Stereotypes of Southern girls are abundant: Southern belles sipping tea, girls wearing tight Daisy Dukes and others who are close-minded, intolerant and have views that are frozen in time.
The stereotypes that people have about Southern girls are boundless. But how do Southern girls define themselves?
A group of women journalists living and working in the South wanted to find out so they started The Southern Girls Project, a multiplatform, multimedia journalism initiative spearheaded by journalists at al.com and nola.com that taps Southern girls as the experts and sources for authentic storytelling about the reality of their lives and the issues they face.
“We’re trying to reflect girls as who they are,” said Michelle Holmes, vice president of content for the Alabama Media Group. “Stereotypes have come up: short shorts, debutantes. We’re not trying to invalidate that experience. We’re just trying to look at them broadly, take a sophisticated approach that is more complicated. We just are looking to reflect who girls are.”
There’s a general lack of representation of girls in American media and especially of girls in the South where issues like poverty and education are particularly important in areas like the Alabama Black Belt and the Mississippi Delta, Holmes said.
The Southern Girls Project is important because stereotypes of the South sometimes seem so strong that they restrict the choices of Southern girls, said Jessa Wylie, a 17-year-old senior from Huntsville, Ala. who participated in the project.
“I live in Huntsville and there’s more to us than sweet tea and cowboys,” said Wylie who aspires to be a neurosurgeon. “I think it’s ridiculous to designate one area of the nation as dumber because we are capable of doing anything anyone else can do and we might do it with more hospitality.”
Stories about Wylie and other girls are published by two Southern media outlets in Alabama and Louisiana owned by Advance Local. Stories for this on-going multimedia journalism project are published across platforms including newspapers, video and social media including Instagram and Tumblr.
The Southern Girls Project launched in June but before reporting started months earlier, journalists spent time talking to girls about what’s important to them, said Rebecca Walker, managing producer at the Alabama Media Group.
“We set out to listen to girls first,” she said. “We’ve asked girls to tell us what the stories are. As early as February we began seeking out individual girls and groups. We just said we don’t feel like anyone listens to girls. We listened to them.”
Some of the stories published by the project include a balance of fun and serious content including stories about a roller derby league and a transgender girl from Mobile, Alabama who moved to New York City.
The girls involved in the project are talking about their own experiences and that is resulting in some solid and important journalism, said Shauna Stuart, a digital journalist and who works on the project.
“A Muslim girl from Birmingham talks about how her religion plays a part in her life. She talks about how Southern hospitality is part of her religion,” she said. “It’s really cool to see the young ladies talk about what’s important to them. We’re not giving them a voice. They already have that. We’re amplifying them.”
The producers of the project also hope to amplify Southern girls’ stories by collaborating with other journalists, storytellers, academics, artists and media outlets that are interested in documenting their stories.
Producers of The Southern Girls Project are finding that the girls’ beliefs are revealing social and cultural shifts among this generation of Southern women, Walker said.
“It’s really interesting to me, the willingness of this generation of Southern girls to be more accepting,” she said. “Some of the more conservative religious girls are calling for equality for their friends who are gay and transgender. I didn’t realize how much the world had changed in the last 15 to 20 years. Girls in the Bible Belt are changing the dialogue.”