Fried Queer Tomatoes
October 7, 2019 9:49 AM   Subscribe

Queer, Southern, and In Love: ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’ and Quintessential Lesbian Literature [Spectrum South] “For most people, the film remains a story about best friends and resilience. For those of us who have read the book and understand the real story behind it, however, it means so much more. We see our experiences and history being realized, despite the outside world’s attempts to erase or sterilize us. We feel validated in the love we feel for our best friends, friends who also become lovers and who are with us through child rearing and sickness. Like Idgie and Ruth, we know what it means to be queer, southern, and in love.” [YouTube][Trailer]

• Why “Fried Green Tomatoes” Is A Lesbian Classic — Yes, Lesbian! [Buzzfeed]
“I was years away from being an entertainment journalist, so I didn’t understand much about the business of Hollywood. But I was an expert in shitty portrayals of lesbians in pop culture. [...] So yes, in comparison to the book, the movie is, as Masterson once told me, “redacted.” We were talking at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016, when she played the mom of a queer teenage son in an indie movie called As You Are. When I brought up Fried Green Tomatoes as a mainstream movie with a lesbian love story, she said some things had been cut that would have made the relationship more obvious. “It wasn’t a love scene, but there were, like — clearly a love relationship type of a fight, of jealousy,” she said. “There was some more sensual kind of stuff in there. We were clearly playing that.” I said that the relationship had to exist on their faces, since it wasn’t in the text. “But then it was just about friendship,” Masterson said, sounding frustrated. “I think at that time when it was released, if it had been labeled frankly that way, I think the fear maybe was that it would have alienated all the people — older, Southern women — who had those kinds of permanent, lifelong friendships. The aunts who lived together but never married would have been alienated from watching it and allowing themselves to love the characters. I think. I think they might have been afraid.””
• The film that makes me cry: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe [The Guardian]
“My mum said she didn’t know how I could watch it so often. Years later, I found the answer. When I was 19 and at university, I made one of my housemates watch it with me. He informed me that I loved it because it was the gayest film of all time. “What? No! Shut up!” I said, when he pointed it out during a scene in which Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Ruth (Mary-Louise Parker) go for a platonic picnic, and there’s a pointed close-up of Ruth dipping her fingers into a pot of honey. I was doing an English degree at the time, which is remarkable, given my failure to grasp basic subtext. From then on I watched it with open eyes. The food fight on a hot, sweaty afternoon, in which they smear fruit across each other’s mouths then collapse onto the floor? Ah. That drunken peck on the cheek while they literally dip their toes in the water? I see. [...] I loved them when I thought they were just very good friends who had chosen to open a cafe together (and live together and raise a child together and be together forever), but I loved them even more when I realised that I had been growing up with a sneakily non-heteronormative portrait of romantic happiness.”
• Why do our characters exist only in pain or in subtext? [Medium]
“I grew up in a world where Boys Don’t Cry was the only representation gender nonconforming kids got, so the Whistlestop community’s love for Idgie feels nothing short of miraculous. In an industry where queer women are used to bait straight men then quickly forgotten, a narrative that centers on a loving and healthy partnership between two women is groundbreaking. And while stories of queer suffering are necessary (as that is an unfortunate reality of our world) why do our characters exist only in pain or in subtext? Fried Green Tomatoes showed me something I rarely see, whether in novels, film, or television: a happy, nostalgic, and idyllic queer life. For queer women everywhere, characters that look like us, act like us and have relationships like ours are hidden under so many layers of coding that no one outside our small community can spot them. There is admittedly something entertaining about playing gay “Where’s Waldo” with every new film that comes out, But we have served our time existing solely in stolen glances and lingering touches, or worse yet, tragic stories of suffering and rejection. We’re ready for our characters to love and fight, raise children and grow old together in the full light of the hot Alabama sun.”
posted by Fizz (22 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
I remember seeing this film when it came out and I (non-lesbian / not having read the book) still saw their relationship as 100% romantic. Its ridiculous they shied away from that in the editing.
posted by Julnyes at 10:18 AM on October 7, 2019 [17 favorites]

Having read the book before the movie came out, I guess I didn't realize how much of the romantic story was removed. I thought it was a highly romantic story about women in love and I just adored that whole movie.
posted by xingcat at 10:21 AM on October 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Nothing I love more than watching characters evolve, but the best part is that Idgie evolves from one type of incredibly kind person to another type of incredibly kind person, through a great love. And mostly everyone's just happy that she found that love. Agghhh so good.

