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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 her days.

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 created.

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 definitely approve.

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.

August 2001

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