Betsy Bonaparte and The Southern Belle
By Talia Smith
My favorite part about working on this podcast is the research. I am a nerd, first and foremost, after all! When working on the Betsy Bonaparte episode, I looked at the story from many different angles. I went down rabbit holes about the larger Patterson family, their life at Springfield (the family’s plantation), and DC society. Unfortunately, I couldn’t discuss every topic at length in the episode- it would have lasted far longer than anyone asked for. The benefit of this blog is that now Emily and I can ramble on and on about stories for even longer!
I really wanted to use this space today to dive into a rabbit hole of film. As I mentioned in the episode, there are two Hollywood movies made about Betsy’s life, Glorious Betsy (1928) and the film we are focusing on today, Hearts Divided (1936). While it would be... generous to consider this a biopic, as it takes extreme liberties with the plot, the film in and of itself is a perfect example of Hollywood’s depiction of white feminism and how both are tools upholding racism.
Before Gone with the Wind (1939) or even the lesser-known film Jezebel (1938), there was Hearts Divided (1936). All three films have strong “Southern Belle” protagonists, who fall in love with handsome young men, and who are villainized for their vivacious personalities. Simultaneously, these films are extremely problematic. Due to these stories being set in the Antebellum South and focusing on plantation-owning families, the enslaved people portrayed in these films are used to humanize the white women. They perpetuate old stereotypes of the “gallant master,” thus influencing the audience’s perceptions of race. These harmful depictions of the Antebellum South are important in our understanding of race relations, not only in the 1930s but in 21st-century America. As we move through time, we must examine how these depictions inform our digestion of history.
Don’t worry, I’m going to try to break this all down!
The first question you may be asking right now is, “Betsy’s story takes place in Baltimore. Baltimore isn’t even in the true south, how is Betsy a Southern Belle?” And to that, I’d say, yeah! Today, Baltimore is not really considered the south, but that wasn’t the case before the Civil War. In fact, even during the Civil War, many Marylanders, including the Pattersons, owned and operated slave plantations while simultaneously supporting the Confederacy. Maryland was a border state in its truest form: it was important for the Union to have Maryland’s alliance because it borders DC, while the other side of the capital borders Virginia. As we know, Virginia not only succeeded from the Union but it also was home to Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Public sentiment in MD wasn’t unanimously in favor of the state siding with the Union; many business owners capitalized on this split loyalty. Specifically, all the Civil War uniforms were made in Baltimore. As I mentioned in the episode, Betsy wound up financially supporting the Union, but her other siblings were Confederates.
The second question you may ask is, “Why are we talking about the Civil War when Betsy’s story takes place during the Napoleonic Wars/ War of 1812?” Well, the simple answer is, in the comparison of Gone with the Wind, Jezebel, and Hearts Divided, I am less concerned with the war itself, and way more interested in how and why the pre-war south is portrayed so.
The strongest connection between these three films is the personality of the protagonist. Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind is perhaps the most well-known of these characters and, if you read this far, Bette Davis’s Julie Marsden from Jezebel is probably the least familiar. I would hope that by this point you are familiar with Betsy Bonaparte, but I assume Marion Davies’s characterization deserves a quick summary.
In Hearts Divided, Betsy is a headstrong southern woman who is fiery, passionate, and lovestruck. While in the real history, she has, dare I say, hatred for her father and a distaste for the American way of life, in the film she is a family girl who not only secures her father's approval, but his BLESSING for her marriage to Jerome. Bette Davis’s Julie has a similar rebellious nature. Based in New Orleans during the yellow fever outbreak of 1853, Julie has to deal with lost love, tragedy, and a quarantine. (Perhaps too real for the current moment.) She and Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara share a very particular and specific “bitchiness.” They are not likable women, but they, along with Betsy, are ambitious, driven, and more than willing to do what it takes to achieve their goals.
In Chapter 2 of Elaine Tyler May’s book, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War, she discusses the role of women during the Great Depression. Even more specifically, May comments on the role of Hollywood in dismantling some of what we call “traditional gender roles” during the 1930s. She explains that it was en vogue to be a strong, independent, career woman. Part of that is due to the Great Depression’s impact on the family unit and the need for women to work in order to support their families. Another aspect is that celebrities were gaining a larger platform. She writes, “polls taken at the time [1930s] reveal that the Hollywood Stars believed in the messages of gender equality that permeated the films and fan magazines,” (43). This is important because it suggests that characters like Scarlett, Julie, and Betsy were not, in fact, the minority, but the majority. The 1930s championed female characters who were, “ strong, autonomous, competent, and career oriented,” (44). It also puts this “Feisty Southern Belle” trope fiercely in that decade. By the start of the 1940s and into the 1950s, female protagonists, while not docile and weak, began to lose the power they had seen in the early days of “talkie” films. There are many reasons for this, but I think this post is going to be dense enough already, so I’ll leave it for another time.