The way Ruth eats the tomato, praises it, then giggles and says it's terrible made ME fall in love with Mary-Louise Parker!
posted by wellred at 10:29 AM on October 7, 2019 [8 favorites]

To her, Fried Green Tomatoes was a fun and empowering story about best friends and intergenerational mentorship. To me, even subconsciously as a young teen, it was a story of southern lesbian love.

i kind of can't believe anyone didn't experience the film this way, young enough to not really know what i was recognizing in the movie but knowing there was something nourishing and comforting and meaningful, even though necessarily there must be straight moms showing us films to have this experience. i really thought we'd read the book together too but apparently not, and now it's on my list!
posted by gaybobbie at 11:07 AM on October 7, 2019

I've talked with multiple queer friends about how we all saw the story as a queer love story and our moms didn't realize it was until we told them.
posted by wicked_sassy at 11:28 AM on October 7, 2019

The sort of "in the closet but totally obvious" thing about this movie was not only indicative of the times in media but was also how gays and lesbians were living their lives. Very much "under the radar" but not under the Gaydar, there was a period of time during which gay men and women recognized each other through subtext and found communion and family through reading between the lines rather than overt introduction. I lived one of those lives for a while, in a community where there was no public gay community (bars etc) but instead it was all learning to find the others who are not the Other.

This movie, set in the past, spoke so eloquently to the present so many were living. For gay women but also men too. It is a treasure.
posted by hippybear at 11:32 AM on October 7, 2019 [8 favorites]

Sometimes I wonder why it took me so long (until my late thirties) to realize I'm queer on multiple levels, and then I read stuff like this and I go "ohhhhhh right." When I first came out and thought I was a lesbian (because I thought I was a woman) I racked my brain for examples of lesbians I could remember from pop culture as a child. I came up with that one (extremely awkward) episode of Golden Girls. That's it. Sure, I loved Kate and Allie, and Jo from Facts of Life, but I didn't know why.

I'm happy for those of you who were able to intuit the queer nature of these characters (I really am!) but I didn't yet have that beautiful queer skill of finding the representation I needed where it wasn't explicit.

I'm honestly pretty angry about all of this.
posted by the sockening at 12:14 PM on October 7, 2019 [15 favorites]

I can't be the only person who noted the author of this post and briefly got excited for a Fried Green Tomatoes MMORPG
posted by roger ackroyd at 12:17 PM on October 7, 2019 [15 favorites]

I guess I should not be surprised anyone could not See the Gayness but...I am surprised. Much like the friend of the Guardian writer, I don't know how anyone could miss it.

My assumption about it being popular among conservative older women types was always:

a. It was set in Olden Times. Nostalgia!
b. The modern-day subplot: husbands suck and women are frustrated about it and do hilarious things when they let that anger out
c. (in a darker vein) wouldn't it be better if every abusing husband got turned into BBQ?

The movie provides the thinnest of veils on Idgie and Ruth's real relationship, juuuust enough for you to widen your eyes innocently and say "But they're just good FRIENDS!" and there are lots of people who will let that slide. Whether all of those moms and grandmas really didn't get it, or did but kept mum because they just wanted to enjoy the movie without having to have an unpleasant argument/feel religious guilt, is impossible to know.
posted by emjaybee at 12:20 PM on October 7, 2019 [4 favorites]

I loved this movie as a babygay and even convinced my Catholic middle school teacher to show it to our class (!)

