It’s Not Easy Being Green…But It’s Validating: Links and Metaphors in FRIED GREEN TOMATOES
21 July 2012
Tomatoes used to make fried green tomatoes are ones that have failed to ripen. Juxtaposed with the norm, they are inadequate, perhaps too stubborn to redden like most tomatoes, and so their most common use is frying. Jon Avent’s Fried Green Tomatoes, adapted from the novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, by Fannie Flagg, is about this deep-fried Southern dish and a group of women who prepare them. In fact, in this framed, flashback story, the green tomatoes are the link that connects the film’s two narratives and all the film’s female characters. Moreover, the green tomatoes are also a metaphor in the film, representing how these respectively imperfect women, each outcasted in her own way, are actually quite amazing.
Fried Green Tomatoes is a framed story, starting in the 1980s with Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates). Evelyn is married to Ed, and in the film’s opening the couple drive through the ghost town of Whistle Stop en route to a nursing home to visit Ed’s elderly aunt. However, when Ed’s aunt is, well, less than thrilled with her nephew’s visit, Evelyn wanders the home and meets Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy), an elderly resident, who seems eager to strike up a conversation with Evelyn and tell the infamous story of Whistle Stop and the man who was murdered there.
From there the story flashes between the present (1980s) and the 1930s, following a girl named Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson), a rebel and loner who lost her brother, Teddy, in a terrible accident. Some years after the accident, Ruth (Mary-Louise Parker), Teddy’s girlfriend, befriends Idgie. The two quickly become inseparable, until the day Ruth reveals that she is to marry Frank Bennett and will leave Whistle Stop. Ruth carries out this plan, but sends word to Idgie that Frank is abusive. Idgie and Big John, an African-American friend of Idgie’s (very controversial for the deep-South in the 1930s), go to Ruth and rescue her from Bennett. Ruth returns to Whistle Stop with Idgie and soon learns she is pregnant with Frank’s child. To support themselves, Ruth and Idgie start a café, The Whistle Stop Café, which specialize in fried green tomatoes. Ruth has the baby, and she and Idgie raise him together, which calls attention to how close the relationship between these two has become. Bennett traces Ruth down in Whistle Stop and tries to kidnap the baby; however, someone (an identity intentionally withheld from the audience) beats him on the back the head with a shovel, killing him instantly. When the authorities realize Bennett is missing, Idgie and Big John are put on trial for his murder, but the two are acquitted for lack of evidence, since Frank’s body, mysteriously, was never found. Time passes, Frank’s whereabouts remains unknown, and Ruth and Idgie continue living together, running their Whistle Stop Café and raising Ruth’s son. Then, sadly and suddenly, Ruth becomes stricken with cancer and dies, another death that breaks Idgie’s heart.
By this, the near end of Ninny’s story, the narrative has flashed back and forth between the 1930s, with Idgie and Ruth, and the 1980s with Evelyn and Ninny several times. Over time, Evelyn has returned to visit Ninny weekly to hear how Idgie and Ruth’s story would play out and, perhaps, because of these visits has transformed herself into a stronger, more confident, independent modern woman. When Ninny abruptly leaves the nursing home, hell-bent on returning to her home in Whistle Stop, she arrives to find her house has been torn down, leaving her homeless. Evelyn finds Ninny in the now ghost town of Whistle Stop and persuades Ninny to come and live with her and her husband. Just before the film’s conclusion, Ninny reveals who actually murdered Frank Bennett; it was Big John’s wife, Sipsey, who was a protective caregiver for Ruth and her son. Big John got rid of the evidence with a (morbidly) tasty barbeque at The Whistle Stop Café. And, as Ninny and Evelyn walk toward the car, Evelyn sees Ruth’s grave, with a note on it from Idgie. Shocked, Evelyn realizes that Ninny is, in fact, Idgie.
