Fried Green Tomatoes and The Husband Problem
Since Valentine’s Day is looming on the horizon yet again, I decided to reread several of my fave romance novels just like I did last year. But this time, I’m reading literary books rather than trashy ones to prove the point that romance can be written about in a literary way. That means you lucky people get to hear even more of my innermost thoughts on the subjects of love and romance, only classier.
Last year I re-read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and one of the things I found interesting about the book was the clever way Gabaldon solved The Husband Problem.
The Husband Problem, you may recall, is a state of affairs where women have a tough time getting into fantasy scenarios when real life intrudes. When it comes to getting lost in the pages of a romance, your husband is all-too-often the avatar of the real world, appearing at the precisely wrong moment to tell you all about the snowplow he’s building or that the rabbits need to be fed or that the fire needs a log or remind you that your World War II newsletter needs to be done, like yesterday. (I have slightly atypical problems.) Whatever projects you personally have left simmering on the back burner so you can have a love affair with your Harlequin, there Hubs is to remind you all about them just when Colby Abrock is whisking Ethanie McHartcornishston off to his castle where they’re going to be forced to marry each other on some incredibly flimsy pretext.
But not all authors are clever or writing fantasy. Most authors must solve The Husband Problem in different ways because they’re either unimaginative (no offense meant, some writers have different skillsets) or telling real world stories that don’t involve circles of Druidic stones ferrying women off to faraway times where the bad guy looks exactly like their husband the way Diana Gabaldon did.
For this installment of “Kristin Reads Vaguely Literary Romance Novels” I read a book I’d never read before called Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Believe it or not, as famous as it is, I’d never read the book, never seen the movie, had barely a clue what it was about, and bought it on a whim in a 2 for 1 deal because I wanted to read The Goldfinch. For some reason, I still haven’t read The Goldfinch but I devoured FGTAWSC in a matter of hours. The book is written by Fannie Flagg, who, if you’re my age, you will recall as that redhaired southern gal on Match Game starring Gene Rayburn that you watched when you stayed home sick from school.
If you aren’t my age or don’t remember, watch this; it’s cute and romantic even though they get the answer to the last question wrong.
Aside — some people find FGTAWSC problematic. If this is you and you’re about to go off on me in the comments section for daring to discuss such a dreadful work of literature thereby violating your delicate sensibilities, I humbly suggest you write a piece about it where you lay out your arguments and I’ll be happy to read it. This is an article about other elements of the book, and not only is delving into racial politics entirely beyond the scope of the piece, it’s a romance novel that happens to be important to a lot of members of a marginalized group, lesbians. Lesbians deserve to have some things that are for them without having to carry the banner for every other marginalized group at the same time. And this is true even if certain things in the book may be a teensy bit dated and Fannie Flagg totally forgot to write a scene in which Wonder Woman comes through a portal to smite the KKK.
The primary story of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, however, does not involve lesbians falling in love. It centers around a woman named Evelyn Couch, a timid woman who has always played by life’s rules. Evelyn is rapidly approaching menopause and as such is experiencing some at first vague, and then not-so-vague, dissatisfaction with her life, to such an extent that in her mind she assumes a fake superhero-ish identity and starts fantasizing about getting revenge on all the terrible men of the world (it’s funny that this book came out when I was 17 years old and yet I never read it till it was personally applicable — serendipity I guess). She befriends an equally timid elderly woman in a nursing home, Ninny Threadgoode, who tells her the story of the small southern town she grew up in — Whistle Stop, Alabama — and that is where we meet Ruth and Idgie, the star-crossed lovers of our story.
With me so far??
Ruth and Idgie meet when Ruth comes to town to teach Vacation Bible School. Since this is Ordinary Times, online home to various snoots, I feel I must include some anthropological notes here, so please read the following sentence in David Attenborough’s voice:
Vacation Bible School is this thing that American plebes do where kids go to church for a week straight in the summertime to do crafts and learn songs and give their moms a break, and then on Sunday morning that week everyone goes to church and they put on a little pageant for the parents and usually someone brings cupcakes and the church matrons serve this terrible red punch in very small Styrofoam cups. I suggest you have coffee with your cupcake instead. It’s a nice tradition and interestingly is one of the few old-fashioned things that still happens pretty much without fail in small towns and some bigger ones, too.
