Photograph courtesy of Carol M. Highsmith's America Project in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
The Bee Charmer
A case for re-queering the Fried Green Tomatoes franchise
By Austyn Gaffney
I saw Fried Green Tomatoes when I was twenty-nine and dating Alex, the first woman who was not a secret to my family and friends. I had never read the 1987 novel, nor seen the movie, though Alex was known to quote both like scripture. It was a Friday evening, and we spooned on the gray couch in her front room, the DVD player ticking and the window open to Kentucky’s late summer. On the screen, Imogene, or Idgie, Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson) tells Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker) to stay under a wide oak while she walks across a clearing to a broken, dead tree housing a wild beehive. While the trunk swarms with thousands of humming bees, Idgie, straw bale hair frizzed out in Southern humidity, reaches in and pulls out a whole chunk of amber-hued honeycomb.
Her golden arms held the gift aloft to Ruth, who, awestruck but composed, speaking in the spacious, long-limbed vowels of a Deep South drawl, tells Idgie, “I’ve heard there were people who could charm bees. I’ve just never seen it done before today.” With my arm wrapped around the ribs of my girlfriend, I felt her exhale, and she quoted Ruth, her own Southern accent deepening into a syrupy timbre: “You’re just a bee charmer, Idgie Threadgoode,” said Alex and Ruth in harmony. I brushed off Alex’s blonde hair from her own tan neck, and kissed her.
I romanticized this part of the movie because I saw myself and Alex in Ruth and Idgie: two queer women in love. In the book and the movie, Ruth, the devout beauty, and Idgie, the free spirit, run the Whistle Stop Cafe, famous for its fried green tomatoes, in a railroad town outside Depression-era Birmingham. Together, they share a home, raise a son, and become community leaders. Their story is told in flashbacks by Idgie's sister-in-law, Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy), who recounts the women's escapades to Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates) decades later, long after the Whistle Stop has been abandoned.
Since the film’s release in 1991, fans and film critics alike have packaged the romance as a funny film on the power of female friendship, citing the way Ruth and Idgie’s empowering relationship is mirrored in the camaraderie between Evelyn, a dissatisfied housewife, and Ninny, a free-wheeling nursing home resident. Back in 1991, film critic John Anderson of Newsday, told audiences “‘Tomatoes’ isn’t trying to sell us a lesbian romance.” Director Jon Avnet said that he had “no interest in going into the bedroom.” Even Fannie Flagg, author of the original novel and of the Oscar-nominated screenplay, said the story was about “love and friendship” and “the sexuality is unimportant.”
Naomi Rockler, a women’s studies scholar, writes that the movie uses “strategic ambiguity,” allowing most viewers to watch the movie through the lens of our culture’s dominant ideology—heterosexuality. Rockler says a straight world understands lesbianism as a sexual behavior, rather than an emotional one, giving the viewer an option to bypass the queerness of their relationship. When Alex’s mother saw the movie, she argued with her that it represented a friendship: “The movie’s not gay,” she told Alex. “Don’t ruin it.”
But Flagg, who had relationships with women throughout her life, wrote a very gay book—Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe—in which Idgie and Ruth’s relationship is unambiguously queer. While the central love story in the novel never labels Idgie and Ruth as lesbians, the pair are accepted by their community as life partners.
Take the pivotal scene of friendship in the film, and how much more explicit, and improved, it is in the novel’s text: In the close encounter with a hive of bees, Idgie takes Ruth “by the hand,” and hides her behind a nearby tree. When Idgie returns cloaked in bees, Ruth freaks. She slides down the tree crying after she realizes Idgie is safe, and then wraps her arms around Idgie. “I don’t know what I’d do if anything ever happened to you. I really don’t,” Ruth says.
In the novel Flagg writes that Idgie’s heart “started pounding so hard it almost knocked her over… Ruth leaned back against the tree and Idgie put her head in her lap.” Idgie was “as happy as anybody who is in love in the summertime can be.”
By allowing a touchstone of Southern queer culture to be straight-washed by the film’s broader reception, the book’s more explicit romance is removed. I want Fried Green Tomatoes to be seen for what it is: a story of two women in love. I want more from Flagg, from the film, from three decades of audiences.
But I still ask myself, why isn’t my knowing they’re in love enough? Why do I want to label it?
Unlike Flagg, who has used subsequent iterations of the film—the 1991 screenplay, a 2020 sequel, countless interviews—to quiet the novel’s inherent queerness, Ward Harrison, a gay man and resident of Jeffersonville, Indiana, just across the Ohio River from where I live in Louisville, sought to uplift queer archetypes during the same era as the book. For over forty years, Harrison searched antique shops, flea markets, and yard sales to create a photo archive with two stipulations: the photos had to be found in Kentucky, and the people featured in the photos had to be “obviously gay,” noting in a 2014 email to an archivist, “It is common knowledge that gays & lesbians have been around for centuries.”
