Although it’s not immediately apparent, Fried Green Tomatoes has a few key things in common with Thelma & Louise. They came out in 1991, they focus on the importance of female friendships [and are directed by men], they treat male characters similarly, and the action in both revolves around a woman murdering a man.
Fried Green Tomatoes tells two stories, each focused on a female friendship: the story of Evelyn Couch [Kathy Bates] and an elderly woman she meets at a nursing home, Ninny Threadgoode [Jessica Tandy]. As Ninny tells her the story of Idgie Threadgoode [Mary Stuart Masterson] and Ruth Jamison [Mary-Louise Parker] and how they build a life together, running their own cafe and operating essentially independent of men, Evelyn [a meek, mild, southern housewife in an unhappy marriage] begins to draw strength and self-confidence from the story. Ninny knows the story because, as she says early in the film, she married Idgie’s brother, a confusing point that I will address later. The film is unabashedly sentimental and unapologetically woman-centered. Sure, some of it is cheesy but it’s so self-aware that it becomes part of its charm.
It’s not just about the friendships that these women have, it’s the strength they draw from them. As Evelyn’s friendship with Ninny grows, so too does her confidence and she begins to take control of her life as she also provides care and companionship to the effervescent but lonely Ninny. Ruth helps tame Idgie’s wild nature, Idgie gets Ruth out of a terrible situation, and they provide support, comfort, and companionship for each other. It’s a story of women’s strength, and it’s refreshing the degree to which it does not include men. Most movies, even movies about women, are still centered on their relationships to men. Fried Green Tomatoes, like Thelma & Louise is not.
Fried Green Tomatoes is based on the book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg. One point of contention that fans of the book have with the film is that it glosses over the homosexual nature of Idgie and Ruth’s relationship. Though the book never says, “they are lesbians,” it doesn’t need to. It’s obvious. When Ruth says she loves Idgie, she doesn’t mean she loves her as a friend. One way in which the film draws attention away from that is to hint at the end that Ninny is actually Idgie, and since Ninny was married and had a baby, that's a way of explaining that Idgie probably isn’t a lesbian. But that doesn’t make sense since, as I mentioned above, Ninny says she married Idgie’s brother, Cleo. She also states that she had a big crush on Idgie’s other brother, Buddy. There is no indication that Ninny is Idgie in the book, and it doesn’t make any sense that she would be. Then again, there is also a food fight scene that director Jon Avnet said was meant to symbolize the two women making love. The best I can figure is that Avnet was employing a kind of code, like what was said to exist in classic films. Those who knew what to look for picked up on characters who were meant to be gay, and scenes that were meant to indicate homosexuality. Those who didn’t know what to look for remained oblivious to the subtext. However, GLAAD did give it an award for best feature film with lesbian content. So there’s that.
There’s one more thing that I feel needs to be mentioned, and that’s the disappointing way it handles black characters. It tries to be progressive, but it is a movie produced by and starring white people based on a book written by a southern white woman, and it doesn’t do a very good job. Yes, Idgie stands up against the KKK in defense of Big George, and it’s main antagonist is a KKK member who gets his comeuppance, but the amount of back-patting it does over this is downright uncomfortable. The black characters, Big George and Sipsey, are portrayed as subservient and really, almost slaves, living in tiny quarters and doing work for the white folk to whom they are incredibly loyal. The white characters are protectors and saviors. It’s a tired trope, and it’s disappointing to see it here. There’s even an awkward, totally unnecessary scene in which Ninny and Evelyn visit an African American church; they are the only white people in the place clapping along to gospel. I’ve never been able to figure out the point of that scene, except more back-patting for how progressive the white people are.
All told, Fried Green Tomatoes is a fun, warm movie with a few serious flaws. But given that the Hollywood landscape is practically barren of movies solely about women, I think it’s worth treasuring this one.
Fried Green Tomatoes is a film about the strong bonds of female friendship in post World War I Alabama. In addition, the inspirational friendship between a middle aged woman, Evelyn and an elderly woman, Ninny Threadgoode is an impetus for change in Evelynâs lack luster life during the 1980âs. Evelyn Couch meets Ninny Threadgoode in a nursing home when her husbandâs aunt refuses to visit with her and consistently throws all gifts she gives her back at her. Ninny spins a riveting story about Idgie Threadgoode and her friend Ruth who lived in Post World War I Alabama. Throughout the film allusions to gender and race discrimination are very prevalent. There are visual and verbal cues that allow one to view the gender and race discrimination, which was highly prevalent throughout the South during this era. The film examines the triumphantly independent Idgie Threadgoode, and champions her as a model for feminism.