Thank you, David. By the way, you talk a lot different than how I remember.
Anyhoo, Idgie is a wild and untameable tomboy when we meet her and her parents fully accept and love her just as she is, a touch that I really liked. I find I am just about exhaustionized with the “good guy, bad guy” one-dimensional characterization that’s been endemic the last couple decades whereby any authority figure is invariably a repressor of some sort. The accepting parents in FGTAWSC felt very refreshing and far more representative of the people I know out here in Middle America. Aside from her parents, the person Idgie loves best in all the world is her brother Buddy, who is sadly killed very early on in the story, causing Idgie to become inconsolable, till Ruth helps her get over it. Over the course of time, Idgie and Ruth develop romantic feelings for each other, but Ruth is forced by economic need to marry an abusive brute by the name of Frank Bennett.
Aside again -- in addition to containing a very sweet same-sex love story at its heart, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe touches on several other women’s issues that aren’t often discussed. The need of women throughout history to marry or stay married for financial reasons is a massive cloud over women’s heads even into the present day (it’s one of the core elements of Greta Gerwig’s recent critically-acclaimed take on Little Women) and yet it’s fairly unusual to see the concept explored in media. Additionally, the friendship between Evelyn and Ninny -- both of them older and relatively meek women the likes of whom aren’t typically treated as protagonists in fiction -- is unique and well done, and menopause as a plot point is rare indeed. It would be sad if this book was thrown onto the dung heap as being not PC enough when there’s so much to like here.
When Ruth’s sick mother (the main reason Ruth married Frank Bennett to begin with was so her mother could be adequately cared for) passes away, she gets a message to Idgie to come and rescue her from her abuser. Idgie shows up with some badass friends, gets Ruth out of Frank Bennett’s clutches, and things seem to be going ok till Frank goes missing. I don’t want to give away too much but let’s just say you might have wanted to avoid the barbeque served at the Whistle Stop Cafe for a couple days there.
Sometimes one of the answers to The Husband Problem is The Murder Solution.
In fiction, I mean. Obviously. In fiction. By the way, if my husband turns up missing at any time in the near future I would like someone to quickly delete this post and everyone forget I ever wrote it.
Third and hopefully final aside -- If anyone decides to now argue “if a male singer made a song like Goodbye Earl about killing his wife all the feminists would be OUTRAGED” kindly STFU. In 2017 which is like only three years ago or something, 137 women a day were killed by their domestic partners. In 2017. As many as 70% of all women experience partner abuse over the course of their life at least once. 94% of the murder victims in murder-suicides are women. I myself personally knew a woman who was killed by her boyfriend and another woman who was kidnapped by her ex-husband and held hostage for several months. I could have gone on listing statistics and troubling experiences I’ve personally heard of for several days if I’d wanted to. I suspect we don’t even want to know how many women historically died at the hands of men back when the legal system recognized a man’s God-given right to beat his wife. According to Wikipedia, in most nations domestic violence laws weren’t even put into place till the 1990s.
And also I’ve heard this song before too, so. Yeah.
This is one of those times you don’t need ta chime in with “but men tho”.
Despite my admiration for Diana Gabaldon and Fannie Flagg, most romance writers apparently don’t share it, choosing to solve The Husband Problem in a much more obvious and IMVVVVHO much less enjoyable way. They decline to solve The Husband Problem at all. They dodge the problem by writing about super young women who have never been kissed let alone anything more, and letting them be romanced then living happily ever after with basically the first guy they ever met. Like I said in my original piece on this topic, “Most romances evade The Husband Problem entirely by giving us a nubile and unformed 17 year old heroine with no family ties, but I’ve found as I have gotten older that the adventures of nubile unformed 17 year olds are not terribly interesting to me.”