I viewed the collection on a muggy Sunday in August 2021. Dr. Jonathan Coleman, who manages Harrison’s archive, greeted Alex and I from his residence in Helm Place, a four-pillared facade above a sloping green lawn about ten miles from Alex’s home in Lexington, Kentucky. This two-story estate once belonged to Mary Todd Lincoln’s half-sister, Emilie Todd Helm, and is now in the hands of a local historic trust. Though the west side of the home was all but deserted, on the east side, Coleman cozied up a couple rooms into his personal quarters with his personal art collection; above his mantle was a painting I particularly adored: a man swimming in a ripple of water.
“Just about everything in this room is queer Kentucky,” Coleman said from behind his couch when I walked up to admire the painting. Adam of the Bluegrass was made in the 1990s by William “Bill” Petrie, a tobacco farmer who lived with his partner Tom in Grant County, which today is next door to an evangelical mockup of Noah’s Ark. The farm, said Coleman, became “sort of a little gay commune.”
Coleman’s attentiveness to Kentucky’s queer history led him to cofound the Faulkner-Morgan Archive in 2014, which occupies the home’s otherwise empty second floor. Today, the collection includes over fifteen thousand items—old black and white photographs, newsletters and newspaper clippings, t-shirts, court documents, and over two hundred and fifty hours of oral interviews—stacked in gray, metal-edged boxes overlooking the back lawn.
Harrison’s collection of photos was set aside for us by Coleman, including the original storage system: two manila folders Harrison labeled in red sharpie as “Men” and “Women.” Out of Harrison’s fifty-five photos, I quickly found my favorite: two women who resembled Idgie and Ruth.
One, with short, blonde hair, wore men’s clothes, donning a white button up shirt and khaki slacks held mid-waist with a brown leather belt. Her hair was ruffed up in the wind and it looked like she was calling out mischievously to the photographer, her mouth a round loop. She pointed at the camera, one hand in motion and blurred, while the other hand wrapped around her companion’s arm, a woman with long brown hair and a striped dress. The brunette leaned across the blonde’s legs, both forearms resting just above her knees, relaxed and almost smiling. While it’s unlikely that we’ll ever know who these women were, or the nature of their relationship, Harrison saw beyond their presumed straightness.
“It speaks a lot towards what people want to see in terms of the past,” Coleman said when I hedged that there’s no way Harrison could have known these people were queer. “It becomes a queer collection simply because he thought it was one.”
While the labels empower the possibility, historical references are still few and far between. Coleman called it a “strange manifestation of misogyny” that the archive for queer women is much more scant than that of queer men. Without attentiveness to a world outside presumed heterosexuality, stories can be lost, like that of Elodie, Mary Todd Lincoln’s niece who lived at Helm Place until she died in the 1950s. She shared a bedroom—the one that Coleman occupies—with her lifelong companion, whom the family called Aunt Bess. Coleman is the first historian to point out the strong likelihood that the women were lesbians.
“They obviously had a relationship,” he said. “Who knows if it was ever sexual, but it was long and enduring.”
Across a plastic fold-out table with two short stools, Coleman fanned out a series of 1970s newsletters published in the decade before Fried Green Tomatoes called “Womin Energy.” The printed sheets connected Lexington’s queer community, publishing articles on boycotting Florida oranges over Anita Bryant’s anti-gay political crusade, requests like “Can you prepare tax forms? Share your talents to help your sisters,” an invitation to The Country on Lane Allen Road, described as a “dyke-frequented dance and pool space,” and line drawings of irises, outhouses, seals.
In another archival box, folded among the newsletters, was a hard copy of a 1973 story from the Lexington Herald-Leader, the same paper that Alex now works for, called “Lexington’s Gay Women Fight Myths, Loneliness.” The staff reporter interviewed eight anonymous Lexington lesbians, asking questions like, “Have you tried to recruit a straight woman to become a lesbian? If you had children, would you want them to be gay?” But my favorite question, the only one that felt generous, read, “Is sexual preference the only thing that sets you apart from other women?”
“We’re not talking about sex,” one woman answered. “That’s one of the myths about lesbians. It’s affection as much as sex. It’s identifying with women because I’m a woman. It’s caring.”
Fannie Flagg, now seventy-seven years old, has a mysterious unknowability in the midst of her own creation. She grew up in Alabama and rose to become a writer and comedian in New York City before relocating her Southern twang to California. There, she met her former girlfriend, Rita Mae Brown, at a fundraising party for the Equal Rights Amendment. She had just ended a near decade-long relationship with actor Susan Flannery, known for recurring roles on Days of Our Lives and The Bold and the Beautiful.
Brown recounts Flagg’s relationships in a 1997 memoir, Rita Will: Memoir of a Literary Rabble-Rouser, many of which occurred during a time when commercial success was often antithetical to queerness. It was only a few decades earlier, in 1970, that Tracy Knight and Marjorie Jones married at the The Living Room on Main Street in Lexington—now a drag performance venue known as The Bar Complex where I often left my credit card after too many Miller Lights in college—about ten miles from Helm Place. Soon after, Knight and Jones moved to Louisville and sued the county clerk for a marriage license. They became the first lesbian couple in the nation to test marriage laws, just one year after the Stonewall Riots.
Although Flagg published Fried Green Tomatoes in 1987, nearly two decades after the start of the Gay Liberation Movement, marriage equality was still almost thirty years away, and the oppression of queer people continued along with the denial of equal rights.