Idgie is ahead of the curve for her day and is a raucous, fierce, tomboy of a girl in a southern society full of very delicate females. As a child she refuses to wear dresses and is insistent upon wearing boys dress clothes to her sisterâs wedding. She is very close to her brother, Buddy, who is killed early in the film in a train accident when his boot gets caught on a train track. Buddyâs girlfriend Ruth is there with Idgie to see him get killed by the train. This incident is very devastating for both girls. Idgie takes Buddyâs death the hardest of anyone in the film, and becomes a daredevil by jumping on and off trains, getting fresh honey from a beehive, and fishing consistently. For the rest of her childhood she withdraws from her family and friends and stays to herself. She shuns the conventional traditions of being a delicate, southern woman in her dress, manner, and by not attending church services.
During Idgieâs teen years Ruth is summoned to come visit Idgie to see if the two of them can forge a friendship. The two girls begin to bond by staying out late at night and jumping on a train and handing out the food on the train car to homeless people. Also, they hang out at the local bar drinking, playing poker, and baseball. They get drunk together and begin to solidify the friendship. Ruth is slated to marry Frank Bennett and ends up going back to Georgia. Idgie is extremely hurt by this incident and goes to watch Ruth on her wedding day from afar.
A few more years pass in the film, and Idgie decides it is time to go visit Ruth. Ruth comes to the door and tries to hide one side of her face that is black and blue. Idgie presses her to find out if she has been hit by her husband. Frank confronts the two women and Ruth tries to get Idgie to leave to keep a confrontation from occurring. Frank is the prototype for the privileged, prejudice, white male living in the South during the Post World War I era. The traditional ârule of thumbâ marriage is depicted between he and Ruth that what he says goes and she shouldnât question him for any reason.
Meanwhile, Evelyn Couch played by Kathy Bates is beginning to forge a strong friendship with Ninny Threadgoode. The stories of Idgieâs independence and cries of âTowandaâ when she gains a personal victory, spur Evelyn to action in her own life. Evelyn goes to marriage seminars on her own to help reignite the passion in her dying marriage. She feels that she is middle aged, overweight, and good for nothing. Through Ninnyâs friendship and stories of Idgie she begins to feel empowered to start a weight loss and exercise program. Also, she begins to sell Mary Kay and starts home improvements in her home on her own. Her husband Ed is very dismissive of her attempts at romance and she makes several attempts to cook him romantic dinners. He acts very chauvinistic and keeps asking her why she keeps exercising and making these changes. Ed is very unsupportive of Evelyn and refuses to eat at the dinner table with her and tunes her out by watching sports during dinner time. They have a very traditional marriage where he works and she is a stay at home wife with an empty nest. Evelyn starts off in the movie as being a stereotypical weak willed, delicate Southern woman. By the end of the film she makes great strides in her life and becomes a feminist, which is evident when she begins to stand up for herself with Ed and different people throughout the film. In one scene, Evelyn has finally had it with people behaving rudely towards her. She is waiting on a parking spot at a Winn Dixie store. Two young girls steal the spot from her. The girls nonchalantly reply, âFace It lady, weâre younger and weâre faster (Avnet, 1991).â Evelyn starts laughing maniacally and proceeds to ram the back end of the girlsâ car. When the girls come to look at the damage of their car, Evelyn retorts, âFace it girls Iâm older and have more insurance (Avnet, 1991).â
When Ruthâs mother dies she sends a letter to Idgie letting her know that she wants to come live with her. Idgie takes some men from her home with her. There is a physical altercation between Idgie and Frank Bennett. Idgie jumps on Frankâs back when he hits Ruth who has just revealed to Idgie that she is pregnant. Frank gets Idgie off of his back by throwing her against a wall. Frank tells Ruth to get out but pushes her down the stairs as she leaves. The two men with Idgie show Frank a knife and tell him that the black male is crazy and thereâs no telling what he might do (Avnet, 1991). Frank represents white privilege compared to the black male, Big George and even the poor white male that show up with Idgie. This scene shows the white male privilege and how even though they threaten Frank, they donât actually accost him. This scene reminded me of the quote from âWhite Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,â which states:
âIn proportion as my racial group was being made confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated. Whiteness protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit in turn upon people of color. For this reason, the word "privilege" now seems to me misleading. We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work to systematically overempower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one's race or sex (McIntosh, 191).â
Also, it is noteworthy that later in the film it is revealed that Frank Bennett is a member of the Klu Klux Klan.
