This article is part of our series “GRITS: Girls Raised in the South,” in which we profile some of our favorite Dixie ladies and the things that make them awesome. Got an idea for a fabulous femme we should feature? Shoot us an email at email@example.com! (Alliteration optional.)
Name: (Laura Jeanne) Reese Witherspoon
Born: March 22nd, 1976, New Orleans, Louisiana
Profession: actress, producer, clothing designer, philanthropist, mama of three, unabashed Southern gal
Reasons she’s awesome: Reese is what we think of when we think of the modern Southern belle. The daughter of two medical professionals (Scout can relate), she grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. A book lover and a nerd, and proud of her definitive Southern upbringing, we identify with her here at Zelda and Scout. There’s just something about a down-home girl who stays true to her roots. She began acting at a young age, her first major role being in The Man in the Moon. She attended an open call for a bit part but ended up being cast as the main role. Even as a child star, she stayed down to earth. She attended Stanford University for a year before leaving to pursue acting further. And throughout her extraordinarily successful career, she’s taken on beloved Southern roles as well as cult favorites.
Witherspoon first won our hearts as Tobey Maguire’s sister in Pleasantville, as a naive and virginal Annette Hargrove in Cruel Intentions, and alongside Matthew Broderick as the ambitious Tracy Flick in Election. But she really got our attention as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. The character spawned a sequel, a spinoff, and a kick-ass musical, and is one of our favorite feminist characters of all time. Elle showed us that being girly doesn’t mean being weak or dumb or giving up on any dream you might have. She taught us that we can do whatever we put our minds to, and to never let anyone tell you you’re not good enough or smart enough, because you are. We’ve got Reese to thank for that.
Witherspoon went back to her roots in Sweet Home Alabama. As Melanie Carmichael, she played an up-and-coming fashion designer who left behind her small Alabama town (and her small-town Alabama husband) for a more glamorous life in the big city. She lies about her upbringing, painting herself as a demure Southern belle instead of the twangy backwoods gal she really is. We know it’s hard to wiggle out of the stereotypes sometimes, and we appreciate Sweet Home Alabama’s ability to paint a picture of many different types of Southerners: the one who got out and went to the big city, the one who stayed at home to raise a family, the one who made a traditional craft into a legitimate business, and most of all the one who realizes you can go home again. Plus, we’re not ashamed to admit that there’s a New Yorker or five we’ve wanted to punch in the face: We’ll live vicariously through Melanie for now. She stretched her Southern muscles again in Walk the Line, playing country icon June Carter Cash and singing up a storm with Joaquin Phoenix (and winning an Oscar in the process). We love Reese for embracing her heritage, and we love her for being a role model for women and their many, varied stories — goals she embraces even beyond her acting career.
See, Reese is far more than just our favorite Southern actress. Tired of being offered one-dimensional roles playing second fiddle to the dudes, she started her own production company, dedicated to telling stories for, by, and about ladies. She produced the hit adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and produced and starred in the adaptation of our fave Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. She was honored as one of Glamour’s 2015 Women of the Year in recognition of this work. A busy gal, in 2015 she also started Draper James, a clothing line inspired by her Southern heritage. Named after her grandparents, Dorothea Draper and William James Witherspoon, the line embraces Southern tradition and hospitality: a place where craft matters and everyone belongs. Witherspoon can next be seen in the upcoming HBO comedy series Big Little Lies, alongside Nicole Kidman, Adam Scott, and Alexander Skarsgard, among others.