Flagg’s relationships, and her stories, appear to be a product of the same victories and the same repressions. “Fannie's friends knew they [Flannery and Flagg] were lovers, but many didn't,” wrote Brown in 1997. “The cracks in their relationship widened under the pressure.” Much of the ease I feel in my same-sex relationship today, I owe to the hardships that women like Knight, Jones, Flannery, Brown, and Flagg overcame.
In an interview with the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Flagg says the inception of Fried Green Tomatoes came from a drive through Irondale, Alabama, the model for Whistle Stop, where her great-aunt Bess, the model for Idgie, ran a small cafe. Flagg has described that cafe as her “idealized vision of what I wished the world was.” But Brown adds to the story, explaining Aunt Bess lived with another woman.
“Fannie always believed her aunt was a lesbian,” Brown writes. “Fannie didn’t want to write a lesbian book. What a surprise....I told her she could soft-pedal it.”
Brown’s sarcastic use of “surprise” can be traced to a 1988 interview with OutSmart magazine, in which Brown remembers meeting Flagg as love “at first sight,” but stated the romance didn’t last because Flagg was “just so homophobic.” She continues: “Fannie’s almost 60, and it’s just a different generation’s outlook. It doesn’t mean we don’t love each other, [it just means] we will never see the world quite the same.”
I have struggled with labels myself. In high school, I dated boys; I kissed women in secret. After college, I was engaged to a man. When I met Alex, and when I fell in love, I decided I must be a lesbian. Then, during an interlude in our relationship, I met someone I cared for at a wine bar. I re-examined myself. I told him, “I like people,” and I meant that I like, specifically, you. I have tried on gay, shrugged off lesbian, dabbled in bisexual, experimented with queer, but the one label I have always felt pinned by is straight.
Through her agent Flagg declined to be interviewed for this piece, and I cannot find a public record of Flagg labeling her own sexuality. So, I continue trying to understand her perspective through other people’s commentary, and through her novels. Flagg uses Fried Green Tomatoes to effectively challenge notions of her era—particularly classism, racism, and sexism—as she shows her characters’ flaws and then helps them excavate their own biases. But, while protagonists like Evelyn challenge, however lightly, their own ingrained racism and sexism, oppression over sexual preference is never directly addressed.
Today, Fried Green Tomatoes functions like a wormhole: authored in a time when identities were more secret while predicting an age when labels wouldn’t be as necessary to describe the love we feel for other people, regardless of their sex, gender, or identity. In the same way the Faulkner-Morgan archive relies on the potentiality of queerness where the label is missing, Flagg too might be relying on implication during an era where labeling Idgie and Ruth as lesbians would likely have stalled a widely popular story. Perhaps Flagg trusted that the readers who related to Idgie and Ruth would be able to clearly see Idgie and Ruth.
But the desire to have people to identify with, to talk with about feelings beyond the straight jacket of straightness is old and enduring. Back in the Lexington Herald-Leader interview from the 1970s, one woman tried to make it easier for young folks to embrace their whole selves.
“I have a friend now who is 17 and is seeking out people to talk to,” she told the paper. “Those of us who associate with her are paranoid about getting into trouble with the school or her parents, but I remember what it was like to be 17 and gay. If I had just had someone to talk to.”
The phrase makes me wet-eyed every time I read it: “If I just had someone to talk to.” Identity still matters, even as queer people evolve past needing labels to evoke the specificities of their own spectrum.
“You can only work with the records that exist,” said Coleman at his archive. I feel torn: until our culture moves past compulsory heterosexuality, explicitly identifying the love between Idgie and Ruth feels like a neglected gift to Southern culture.
And yet, despite Flagg’s decision not to explicitly label her queer franchise, I am grateful this documentation of queer Southern love has existed for thirty-five years, and that its continued iterations will echo in the decades to come. Perhaps there is no resolution except the simple fact that these fictional characters were in love, and their love story charmed me into my own.
For me, the queerest gifts of the novel are not the initial declaration of love over the honey jar. It’s the middle, when after a few tense exchanges, the romantic relationship between Idgie and Ruth blossoms into a home, business, and family together. In the movie, Idgie smokes a cigar outside the delivery room like a joyous father after Ruth has her baby, later called Stump; in the book, the subsequent caretaking of Stump is more transparent. The novel says Idgie’s father sat her down and gave her $500 to start a business because now “she was going to be responsible for Ruth and a baby”; the first time Idgie’s mother sees Stump, she says, “Oh look, Idgie, he’s got your hair!”
Before Alex and I left Helm Place, Coleman showed us one of his favorite pieces in the archive: four stereoscopic cards found by Robert Morgan at a yard sale in Georgetown, twenty minutes east of Lexington. Laid out on the table these 19th century, tongue-in-cheek mini paintings depicted two people, one femme and one masculine. In the third image, they held a baby. I found this one particularly sweet. It asked who the baby would look like: “Where will the baby get its blue eyes from?”
“We don’t have much context,” Coleman said, “But if you’re a queer woman living in Georgetown in 1900 and you see these, what kind of revelation is it? It speaks to the feeling that something else exists.”