Female friendship took center stage in my life this past year after I moved across the country. I had female friends in my new city, but they were isolated friendships – one woman I’d see in mixed company at parties or another I’d meet for one-on-one brunches. These women friends didn’t know each other and I didn’t know their other female friends, but many of our problems – advancement at work, love and relationships, street harassment and assault – were the same. They were also isolating and to us, shameful. It seemed society was designed that way, as if too many women talking to each other might unlock some sort of power (hint: it does, as shown in the book I’m about to review). Society is framed to keep women apart. You have to actively fight it.
In Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes, the two fighters are Idgie Threadgoode in the 1920s and Evelyn Couch in the 1980s. The book, published in 1987, focuses on two female relationships – one is the romantic love between Idgie and her partner Ruth in the 1920s and 1930s and the other is the budding cross-generational friendship between Evelyn and Idgie’s sister Ninny in the 1980s.
Repressed housewife Evelyn meets Ninny Threadgoode at her mother-in-law’s retirement home and Ninny launches into the tale of Idgie and Ruth and their restaurant the Whistle Stop Café in small-town, pre-Civil Rights era Alabama. Ninny’s story links the four women together.
Idgie and Ruth fall in love. Idgie is coded as a lesbian, and Ruth escapes an abusive relationship with a man with Idgie’s help. She and Idgie are inseparable after that, raising Ruth’s son together.
Their story consumes Evelyn’s life, changing her perception of her place as a middle-aged woman, her usually meek reactions in public, and her ideas of what female friendship should be.
Generations of women face the same injustices over and over again, even though every generation hails their era as when “things got better.” Were things better for Ruth and Idgie? No. Were they better for Evelyn? No. Are they better now? No.
I’d never read Fried Green Tomatoes nor had I seen the movie, which is a cardinal sin for a queer woman probably. You’d think dating women would exempt from the kind of misguided “one of the guys” mentality that leads to only being friends with guys. It didn’t. Fried Green Tomatoes is a story I really needed to read, and one most women, regardless of age, should be required to read.
“Evelyn thought, I wish Idgie had been with me. She would not have let that boy call her names. I’ll bet she would have knocked him down.”
Women are linked by experiences and those experiences are given validation by being repeated, and believed. An oral history only we can understand. Generations of women face the same injustices over and over again, even though every generation hails their era as when “things got better.” Were things better for Ruth and Idgie? No. Were they better for Evelyn? No. Are they better now? No.
But Fried Green Tomatoes’ flaw is that it is about white, somewhat privileged feminism. There are stories of the black people or the lower-class people (“hobos”) who live and work among Idgie and Ruth’s social circle. They never speak for themselves, but instead through Ninny’s story of Ruth and Idgie. They’re given roles as sort of benevolent, infallible, uncomplicated saints like the maids in “The Help.” It reads as condescending.
A great example is in Evelyn Couch’s Sasha Fierce alter ego, which she calls “Towanda The Avenger.” Evelyn is beginning to realize the injustice of her womanhood – unable to be sexually fulfilled for fear of being a “bad girl” but wholly repressed in her marriage. That a white woman’s alter ego is called “Towanda” has racial implications that are never specifically discussed in the book. The stronger “Towanda” fantasizes about correcting the world’s flaws, like one example: firing all fashion models under 135 lbs. (Evelyn is particularly obsessed with weight.) It’s a brand of Liz Lemon-misguided feminism that seems especially dated, but fitting for someone just coming to realize what feminism could mean.
There’s a lot of problematic language, like Evelyn comparing being called a cunt in the grocery store parking lot to being raped. In the book it works as evidence that Evelyn has never experienced a sexual assault and that her feminist awakening is in its infancy. Yes, finally, she was able to feel angry, but she has yet to understand her privilege.
But as a way in to a story about women for women, Evelyn is supremely relatable, and her anger became my anger. It had been so long since I’d consumed any media that I felt truly spoke to women without also saying, “Wink wink this is for men too!” This book was so unapologetically necessary. I want to make every woman read it. The pain of Evelyn’s helplessness is so real, so within reach for us all emotionally, and so beautifully portrayed. And the love shared between the women over time is so moving.