We have spoken before of the new idealism evidenced by the
positive endings in women's writings after 1980. We would
like once more to note that change by examining the successful
film Fried Green Tomatoes.
Released in 1991, this film was based on Fannie Flagg's novel
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café,
published in 1988, and found great commercial and critical
success. Fannie Flagg and veteran screenwriter Carol Sobieski,
who also wrote Sarah, Plain and Tall, wrote the screenplay
and were nominated for the Writers Guild of America Screen
Award and an Academy Award. The film grossed over eighty million
in the United States and has since cleared thirty-seven million
in rental revenue. Jessica Tandy received a best supporting
actress nomination from both the Academy Award and the Golden
Globe nominating committees. The film received a Golden Globe
nomination for best picture, and Kathy Bates received a Golden
Globe nomination for best actress.
If we contrast this film, or even the novel, to its obvious
predecessor--Carson McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Café
(1951)--we can see the startling difference in the narrative
trajectory and closing between the former and the latter tales.
After the hunchback leaves, Miss Amelia, at the end of The
Ballad of the Sad Café, rots away, a living corpse:
Miss Amelia let her hair grow ragged, and it was turning
gray. Her face lengthened, and the great muscles of her
body shrank until she was thin as old maids are thin when
they go crazy. And those gray eyes-slowly day by day
they were more crossed, and it was as though they sought
each other out to exchange a little glance of grief and
lonely recognition. She was not pleasant to listen to; her
tongue had sharpened terribly.
Again, we see the trope of insanity in women's writing. Miss
Amelia becomes a crazy, shrunken old maid with ragged gray
hair and dim gray eyes. She is lonely and cross; her voice
has "lost its old vigor"; it is "broken, soft,
and sad as the wheezy whine of the church pump organ."
The last time we see her, she is sitting "on the front
steps every night, alone and silent, looking down the road
and waiting." Eventually, we hear she hired a Cheehaw
carpenter to come board up her house, and she remains enclosed
in those dark rooms, imprisoned in a coffin for the rest of
Fried Green Tomatoes begins where The Ballad of
the Sad Café ends. Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates) eats
candy bars and doughnuts by the dozens, struggles with a weight
problem, lacks self-esteem and self-assertion, takes classes
to revitalize her loveless marriage, and waits on an insensitive
beer-guzzling, baseball-watching husband Ed (Gailard Sartain).
She, like Miss Amelia, is depressed.
After being thrown out of the incorrigible Aunt Vesta's room
at the retirement home, Evelyn wanders down the hallway and
ends up on a couch talking to an octagenarian resident of
Rose Hills, Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy). They soon become
friends, and Evelyn begins to visit Ninny regularly. Disgusted
with her junk food habits, her weight problem, her abuse from
punks at the grocery store, her neglectful husband, and her
classes that require her to do ridiculous things like look
at her vagina in a hand mirror, Evelyn hangs on Ninny's stories
of Ruth (Mary-Louise Parker) and Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson),
stories that inspire her to take charge of her own life and
to change it.
Perhaps the most inspirational of these stories occurs when
Ruth's mother dies. Ruth sends Idgie a copy of the obituary
with an excerpt from the Biblical Book of Ruth, "Whither
thou goest, I will go. Whither thou lodgest, I will lodge.
Thy people shall be my people."
Idgie, who had already seen Ruth with a black eye acquired
from her abusive husband Frank Bennett (Nick Searcy), drives
to Valdosta, Georgia, to get Ruth and bring her back to Whistle
Stop. While she is moving Ruth out of her husband's house,
Frank returns and tries to stop Ruth from leaving. Idgie,
with the help of two men she brought with her, attacks and
threatens Frank who finally capitulates and allows Ruth to
leave the house. As they all drive away, Idgie yells "Towanda,"
the name for the assertive, warrior-like alter ego she has
This story profoundly affects Evelyn who starts using the
call "Towanda" herself. She stops consuming junk
food, starts working out, quits those silly women's meetings,
stops cooking her husband dinner every night, begins a career
selling Mary Kay cosmetics, and tears down a wall in her house
to let in more air and light--a task Edna Pontellier would
In the quintessential display of strength, Evelyn rams into
a car, six times no less, that steals a parking space for
which she had been patiently waiting. When Evelyn tells the
two girls who get out of the car that she had been waiting
for the space, they scoff at her saying, "Face it lady.
We're younger and faster." Evelyn, furious, punches the
gas pedal to the floorboard and rams their car. When they
run out of the grocery store screaming, "What are you
doing? Are you crazy?", Evelyn blithely replies, "Face
it girls, I'm older and I have more insurance." Driving
away victoriously, she has become the great Towanda.
Evelyn also learns to be more assertive by listening to descriptions
of Idgie. Early in the twentieth century when southern women
were even more bound by the demure tradition, Idgie wore pants,
vests, and ties. She played poker and drank at The River Club.
She fished, pitched a baseball like a man, and spent most
of her time in the woods. When she plays a part in the follies,
she wears drag and plays a man as Octavia Butler's Lauren
does in her journey northward. Also, although largely expurgated
from the film, we know from the novel that Idgie is in love
with Ruth and courts her as a man would. This transgressive
lesbianism further defines Idgie as a defiant woman.
Flagg and Sobieski collapse time and space much like Amy
Tan does in her novels. By moving rapidly between the past
and the present, these authors create a community and a sisterhood
that transcends life boundaries. Idgie, Ruth, Ninny, and Evelyn
form a friendly network, one that nourishes and elevates the
flailing Evelyn. Toward the end of the film, Evelyn even confesses
to her husband that someone (she is referring to Ninny) had
forced her to hold a mirror up to her face, and she did not
like what she saw. "Do you know what I did about it?"
she asks. "I changed."
Flagg herself underwent a similar epiphany. "From the
time I was six years old," she explains, "I longed
to be a writer, always wanted to be a writer." She delayed
making that move for a long time because, she tells us, "I
was, am, severely dyslexic and couldn't spell, still can't
spell. So I was discouraged from writing and embarrassed."
Flagg eventually overcame those feeling when she wrote a story
narrated by an eleven-year-old girl--to disguise the misspellings--and
won first prize at a writer's conference. She, like her protagonist
Evelyn, overcame her highest hurdle and now writes stories
to teach and inspire us to do the same.
At the end of Fried Green Tomatoes, Evelyn invites
the inspirational Ninny to live with her, an act that cements
this female friendship. Ninny will continue to tell stories
of empowerment, and Evelyn will continue to learn from them.
The older despair and resignation that we saw at the end
of novels like The Ballad of the Sad Café has
disintegrated, and, in its place, we see optimism, positivism,
pragmatic solutions for change, role models we can mimic,
lessons for self-improvement and community improvement, love,
fellowship, sisterhood, nurturance--a new, powerful idealism.