, and cookbook? She’s clearly got her opinions, and they lean left. Entertainment, however, is her job. And she doesn’t think entertaining and celebrating with friends and family mix well with politics. As her grandmother once told her:

For goodness’ sake, Don’t Talk About Politics! People’s politics don’t always align, and conversations about news topics can turn a lovely brunch into a war zone.

Dorothea Draper was a good role model for all of us who believe that being a decent human being is about far more than politics. In the Great Scales of Being when radical social change is weighed against the tastiness of a Tennessee-style barbecue sandwich, I’ll take the sandwich. And it seems Dorothea and her granddaughter will, too.