I thought I was so smooth at being in the closet but I bet to adults I was an obvious gay mess.
posted by Automocar at 12:45 PM on October 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

While I think it would be both absurd and arbitrary to suggest that there's any meaningful basis for denying that Fried Green Tomatoes can easily be read as a queer love story, I do think that there should also be interpretive space for stories about close same-sex relationships that aren't sexual -- relationships shouldn't have to be sexual to be the centerpiece of a story. But that shouldn't come at the cost of queer erasure, either.
posted by clockzero at 12:55 PM on October 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

I highly recommend recommend reading the book, too. The romance is more obvious, and there are more details about the characters, such as Frank who had an illegitimate daughter and the children of Big George.
posted by Melismata at 12:56 PM on October 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

I do think that there should also be interpretive space for stories about close same-sex relationships that aren't sexual -- relationships shouldn't have to be sexual to be the centerpiece of a story. But that shouldn't come at the cost of queer erasure, either.

there can be compromise - i would love stories to be about gay friendships or queer platonic relationships or relationships with ace people
posted by gaybobbie at 1:55 PM on October 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

There's a great little bit in the book that is just all over the place about gender identity. Random chapters are included that come from the "Weems Weekly," the closest thing Whistle Stop has to a newspaper (mostly gossip and events, from a sweet chatty woman). In one of them, "Benefit for New Balls" (*koff*):

"The Dill Pickle Club will hold a womanless wedding to benefit the high school so they can get a new set of balls for the football, basketball and baseball teams this year. This should be quite an evening, with our own Sheriff Grady Kilgore as the lovely bride and Idgie as the groom. Julian Threadgoode, Jack Butts, Harold Vick, Pete Tidwell, and Charlie Fowler will be bridesmaids. . . Come one, come all! I intend to be there, as my other half, WIlbur, will be the flower girl."

At this point I'm actually more interested in Idgie's gender identity than in her sexuality. She seems perfectly well accepted as a man by her community--which, meanwhile, is all out for drag performance!

Apparently these were a thing in America (Wikipedia is saying the early 19th century but it seems more like the early 20th in the examples given, with Henry Ford and Charlie Chaplin as participants, and the Weems Weekly article is dated 1948). It's jokey, but even the jokey-ness seems anathema to the hyper-masculine/homophobic picture one thinks of in the American South at that time.
posted by dlugoczaj at 1:56 PM on October 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Wow ok I uh...completely missed this as a tween when I saw it.
posted by Young Kullervo at 2:08 PM on October 7, 2019

Judging from late-in-life conversations with my late grandfather, there was a whole lot of unspoken in prewar Southern culture. This is part of what Guess culture is for. He loved and helped cousins and neighbors who were or are obviously not heterosexual but were safe and accepted eccentrics their whole lives, including say retiring very early to the Florida coast with another unmarried woman in sensible shoes.
posted by clew at 2:09 PM on October 7, 2019 [9 favorites]

I remember seeing this film when it came out and I (non-lesbian / not having read the book) still saw their relationship as 100% romantic.

Same. I never saw it as anything other than a lesbian love story.
posted by signal at 2:18 PM on October 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Straight dude who loved the book and movie for the love story they were.
posted by kirkaracha at 3:36 PM on October 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

but were safe and accepted eccentrics their whole lives

Yeah you get the sense that this is very conditional on their ability to adhere to the right rules. Like they’re not challenging anything — the support for dealing with the husband is because he’s from somewhere else, and they’re all fine with their lovable Sheriff actually being in the klan.

It is one of those books that just...does something to you, and yet it’s also always seemed like a particular sort of fantasy about the past. Like that two faces of Lummie Jenkins article from a while back.
posted by schadenfrau at 6:47 PM on October 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

Mom taught this in high school english, so she had to answer maybe a dozen times, if they were queer. i think that it was her small advocacy when I came out.
posted by PinkMoose at 9:21 PM on October 7, 2019

It's funny, I may be the only person who read the book first and completely missed the lesbian part until I saw the movie.
Well let's see, the book came out in 1987, which means I could have read it as early as 7th grade, and I don't think I saw the movie right away when it came out, so I could have been in late high school or early college...that might explain it. I definitely remember having a big OHHHHHHH moment while watching the movie!
posted by exceptinsects at 2:17 PM on October 8, 2019

I've always read the Idgie/Ruth relationship as romantic, even when I first encountered the movie as a preteen. What I really love about the story (movie and book) is that it celebrates all types of relationships among women. The friendship between Evelyn and Ninny is just as important as the romance between Idgie and Ruth. It's so rare to enjoy a piece of fiction that highlights multiple types of healthy, warm relationships between women.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 2:58 PM on October 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

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