Another similarity between these women is their character’s overt theme of self-sacrifice. For each of them over the course of their films, their ambition shifts from their own social improvement towards familial love and security. While in the four hour Odyssey that is Gone with the Wind Scarlett reclaims her power multiple times, it is at the end of Act I where we see her truest form of self-sacrifice: “As God as my witness, I will never go hungry again!” Although her phrasing sounds selfish, Scarlett goes on to work her butt off building a life, supporting herself and her intimate group of women, while in the middle of a war zone. In Hearts Divided, Betsy actually has a conversation with Napoleon where she decides that for the sake of Jerome’s future, she will give up her claim on him and go back to Baltimore. (I know, none of that happened in the real story. If you want to be even more annoyed watch it for yourself!) Lastly, in Jezebel, Julie sacrifices her life to go live with her true love in a colony full of people dying of yellow fever. By doing this, she knows her fate is death. (I would say Jezebel definitely has the most disturbing ending of the three films and it feels eerily familiar in 2020.)
The final similarity I will touch on between these three fierce 19th-century Southern Belles coming out of the 1930s is that they are incredibly racist. As I said in the beginning, these women are, by today’s definition, clearly white feminists. Dictionary.com defines it as, “the label given to feminist efforts and actions that uplift white women but that exclude or otherwise fail to address issues faced by minority groups, especially women of color and LGBTQ women.” Because these films were made 90 years ago, this shouldn’t be too much of a shock. Yet just because these films and depictions were, as they say, “of a certain time,” it does not mean that these white feminist tropes aren’t harmful in 2020- especially taken in blindly and without full context.
When I say these women are racist, I mean that these women not only treated people of color poorly and paternalistically throughout their respective films, but all of them were actively complicit in slavery. The racism and Scarlett’s cruelty in the film version of Gone with the Wind has been written about extensively, especially after HBO’s decision to take it off of their streaming platform this past summer. Instead of just regurgitating an analysis, I will simply link one written by someone way more eloquent than me below. What I will say is Scarlett is outward with her negative treatment towards Black characters in the film. Julie and Betsy, on the other hand, deal with racism in a different type of way.
Julie can be rude and outwardly demeaning towards the enslaved people on her family's estate like Scarlett, but what stands out more is the “paternalistic” angle she takes in her treatment. I find this most obvious when she is speaking with the children. A pivotal scene in the film occurs when she is aiming to prove Southern superiority to a Northern visitor, after already coming off as quite rude and unkind. In an attempt to show off her “Southern hospitality” and kindness, Julie asks the enslaved families on the plantation to sing to her guests, eventually joining in herself to sing, “Raise a Ruckus.” During this number, she invites all the children to sit by her (decked out in a big white dress, which she specifically wore to appear more innocent) where she declares, “We have such charming customs down here,” as tears stream down her face. In this scene, she explicitly uses these children to humanize her and to soften her rough reputation, (1:14:48 - 1:15:57). What I will point out about this film, in general, is that the concept of abolition is discussed and, while none of the characters are abolitionists, the character who proclaims that “abolitionists should all be hanged,” is the bad guy and eventually murdered… so… I don’t know, maybe they were trying to make some sort of point?
Hearts Divided has fewer depictions of slavery, but like in Jezebel, enslaved children are used to humanize Betsy. During the opening scenes of the film, Betsy is securely fashioned as a willful, carefree, flirtatious woman who gambles at horse races and already had a bit of a reputation. To show the more gentle side of her, when on her way home from the horse race, Betsy comes across one of the young boys from the Springfield Plantation, obviously lost. After a brief conversation, Betsy “raises his spirits” and takes him home. The following dialogue takes place, and content warning, it’s disturbing;
“Ms. Betsy, I [sic] sure glad I belong to you.”
“You don’t belong to me. The only person in the world you belong to is you mammy.”
“Please, Ms. Betsy, can I belong to you, too?”
“Alright, as long as you’re good.”
“And I’s always gonna be good.” [0:22:16-0:22:30]
The scene goes on to Betsy gallantly bringing this boy back to his mother at the “slave quarters” where she is touted as a hero while “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” echoes in the background. Yes…you read that all correctly. And yes. There is a LOT to unpack in this brief interaction.
