“Jersey” and “belle.” Not two words one usually hears together. That is until Bravo smashed them together into a hot reality mess set right here in, well, let’s just say the Birmingham area (Mountain Brook, Cahaba Heights — they can’t seem to decide which).
I haven’t watched the show. For the record, I don’t watch any reality show that takes a stereotype and exploits it for profit (you hear me, Robertsons?), but I considered Jersey Belle for a nanosecond because it is, unfortunately, set in the town I call home. And I admit that I was curious, but a preview and a few random clips were all I needed to decide that I wouldn’t waste my time.
Even though I didn’t suffer through the hour-long premier, the show did make me think (miracle of miracles). The premise, as I’m sure you all know by now, is that a woman from New Jersey marries a fellow from Birmingham, moves down here, and tries to fit into a seemingly elitist, Southern society. Of course there is a culture clash and drama ensues. So as the social media buzz ramped up about whether Jaime Primak Sullivan really, truly lives in Mountain Brook or just near it and the controversy of to monogram or not to monogram swirled through the Twitter-verse, I started to wonder, what really makes a person Southern?
The answer? Being born and raised in the Southern United States.
The same thing that makes a person “Jersey” — being born in New Jersey.
Now all y’all know I’m about as Southern as they come, at least I think so. I like pimento cheese, especially in finger sandwiches with the crusts cut off. I’ve attended a tea or two. Shoot, I’ve even hosted a tea. I can tell the difference between Francis I and Grande Baroque silverware from across the room, but I also don’t mind licking the barbecue sauce off my fingers. I have monogrammed bath towels. I can shoot a gun. But none of that really makes me Southern.
Just like being a loud, brash, crass, vulgar woman with little regard for the niceties of polite society, Southern or otherwise, doesn’t make one “Jersey.” It just makes you, as we in the South like to say, trashy. I feel quite certain that there are plenty of folks in New Jersey who watched the show hoping that everyone in America doesn’t think that they are all just alike, just as I did when I saw my Southern sisters portrayed as blank-eyed, ignorant, sighing, shallow coquettes.
The fact of the matter is that stereotypes of food, custom, and culture, while certainly part of who we are and where we come from, do not, in the global society in which we now live, define us. I know what cannoli is and have actually eaten it, both in New Jersey and in Italy. That doesn’t make me Jersey, or Italian. It makes me lucky — lucky to be able to travel and try new things.
What does define us? How we embrace our differences and learn from them. How we make those who are unlike us feel welcome. How we try to respectfully fit in as best we can when we find ourselves the odd man out. If you can do that, you will be the belle of the ball no matter what side of the Mason-Dixon line you live on.