Therapeutic Movie Review
By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT
Fried Green Tomatoes
Jon Avnet, Norman Lear
Fannie Flagg, Carol Sobieski
Cast: Kathy Bates, Mary Stuart Masterson, Mary-Louise Parker Jessica Tandy, Cicely Tyson, Chris O'Donnell, Stan Shaw, Gailard Sartain, Timothy Scott, Gary Basaraba, Lois Smith
Year of Release: 1991
Fried Green Tomatoes is based on the novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, by Fannie Flagg.
Evelyn Couch, a timid, depressed, and unhappily married housewife in her forties, visits her husband's aunt in a Birmingham, Alabama nursing home. After being thrown out of the rather cranky aunt's room, she is approached by a kind and sparkling 83-year-old lady, Ninny Threadgoode. From now on, every Wednesday, Ninny tells Evelyn tales about the colorful folks surrounding the mysterious now-abandoned Whistle Stop Café, a landmark that caught Evelyn's eye on her way to the nursing home.
The movie flashes back to half a century ago when tomboy Imogene "Idgie" Threadgoode, the youngest of the Threadgoode children, wore pants, a tie, and cut her hair short. Ninny describes Idgie as her sister-in-law. The girl's charming older brother Buddy had been hit by a train and killed. Devastated by her grief, Idgie withdrew from the world during her childhood and adolescence.
Igdie's mother persuaded the straitlaced Ruth Jamison, Buddy's former girlfriend, to spend time with her "wild" daughter, hoping some ladylike influence will rub off. Idgie initially resisted Ruth's attempts at friendship, but then gradually allowed a deep attachment to develop. The girls spent the summer together gathering wild honey and falling in love. Igdie taught Ruth to play baseball, drink liquor, and offered wild honey on a romantic picnic to her proclaiming, "I got it just for you!" Much to Igdie's dismay, Ruth made a shocking declaration during a midnight swim: she plans to get married to Frank Bennett in Valdosta, Georgia at the end of the summer.
Igdie refused to go to the wedding, but she spied from afar, appearing like a jilted lover. She thought that Frank was a violent, drunken lout of a racist redneck. Although Idgie struggled to forget Ruth, she decided to visit her friend after some time. She found her pregnant and physically abused by her husband. Against Frank's wishes, Idgie persuaded Ruth to leave him and return to Whistle Stop.
Back at home Papa Threadgoode gave Idgie money to open the Whistle Stop Café. When the young women insisted on serving Big George, a black man whose mother had raised Idgie, the local Klansmen got riled. Ruth gave birth to a son named Buddy Jr., whom the women raised together. They employed Big George and his mother Sipsey. According to the mores of the South at the time it remained unspoken that Idgie was a lesbian and she and Ruth were a couple. By deciding for themselves who they were and how they led their lives, they were a threat to the hidebound locals. Therefore they considered Sipsey and George better company than most of the white folks in town.
After a while, Ruth's husband came to Whistle Stop in an attempt to kidnap Buddy Jr., but was thwarted by an unseen assailant. Frank disappeared and his car was found at the bottom of a nearby lake. Idgie was immediately a suspect, because she publicly threatened violence against Frank because he had beaten Ruth. Because the local KKK decided to blame the "uppity" Big George, both were arrested for Frank's murder. The police offered to release Idgie and pin the crime solely on Big George, but she refused to sacrifice her friend.
During the subsequent trial, the local minister lied, providing Idgie and Big George with an alibi for the time of Frank's disappearance. Taking into account Frank's reputation for drunkenness, the judge ruled his death an accident and Idgie and Big George were cleared of all charges. After the trial, Ruth developed cancer and died, the café was closed, and over time, many Whistle Stop residents moved away.
Before Ninny ends her story, she reveals what really happened to Frank: Sipsey had accidentally killed him with a cast-iron skillet while trying to stop him from kidnapping Buddy Jr. Big. George then barbecued Frank's body and served it to the Georgia police officer who was searching for Frank.
Breaking up Ninny's story about nonconformity in an intolerant society , which was set between World War I and World War II , the film's subplot shows present-day segments, during the 1980s: Inspired by Igdie and Ruth, Evelyn tries to extricate herself from her unsatisfying marriage, depression, and compulsive overeating. The story has powerful curative affects on Evelyn by gradually giving her the courage to deal with her own life. Despite her husband's lack of support, she takes self-empowerment classes, learns to stand up for herself, and begins to take charge over her body and her life in general with growing confidence. She even makes use of Igdie's war cry of "Towanda!" whenever she needs motivation and strength.
