Grace Duffy: Tough as Steel

The term ‘a woman’s work can be interpreted in a variety of ways. For traditional types, it conjures images of housework and childminding. For others, it is emotional. Stereotypically, we women are the ones who open up our feelings and listen intently to the worries of those around us.

In cinema, women are doubly restricted by this interpretation. We’re depicted as the supportive love interest and background characters propping up the (typically male) leads. Our emotional lives are rarely given equal weight. We’re allowed to be nurturing, but not to have depth. Name me a thousand father/son narratives and then try to think of a film which gives equal prominence to mothers and daughters. This most primal of bonds – that between a mother and child – is a rarity on film, which as an expression of patriarchal norms concerns itself more with children fixating on their fathers. Films depicting meaningful female friendships are even rarer, as evidenced by the depressing stats of the Bechdel-Wallace test. Even where a film bothers to have more than one named female character, the two barely ever have an opportunity to interact.

Because of this, I’ve developed an uncommon fascination with cinematic depictions of female friendship. Good ones are so tough to find that it feels like glimpsing a unicorn in the wild, and any film which makes even a cursory attempt to portray one seems instantly enhanced. One such film is Steel Magnolias.

I get the impression it’s become obscure over the years, but once upon a time this picture was the ultimate chick flick. ‘Chick flick’, of course, because it’s easier to dismiss such films as fluffy and disposable rather than acknowledge the truth of what they show.

Steel Magnolias is reductive in some ways – the female characters the film depicts are all white, wealthy, and live affluent lives in a picturesque town. We know this from the off, because the title cards play out over idyllic scenes of cheery folk delivering newspapers and bidding strangers good day. The film’s themes, however, are universal. This is a film which preoccupies itself with emotional labour. It observes the hardships and intricacies of love, loss, life and friendship with a warm sense of humour and profound tenderness, serenading the often unsung strength of the women at its heart.

The film’s core narrative, and the one which lends it much of its poignancy, focuses on the bond between M’Lynn (Sally Field) and Shelby Eatenton (Julia Roberts). This mother and daughter share an immediately recognisable relationship – equal parts bitterness, strain, impatience, and rich, enduring love. Shelby suffers from a severe form of diabetes. She’s prone to attacks of hypoglycaemia and her doctors have strongly advised her not to have children. As the film opens, she’s due to be married, putting her mother’s perennial anxiety into overdrive. M’Lynn has sought to protect and insulate her daughter for her entire life. Her fretful attempts to shield her from harm are predictably viewed as meddlesome by her daughter, whose headstrong and wilful ways often put them at odds. It’s a fraught relationship which many of us will recognise, but the film treats it with care and nuance. Steel Magnolias depicts M’Lynn’s protectiveness as a unpleasant yet necessary part of parenting an ailing child.

There is a cultural tendency to portray motherhood as enlightening and sublime and, while this is so for a great many women, that narrative omits the demands involved. So much of the worry about children falls on the mother. For mothers of daughters, there’s a simultaneous desire to raise a girl to be anything she wants to be, while battling the strategic cruelty of a world intent on breaking her down.

We see glimpses of tension between Shelby and M’Lynn early on. Before Shelby’s wedding, they bicker over everything from Shelby’s nail polish to the colour theme to the number of bridesmaids. It comes to a head proper, however, when Shelby gets pregnant. She tells her mother about the pregnancy at Christmas, while the two are alone in the kitchen. Cut off in a darkened room from the rest of the family, the conversation is literally and figuratively wreathed in shadow. Shelby smiles when she tells M’Lynn, whose face immediately falls. She can barely bring herself to say congratulations. What would, for many families, be a moment of tremendous delight here takes on an ominous, dangerous tone. M’Lynn knows what it means for her family. Shelby is putting her life at tremendous risk, and by association opening up the possibility that her child will be left without a mother. M’Lynn’s reaction is of grim, resigned acceptance rather than anger. She knows there’s little point arguing, and that her daughter can choose her own life. But she also realises that her lifelong quest to keep Shelby safe may be in vain. No sooner has she seen her off to a life of domestic harmony than a new danger raises its head, amplifying her long-time concerns over an uncertain future. M’Lynn storms away, shaking her head, before finally snapping in disbelief: “Your poor body has been through so much. Why would you deliberately do this to yourself?”

The sad irony of this is, as much as M’Lynn sees it as the ultimate rejection of her controlling hand, for Shelby the decision may not be entirely her own. There’s an implicit suggestion that Shelby may have pressured herself into the pregnancy, perceiving her inability to have children as a failure in her culturally-sanctioned duty as a wife. She cycles through disappointment and frustration at her mother’s reaction, but ultimately her stance is one of near-helplessness. “I’m going to be very careful,” she says, desperately trying to smooth the waters. “No one’s going to be hurt or disappointed or even inconvenienced.” Her mother smiles darkly and responds coolly. “Least of all [Shelby’s husband] Jackson, I’m sure.”