The fried green tomatoes are the only connection between the film’s two narratives. Idgie and Ruth make fried green tomatoes in The Whistle Shop Café and Evelyn makes fried green tomatoes for Ninny after listening to Ninny’s memories of yesteryear’s Southern delicacy at the café. This dish is the only thing that both pairings of women share, and therefore the piece that adds a degree of visual parallelism to the film. Thus, before their metaphorical significance, the structural support that the fried green tomatoes offers the film is essential to the consistent transitions between the film’s two narratives because it connects the respective stories literally for viewers.
Conversely, looking at the friend green tomatoes for their figurative value, if the green tomato used for frying is, in fact, the imperfect tomato, the one outcasted and seemingly inadequate, Idgie, Ruth, and Evelyn are absolutely a green tomatoes. It is clear fairly early in the film that Idgie is a lesbian, and her relationship with Ruth is more than a friendship. In her historic era, the 1930s, this is enough to make Idgie a green tomato. Ruth also falls into the figurative green tomato category; her sexuality is not as clearly defines as Idgie’s, but she leaves her husband without a divorce, lives with Idgie, raises a child with Idgie, and owns/runs a business with Idgie and African American employees. This certainly puts her well outside the norm and standard convention for her time, making her a green tomato.
Also, Evelyn is a green tomato herself. At the start of the film, she a stereotypical 1950’s dotting housewife. She raised her son, stays a home to upkeep her king’s castle, cooks, cleans, and jumps to the door at the sound of her husband’s car, ready with beers in hand and food on the table, just to show her husband how much she loves him. Only trouble for Evelyn is…it is not the 1950s; she lives in the 1980s. Her type of woman is outdated, and she feels pressures from her friends and community to evolve with the times, but she lacks the self-confidence and understanding make a change. Like the tomatoes, Evelyn is not ripe; she struggles to fully mature in a world who tags her way of life as archaic. Moreover, her frustration over her life draws out negative and self-destructive habits, like over-eating, which categorize her as inadequate, much like the un-reddened, green tomatoes.
Therefore, the women in both of the film’s narratives are underappreciated, looked down on for their imperfections and invalidated by their respective communities. Yet, they have a bond with one another; they are each a green tomato, and, as it turns out, there is something amazing to be made of those imperfect, unripe, seemingly worthless green tomatoes.
The women in Fried Green Tomatoes learn to validate each other, and, through that validation, make something remarkable of themselves. For example, Ruth validates Idgie; she is the one who accepts her for who she is, seemingly without hesitation or reservation. She never questions her or forces her to change; she trusts her and stands by her, even when confronted with serious and dangerous situations. In addition, Ninny (Idgie) pays that forward and validates Evelyn for who she is, also without any conditions. Ninny does not care about Evelyn’s weight or pushes her to slim down; Ninny simply embraces her time with Evelyn, making Evelyn feel like the most valued individual in the world. This is the same way a fried green tomato is validated; it was considered useless for its inability to ripen until someone with the willingness to look beyond the imperfections and differentness came along, showing something lacking can actually become something rather wonderful.
Being validated gives these women life. Idgie shines with Ruth. She no longer dallies, gambling and running around town only to run away from her problems and responsibilities. She becomes an entrepreneur. Moreover, Evelyn is validated by Ninny (Idgie). Because Ninny looks for Evelyn each week, Evelyn has a purpose; someone wants her company and needs her simply to be there, be her, and listen. With this validation Evelyn evolves from oppressed housewife to strong, independent woman. Her transformation is not the result of her self-empowering classes and friends encouraging her to come out from the “dark ages”; Ninny is the catalyst of her transformation because Ninny validates Evelyn, giving her the self-worth she needed.
In the end, green tomatoes contribute significantly to Avent’s Fried Green Tomatoes. First, they are the link that binds the two narratives. Also, and perhaps more importantly, the green tomatoes are metaphorically essential to the characters’ development. From its release in 1991, Fried Green Tomatoes has been accepted warmly with audiences, and with its strong construction it is not difficult to understand why.