After Ruth leaves she comes to Whistlestop, Alabama to have her baby and start a diner with Idgie. The two of them have a level of success with their restaurant, The Whistlestop CafÃ©. Idgie challenges the idea that blacks shouldnât be allowed to eat at the restaurant. She takes a lot of heat from prejudice people in the town. Even her longstanding friend Grady who is now the sheriff of Whistletop gives her a difficult time about allowing Big George and Sipsey work in the restaurant who are both black. Idgie serves the black people of the community from the back door of the restaurant. This serves as a visual reference of white privilege and hails back to McIntoshâs article: âI can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen (McIntosh, 190).â
Eventually Frank Bennett shows up in Whistlestop to try to take Ruthâs baby. He is in town for a Klu Klux Klan convention and Big George who works at the restaurant is the target of their abuse. The Klu Klux Klan shoots out the window of the Whistlestop CafÃ©. Frank tries to get away with Ruthâs baby. Sipsey, the black female who works at the restaurant, hits Frank in the back of the head with a frying pan. He dies as a direct result.
There is an investigation of Frank Bennettâs death that spans a total of five years. Idgie is the main suspect, while Big George is also a suspect. Idgie was heard threatening Frankâs life when she helps Ruth leave after their physical altercation. A detective from Georgia spends most of his waking moments eating barbecue at the Whistlestop CafÃ© hoping somebody will cave in and give themselves up. Eventually, Grady tells Idgie he is going to have to arrest her the next day for the murder of Frank Bennett because his truck was found in the local river after five years. Grady implies that Idgie could leave town and let Big George take the rap. He tells her that the men of the town would have a difficult time hanging a woman for the crime, but not a black man. Grady says, âThis is the murder of a white male, someone has to pay (Avnet, 1991).â
This line is one of the most pivotal points of the movie that points strongly to the white, male privilege during this era of the South. Sipsey never becomes a suspect in the murder case. Her role in Frankâs death reminds me of Sojourner truthâs statement:
âIf the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them (Schnier, 95).â
Sipsey successfully protects Ruthâs baby from Frank Bennett and unintentionally kills him in defense. She is also successful in eluding being a suspect in Frankâs murder. It is almost as if she is discounted as a possible suspect because people assume that she is too weak and powerless to have been able to kill Frank Bennett. Sojourner Truthâs statement makes me think of Sipsey because even though she commits murder she makes things right by protecting Ruthâs baby.
Idgie along with Big George, stand trial for Frank Bennettâs death. The jury is all white males. There is a hat rack that is shown for a few seconds that has nothing but male hats, which strongly reinforces this point. In addition, during the trial the prosecuting attorney gets irritated with some of the things Idgie is saying. He asks her: âDo you expect twelve, intelligent men to believe this (Avnet, 1991)?â It is obvious that he is irritated with what she is saying on the stand and that he doesnât deem her to be as intelligent or as worthy as the male jurors. Also the same attorney calls Big George: âa lying, worthless, no good nigger (Avnet, 1991).â There is never any indication of this being said about Big George by any of the townspeople. This shows the prejudicial stereotype of black males during this era. Idgie and Big George are acquitted of the murder because the reverend lies and says they were at church the night of the murder. The reverend being a white male is able to speak on their behalf because he has power and influence in the community. Ruth eventually dies of cancer and Idgie is left to raise Ruthâs son. At the end of the movie, Ninny Threadgoode leaves the nursing home. Evelyn has decided to take her home to live with her and Ed. Ed is very unwelcoming to the idea. But, Evelyn is insistent on this and exerts her newfound independence in the situation.
In conclusion, Fried Green Tomatoes is rife with white, male privilege, gender bias, and racism. The quotes, allusions, and visual cues from the movie hail back to the articles we have previously read this semester regarding gender and race prejudice and white, male privilege. Idgie is a model of feminism against all odds, and the story of her life influences Evelyn to become the same. The filmâs intended audience is women. The issues of power and privilege structure that Idgie is empowered to tell the story of the injustice towards women and discrimination because she fights against both throughout the film. In addition, the evidence of white men in the Klu Klux Klan show that white male privilege pervades the South post World War I. Although by Evelynâs era in the 1980âs women have begun to make great strides in gaining independence, Ed proves that white male privilege still abounds.
Fried Green Tomatoes. Dir. Jon Avnet. Perf. Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Mary-Louise Parker. MCA Universal, 1991.
McIntosh, Peggy. White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. New York: Worth Publishers, 2004.
Schnier, Miriam. Sojourner Truth: Ainât I a Woman? New York: Vintage Books, 1992.