It’s in moments like this that the film captures the reality of what it means to be a woman. Exchanges like this are vaguely judgmental, but there is pressing truth in them too. Women, whether by choice or design, are often the ones left to grapple with the grit of things. Pregnancy and childbirth are wonderful experiences for most women, but they’re also incredibly arduous and life-altering ones. For many, they’re among the hardest things they will ever do, and that’s before we consider the demands of actually raising a child.

In a place like Ireland, pregnancy is a time characterised by stark curtailment of autonomy. The agency we take for granted in everyday life is eroded for those who seek control over their pregnancy, and never more so than for those women who wish (for whatever reason) to end it. While many men understand these concerns, it is women who live them. Shelby’s embattled pledge that no one will be inconvenienced by her pregnancy is a telling representation of how we are expected to perform and behave. Assume these responsibilities and concerns for your family, but never voice them aloud. Don’t push back against a joyous narrative, and never crack under the strain. It is tough and gruelling but that is a woman’s work, after all, and who else is going to do it?

Tragically, Shelby’s decision to have a child results in her early demise. She goes into kidney failure when her son is a year old, and though M’Lynn donates one of her own kidneys, Shelby’s body rejects it. She slips into a coma and is taken off life support. M’Lynn’s hardened mask of strength finally falls to pieces after the burial. She’s all business at the hospital, calmly leaving Shelby’s deathbed and telling her husband to call the funeral home. She doesn’t let herself cry until she’s alone, and when she does break down proper it is – notably – in front of her friends. The other leading characters in Steel Magnolias are the group of women M’Lynn and Shelby know from the local beauty parlour. Truvy’s Beauty Spot acts a nexus for the group, a place of solace where they discuss their lives openly and seek comfort and support from one another. Truvy (Dolly Parton) herself is the warm beating heart, bolstered by older women Claree (Olympia Dukakis) and – despite her rabid insistence on being mean – Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine). These women become M’Lynn’s rocks through the loss of her daughter, willing recipients for all the emotions she refuses to share with her husband.

Each of these women have pains of their own. Truvy’s husband is sporadically employed, his sense of self so beaten down he’s become withdrawn and depressed. Her dogged attempts to revive the spark in her marriage meet a perennial, blunt wall of resistance. Claree, whose beloved husband recently passed away, is a vision of playful good humour but she too feels uncertain about a life without the spouse who was her best friend. Ouiser has become bitter and nasty in her old age, disillusioned after two failed marriages and estrangement from her children. The group is joined by Truvy’s new employee Annelle (Daryl Hannah), who is herself struggling to get by after her delinquent husband abandoned her.

Against their individual struggles, these women are an unbreachable force. They pool their strength, wisdom, and courage to see one another through, reminding each person that regardless of her difficulties she too is loved and important. When Shelby suffers a hypoglycaemic attack early in the film, Claree and Truvy rush to help. When M’Lynn and Shelby are hospitalised for the transplant, they all prepare food for the family and come to the hospital to support them. Claree and Ouiser share an antagonistic yet mutually adoring friendship that deserves an article of its own, but the role of the women as a force for good is never clearer than in Truvy’s mentoring of Annelle. Annelle arrives in town penniless and alone, deserted by her husband and in desperate need of a job. Truvy welcomes her immediately, sharing stories about the town and its occupants. She and Claree politely press Annelle into revealing more about her past. Their manner is reflective of the parochialism of small towns, but it is ultimately rooted in concern. As soon as they know what hardship she’s been through, the group rallies. Shelby even insists on inviting her to her wedding and loans her a dress to wear. These gestures are thoughtful and sincere, speaking to the deep empathy of the women making them. They may not know what it is to feel so stricken and alone, but, eager to do whatever small thing they can, form a protective unit at once and usher Annelle within.

The film ends with Annelle going to the hospital to have her first baby. She calls for Truvy the second she feels a pain, and the entire group helps load her into the car. Truvy’s wayward son scoops up Annelle’s husband – whom she met at Shelby’s wedding – and the town waves them off to see the cycle of life begin once more. It’s a gorgeous, symbolically loaded conclusion to a uniquely expressive film. The message is simple, summed up by M’Lynn as she plays with Shelby’s son after the funeral. “Life goes on.” Life. This one precious thing we all share, and the bonds of love and emotion which make it worth living.

Steel Magnolias posits that these bonds are intensely human. While women may not be the only emotional caregivers in life, we do bear the brunt of it, and for this it is often devalued. The film makes a point of highlighting the complexity and difficulty of relationships as much as the joy they bring. These roles, it argues, have deep and elegant meaning and a prominence that tends to be overlooked. It is a film which celebrates the strength of women and the unsung heroics that light up our everyday lives. We are, as the title implies, delicate as flowers, and tough as steel.

Grace Duffy is a pop culture devotée and sometime film critic currently catching up on her classic sci-fi. You can read more on her Tumblr or catch her TV liveblogs on Twitter.

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