This scene very obviously portrays Betsy as the “benevolent master,” a common trope of the era. Like in Julie’s case, this interaction is used to soften her character. These children are less fully-fleshed characters and more plot devices. While humanizing the ambitious, strong, white women, the Black characters lose or aren’t even offered their own humanity. And I wish I could say this trope is unique to this genre in this era, but it’s not. The dehumanization of Black people for the sake of a white woman is far too common- The Help is an example- and is perhaps less detectable to a white audience in non-historical pieces.
So where am I going with this? So what? Movies were racist back then, who cares? Should we just cancel all old movies? It was nearly 100 years ago, why can’t people get over it?
When I was younger, my mom said she could always tell what movies my sister and I were watching based on our behavior. The different characters influenced our behavior, for better or for worse. When we were misbehaving, we lost our Eloise privileges and could only watch Barney instead. Her reasoning was that it was a simple adjustment: if we are so influenced by the content we consume, then we would only watch content that provided a positive influence. Now, take that parenting tool and multiply it by a million.
Vivien Leigh and Bette Davis both won Academy Awards for their respective portrayals of Scarlett and Julie. (Hattie McDaniel also won an Academy Award for Gone with the Wind, making her the first Person of Color to win an Oscar; I’ll link an article below.) Marion Davies was a movie star in her own right, without explicit Academy approval. All three of these movies were successful in their day-- and Gone with the Wind is still making headlines! These movies are important! (Okay, maybe Hearts Divided is just important to me, but anyway...) They had a far outstretched reach! And if my mom’s theory is true, it means that these films, and how people are treated within them, had a huge influence on pop culture! Luckily for my mom, scholars did some research on this theory.
It shouldn’t really be a surprise to learn this. Since the dawn of time, pop culture took heat for society’s problems. Remember how Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Elvis Presley were responsible for juvenile delinquents and feminine impurities during the 1950s? Well, it turns out, people have been studying the effects movies have on the public for a long time. When I was trying to find resources for this post, I was specifically looking for resources that discussed how films influenced America’s race relations. Back when I was getting my minor in film, I took a special interest in Birth of a Nation (1916).
I saw how that single film inspired a resurgence of the KKK and, similarly to Trump's 2016 election, empowered people to be vocal and overt with their racism. However, most people are not white hood-wearing racists. If I learned anything over the past few months, it’s that people don’t even know that they’re being racist half the time. The content most white Americans are exposed to, even ever so slightly, normalizes ideas of racism and prejudice. Films like Gone with the Wind, Jezebel, and Hearts Divided are just examples of how subtle racism through films normalizes toxic opinions that subsequently can shape a person’s worldview. And those depictions are BARELY subtle, they just frame slaveholders as the “good guys,” and by doing so, well-intentioned white people identify with them, creating a HOST of problems in modern-day America. Most movies are WAYYY more subtle in their racism, and I will be linking to articles written by people more versed in the topic below.
What I find even more interesting is that this concept of films influencing individual opinions on race has been studied since the early days of Hollywood. Since 1930, through studies like the Thurstone and Peterson Study, it has been proven that films can have an extensive impact on how audiences view different races and nationalities. Even more extreme: Hitler understood how influential film could be in influencing opinions that he utilized one of the first film propaganda campaigns. We’ve literally known this for 90 years. Just goes to show that Hollywood is racist, and it always knew that.
So what now? Do we #cancel all old movies?
I don’t know! I’m just a random 23-year old with a podcast, I don’t have all the answers. However, I don’t think we should “#cancel” old movies altogether. If anything, they are a learning tool, a glimpse into popular beliefs and behaviors throughout history. Media is a circle. Content affects behavior, and behavior affects content-- so if we just pretend some of these super racist movies don’t exist, then we, in turn, pretend that American racism was not encouraged and cultivated by media. And that could be dangerous. When we ignore media’s historical effect on people, we ignore the importance of pop culture in our own current lives. There is a difference between celebrating a part of history, using a part of history as a tool (either to educate honestly, or hide behind), and ignoring history. All of these have unique and high-stakes ramifications.
If anything, what we can learn from Betsy’s story, the historical context of her time, and the depictions of her in media, is that the truth is very easily distorted to favor what is en vogue and in power. Whiteness, and white women, have power. And while it can be concurrently powerful to see such an ambitious woman exist in the context of her time, we should not blindly celebrate and uphold her. We must hold her accountable, from our own vantage point in history.
So okay! That’s it! That’s my very VERY long-winded blog post about how Betsy Bonaparte’s movie fits into White Feminism and the Southern Belle narrative which is inherently racist. The End… Dear lord, maybe my mom was right, and I should just bite the bullet and apply to grad school.
Fearing, Franklin. “Influence of the Movies on Attitudes and Behavior.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 254, 1947, pp. 70–79. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1026142. Accessed 9 Aug. 2020.