When Evelyn learns that, during Ninny's temporary stay at the nursing home, her house was condemned and torn down, she offers her friend a room in her home. As the two friends walk home, they pass Ruth's grave, which is freshly adorned with honeycomb and a card from "The Bee Charmer". Because this was Ruth's old nickname for Idgie, it becomes obvious that Ninny and Idgie are the same person.
After I showed Fried Green Tomatoes during a Cinema Alchemy workshop for personal growth, I explained to the group how our awareness of projections onto film characters can support our self-discovery. Understanding these projections can help us start accessing parts of our psyche that we were not aware of before.
I continued to explain that we sometimes project positive qualities onto film characters that we do not recognize easily in ourselves. Our ability to notice and value these qualities in others might be an indication that we at least carry a trace of them, or the potential to develop these traits, in ourselves. This awareness can help us tap into our potential that we have not yet fully developed.
I will describe the process of one workshop participant here. Eric admired Idgie, because he perceived her as courageous, openhearted, and caring. He did not think that he had any similarities with her. I encouraged Eric to recall "exceptional" life experiences during which he experienced one or more of Idgie's qualities inside himself. This sparked a couple of memories. As a child, he had been quite courageous when he confronted his older sister after she had lied to him. Although he was scared of his big sibling, he confronted her because it seemed the right thing to do. He also shared that he had recently asked his boss for a promotion, which had made him nervous and required courage.
Then Eric told the group that he could not recognize much openheartedness in himself. In response, other group members shared that they perceived him as very openhearted and caring in his reflections to their processes. Eric was surprised to hear this, but he eventually internalized the feedback.
A little later, I explained to the group that different conclusions are possible when we dislike behaviors or traits in movie characters that we do not recognize in ourselves. We might not have these traits. But, especially when we have a strong negative emotional reaction to watching the characters, we might project our own unconscious deficiencies onto them. These "negative" traits might be part of our repressed shadow self. Becoming conscious of these disowned parts prevents us from acting them out in an involuntary and undesired way. Accepting our shadow qualities can help us become more authentic and whole human beings, and access our hidden potential.
Eric had a strong negative emotional reaction to the character Evelyn. He did not like her and could not identify with her at all because she seemed so needy in the first part of the movie. While listening to my explanations about the shadow self, Eric already had some ideas about his possibly disowned unconscious parts. In his family, independence was encouraged because both parents were often gone for work. He was very proud of the fact that, since childhood, he never really needed anybody.
When I asked him how this impacted his relationships, he admitted that that previous girlfriends as well as his wife sometimes complained that he was aloof. In return, he sometimes found them too needy and did not always understand what they wanted from him emotionally. I encouraged Eric to consider whether he might sometimes be afraid of emotional closeness. By gaining awareness of how he had "put his neediness into his shadow bag" , he might open a door to more emotional intimacy in his relationships. It made sense to him that being emotionally vulnerable and available is different from being needy.
As Eric slowly accepted that he in fact needed people sometimes, he started to experience more emotional intimacy in his marriage and opened up in his relationships in general. He also became increasingly more able to bring his newly owned and integrated qualities of courage, openheartedness, and caring into these relationships.
The shadow is an unconscious complex defined as the repressed, suppressed or disowned qualities of the conscious self.
In general, I found that exploring projections onto movie characters is easier than working with their projections on "real people", because unrelated aspects of real relationships can distort the picture. Clients or group members are more able to explore and own difficult emotions in response to a character on the screen than feelings that are directed toward a spouse, friend, or colleague. The lack of emotional entanglement helps them take responsibility for their strong reactions and recognize these as shadow material more easily.
Clients sometimes project disowned positive qualities onto film characters, as they admire or idealize them. This may point to qualities that are hidden from the their awareness. Therefore, I find it useful to explore the projection of desirable characteristics that do not "fit" into the clients' or group members' self-image. When these qualities are discovered and developed, they move closer to realizing their full potential.
Guidelines for Questions and Suggestions for Clients or Group Members
What did you not like or even hate about the movie?
Was any aspect of the film especially hard to watch?
Which characters or actions seemed especially unattractive to you?
Examine whether your response to a character, their behavior, or attributes might be part of your not-yet-fully-recognized repressed shadow self.
Explore ways to embrace projected positive qualities in order to realize your full potential as well as acknowledging your repressed shadow material.
Birgit Wolz wrote and co- wrote the following continuing education online courses:
Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.
Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.
Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.
Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)
Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.
DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.
Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy