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Fried Green Tomatoes, adapted from Fannie Flagg’s best-seller, has been for me a peculiar experience.
With that film, I had “two first times”. The very first time, I was 18. Moved as I was by Kathy Bates infectious smile, I loved the story, the characters, Ruth & Idgie’s relationship in those southern states during the Great Depression. I watched the movie again from time to time, over the years. It had become my favorite movie; I watched it at night with a soup in the winter, or cereals and milk in the summer. It had become my movie.
Of course, every time was different. When I first came back from the United States, I could taste the corn bread, I could hear the various accents from the various states and places, and I could smell, pungent, the specific detergent used to wash the floor in supermarkets. I was catching more winks and references. But all in all, those were just details.
Then one day, when I was 28, I watched it again — one more bowl of cereals! But this time was the first time after my coming out.
We all space out from time to time. Have you never wondered why you entered that room, or what’s got into you when you typed your former apartment building’s entrance code as a PIN for your mobile — or: why the heck did you put your keys into the fridge?
Well that is exactly how that “second first time” with Fried Green Tomatoes made me feel like. Ruth & Idgie were a couple and I had never noticed.
Never. Two women. A couple. I mean, roommates, co-owners of a business. But a couple: biblically.
When I realized that (I was alone in the room but my facial expression was probably funny to watch), I spent the rest of the film in a state of disbelief and astonishment. That was so obvious! How was it remotely possible that I had never noticed?
Every time I watch it now, that’s the first and almost the only thing I see.
Every gaze, every physical contact, every silence is like condensed love and desire. No kiss, no sex, but this romantic and sexual intensity between the two characters.
In fact, that is the main source of tension and emotion throughout the film.
That day, the day of my “second first time”, it made me shiver: it felt like I had been unfair to the characters. Like I had betrayed them, somehow. At the end of the film, I couldn’t wait any longer: I reached for my laptop and I decided I would sort it out.
Again, that feeling: did I space out? For twenty freaking years, that couple had been the topic of pretty animated internet debates. Books had been published. Essays had been written on feminism, lesbianism and gender identity in that film. And I, the girl with the summertime-bowl-of-cereals ritual, I had completely missed out on it.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café is a novel written in 1987 by Fannie Flagg, in which Ruth & Idgie live a totally unambiguous love story — unambiguous feelings, desires and domestic partnership. However, the novel is absolutely devoid of sex scenes. Flagg is very clear on that choice of hers:
“It’s a story about love and friendship. The sexuality is unimportant. In the book, all the relationships are very close, and people can draw whatever conclusions they want. That’s what you hope for when you write a book. We are looking at them from 1991. [The ’30s] was a totally different time period. There were very warm friendships between women.”
Lots of posts and articles have been written about that quote. The terms “very warm friendships” sound like a strange euphemism when you know how the novel is transparent as to the romantic relationship that exists between Ruth & Idgie. Flagg was even accused by some of trying to hide the theme of homosexual love in her own novel. Others define the story as homosocial instead of homosexual, which makes Ruth & Idgie’s relationship more realistic: at that time in those remote rural areas, people could accept that two women live together without asking questions about the particulars of their bedroom activities — which doesn’t mean they actually believed that nothing was going on.
Excerpts from the novel
However, one fact can’t be denied: the film is much, much more ambiguous than the novel. Many people report “what-the-heck??” experiences quite similar to mine:
“I remember when it came out, I was convinced they were just close friends. (Hey, I was very young and very innocent.) My Mom saw it and immediately went with the lesbian interpretation, and I was aghast. Rewatched it a few years later, and couldn’t believe I’d missed it the first time.” (source)
I think the term homosocial is actually very accurate. Another commenter, Naomi Rockler, refers to the notion of identity.
There we are.
Readers of the novel very easily identify Ruth & Idgie as lesbians — they don’t seem to need explicit sexual content or even the use of that term. As Flagg puts it, it’s “unimportant”. However, the audience of the film is confused. They miss out on it, or they see it. They see it immediately or years later.
It seems it is a pretty clear choice from the producers: the film would not, should not be tagged as “LGBT”. Its audience should be as wide as possible. Quite in contrast with that effort, the actresses, the director and Flagg herself seem to do everything they can to counter-balance this ambiguity, in order to make enough room for doubt. Rockler points out that the film, in spite of itself, reveals an interesting sociological fact. People who consider lesbianism as a sexual behavior (because they are hostile to it, or ignorant about it, or because they just — willingly or not — conform themselves to a heterosexual norm) won’t see that Ruth & Idgie are a couple. On the contrary, people who consider lesbianism as an identity, complete with sexual orientation, romantic orientation, gender identity and cultural references, will see it as obvious.
The novel does play with gender. Secondary characters sometimes refer to Idgie as a “boy” (barbershop scene), as a “groom” in a “womanless wedding” (theatrical show scene with Grady).
I completely missed out on all of this the first time I watched the film. Then it was all I could see. It took ten years and a coming out, for me to reach that point.
This unavoidable split in the audience between those who see it and those who miss out on it might seem like a shame, or even the organized denial of Ruth & Idgie’s lesbianism. However, Rockler draws a different, more positive conclusion. The over-ambiguity of the film backfires: in the mind of the audience, the emergence of a possible lesbian relationship through doubt makes Ruth & Idgie’s relationship more intense, more compelling: ambiguity allows for more tension, for interesting scenes and interactions between the two actresses. It also lets the theme of friendship between women keep the audience’s attention, in a — let’s admit it — fairly feministic story.
The film was out in 1991. Would it have been any different twenty years later? Would it be as ambiguous as it was made to be then?
I wanted to write about that experience. It is by no means unique or special: everywhere you hear stories about homo vs. hetero readings of a novel, a film, an event in the news. We all experience the world through our own filter, don’t we. Sometimes it feels nice and funny to borrow someone else’s spectacles and experience it “a second first time”.