One of the things that irritates me about approximately 95% of my fellow writers (across all genres) is they can’t seem to figure out that a woman’s world doesn’t stop spinning when she turns 21 years old. Women continue doing things other than cooking and cleaning and wiping snotty noses even after their tits start to sag. Women even continue wanting things like love and romance. We don’t turn into desireless Betty-Crocker-or-Career-Girl-Barbie-esque automatons the minute some a-hole slaps a gold ring on our finger. And as a result, we maybe, possibly, I know it’s crazy but hear me out, might sometimes like to read about women that look like us and think and feel like us and have lives that vaguely resemble ours.
Why is it so goddamned hard for people to write books and make movies about women who have possibly experienced a slice of life beyond high school?? Why is it this impossible Gordian knot that most writers just can’t seem to unravel so they don’t even bother to try? Fun fact(s) -- women get divorced, they become widowed, they marry later on in life, they don’t marry at all, they decide they are lesbians, they murder their husband and serve him as barbeque, there are thousands of reasons why a woman over the age of 21, 31, 41, 51 or more might be looking for a romantic relationship. Yet again and again in the vast majority of books I’ve ever read, it stars some ridiculous precocious bimbette that I’m supposed to give half-a-sh-- about because I don’t even know why?
Well, I don’t. I’d take characters like Idgie and Ruth and Evelyn and Ninny every day of the week over the adventures of Doeeye Ingenuestein. And the funny thing is, I read books and watch movies and have a couple spare pennies I’d happily spend on entertainment but I’m just not seeing a whole lot out there for gals like me. Straight, gay, every ethnicity, religion, and backstory out there, all us gals who have reached the age of majority and just want to be able to crack a book or sit in a darkened theater for a couple hours and see some semblance of reality in which people like us get to do anything other than the dishes..
Every marginalized group out there will tell you that it sucks and hurts not to see people like you represented fictionally, and it’s true for older women too. We matter. Our lives are interesting and our stories deserve to be told.
Heads up, those who are writing chick lit and romances in particular, you’re not writing for thirsty men, so hows about you quit writing about 18 year olds (a whole lot of whom prefer Instagram to reading and are probably not the target audience for buying your product, just sayin.) There are millions of us grown women out here, billions, probably even, an army of mature ladies who would like a protagonist that we can relate to, meaning she’s old enough to buy booze. I know why you don’t do it, of course, it’s because it’s slightly harder and requires a tad bit more thought and creativity to juggle a complicated adult female character than a formless, shapeless Everywaif like Bella Swan, generic star of the Twilight series. I further know that many of you don’t want to do anything actually creative because you only became a writer to mimic what other writers did before, which was write about 18 year olds, only you want them to be in love with a fallen angel instead of a sparkly vampire this time because that is what turns your personal crank.
But I do think there are a few of you out there who are serious about writing and might heed our call. Maybe you had exclusively young female protagonists before because you never thought that much about it. Because it seemed easier or just what most people did. Well, start thinking. Solve The Husband Problem, would you?? Solve it by murder or a circle of Druidic stones, I don’t care, just don’t solve it by giving us yet another boring young virgin that we’re meant to identify with even though that ship sailed a LONG time ago.
Solve the Husband Problem for all of us who love fiction and hate hearing the same story again and again, a story that hasn’t interested us since we were maybe 22 if that even. Do it for representation if you must…no wait, DON’T do it for representation, don’t do it because “every woman who isn’t an unspoiled yet entirely nubile sex kitten is a marginalized group” because older women are NOT a marginalized group, we are a maximalized group, one that every unspoiled yet entirely nubile sex kitten will eventually belong to, and that’s why it’s incredibly stupid there’s barely any fiction targeted at us. Do it because it’s more interesting to write about lots of different people rather than the same chick over and over again.
Do it because you’re a writer and the job of a writer is to observe and capture the world in all its beautiful variety even if it makes it slightly more of a challenge than writing about a girl whose biggest problem involves her prom dress.