Sunday, 18 February 2007

Steel magnolias

Sunday night is television night - chores are done, time to unwind, unbreakable date with "24" at 9pm. At about 7pm, I was sitting down to dinner and decided to flick through the Sky channels...and came across what Sky info rightly described as "the Rolls Royce of all chick flicks" from 1989 - "Steel Magnolias".

It's the story of a tightly knit group of women friends in Louisiana. The main characters are: Truvy Jones (salon owner and all-round nurturer), Clairee Belcher (a well-to-do, easily amused Southern belle in her late 50s), Ouiser Boudreaux (a crotchety old Southern belle), M'Lynn Eatenton (Shelby's mum and all-round warm, hospitable Southern girl), Shelby (lively, funny, pink loving girl) and Annelle Dupuis (shy girl to party animal to religious fundamentalist).

The main storyline begins with Shelby's wedding and covers the next few years, peaking around her decision to have a child against medical advice (she's a diabetic) and the consequences. Parallel storylines include the unlikely closeness between Ouiser and Clairee, Annelle's metamorphosis, and Truvy's relationships with her husband and sons.

I've seen it at least four times, and it still makes me laugh till my sides ache and cry like a baby.

From Thelma and Louise to Beaches to Steel Magnolias and Sex and the City, there's something mesmerising about women's friendships. One might suspect that even men get sucked in (I have a male friend who admits to loving
Beaches). Yes, we know they can be bitchy, competitive, and co-dependent, but there's nothing like the bond between women friends who've laughed with, listened to and supported eachother over years. Shelby's inclusion in that tight knit circle reminds us how much women pass on to eachother down the generations, and how much of that we've lost - a theme also touched on in How to make an American quilt.

One may scoff and say that the bond between female friends is often romanticised in the media, and that's probably true - they do the same with romantic love, much to our detriment - no one can live up to THAT expectation. But there's more than a kernel of truth in their portrayal of our friendships: that's why most women I know cried at the scene in Sex and the City when the girls surrounded Samantha after they'd heard the news that she had breast cancer - it didn't matter that it was in the middle of Miranda's wedding reception; she was right there with them. Most of us *know* that feeling; we've been on both ends of it.

Just like we understand the scene in Steel Magnolias where M'Lynn is standing by Shelby's grave after the funeral. Her husband Drum goes to the car with the boys, looks back and waits a few minutes before driving off, expecting that someone else will pick her up. The camera pans to the set of friends one by one, each going off with her man. They look back to M'Lynn, and every one of them shoos her man off and goes to stand with her by the grave. No man could have been in that scene.

It is there, with these women, after months of nursing Shelby in her coma, pushing Drum away and being strong through the funeral that M'Lynn finally gives way when Clairee asks her how she is:

I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine. I'm fine! I can jog all the way to Texas and back, but my daughter can't! She never could! Oh God! I am so mad I don't know what to do! I wanna know why! I wanna know *why* Shelby's life is over! I wanna know how that baby will *ever* know how wonderful his mother was! Will he *ever* know what she went through for him! Oh *God* I wanna know *why*? *Why*? Lord, I wish I could understand! No! No! No! It's not supposed to happen this way! I'm supposed to go first. I've always been ready to go first! I-I don't think I can take this! I-I don't think I can take this! I-I just wanna *hit* somebody 'til they feel as bad as I do! I just wanna *hit* something! I wanna *hit it hard*!

At this point, Clairee grabs Ouiser and suggests M'Lynn punches her, since the entire parish has wanted to for years. They all dissolve into laughter amidst their tears, and M'Lynn goes on more reflectively:

They turned off the machines. Drum left. Jackson left. They couldn't take it. I find it amusing. Men are supposed to be made out of steel or something. I just sat there. I just held Shelby's hand. There was no noise, no tremble, just peace. Oh god. I realize, as a woman, how lucky I am. I was there when that wonderful creature drifted into my life and I was there when she drifted out. It was the most precious moment of my life.

That comment crystallises something about that special bond between women friends: women *stay* - through the laughter, the tears, the endless analyses, the darkness, when the angel of Death comes to do her job - and we are capable of considering those moments the most precious of our lives. On the Via Dolorosa, Jesus meets his mother, Veronica wipes his face, he comforts the women of Jerusalem and women stand at the foot of his cross. Women are also the first to see the tomb empty, and Mary Magdalene is the first to see him. Precious moments, every one.

We're always there - and as women, *how lucky we are*. Let's race up those ladders, ladies, but remember - *be yourself*. You become a priest or a CEO or a creative director or anything you want to be because of WHO YOU ARE. Even if you're in a male-dominated field, don't change yourself to become more like the boys. Be yourself, and bring your wonderful, unique qualities to bear - and change that field for the better.

And boys, we love you. And sometimes, we love being one of you. But right now, we could do with you changing a nappy or two...


Anonymous said...

I never really understood what it means for a woman to have close female friends until I met you, actually. Thank you for that, she'enedra, and for this post. Though I thinq 'Quail qaesar, quasar, qretin' remains my favourite.


Irim said...

Wouldn't have anything to do with your creative input on that one, would it ;)?

Anonymous said...

No, no! Qreative!


Irim said...

I stand qorreqted.

Mea qulpa.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that most interesting piece of writing. It certainly made me think things over, and regret that so many men are like what they are like. Part of me says 'nature or nurture?'; part of me knows that the women's bonding and faithfulness is unique and most precious. Your writing illustrates that admirably. And part of me thinks or wonders if some men can sometimes begin to approach this type of behaviour or living - maybe those men who are blessed with more feminity or female characteristics than others, perhaps? Not fully, I don't suppose, but maybe through being or trying to be more sensitive. I don't know, though, as it is not something that I've ever thought sufficiently about. And then I am reminded of writings about the early days of people's awareness of Aids, and how many people would display some extra special degree of empathy (not sure if this is the right word, but it's the nearest I can get) in this situation. Many of those such people are/were gay. I do not necessarily mean the stereotypical gay people, just ordinary gay people like (so to speak) everyone else. (Maybe the latter part of what I have written should be dismissed as semi-inane ramblings, but what you have written as a whole makes me want to say, in parody of the Professor Higgins' song in 'My Fair Lady' "Why can't a man be more like a woman?")

Thanks again for what you have written. Please DO go on writing!