Steel Magnolias & The Queerness of Motherhood

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I spent a lot of my childhood wishing for things. One of the things I wished for the most was a mother who understood me. My mother and I differed on almost everything: religious beliefs, what clothing was appropriate to wear, and, most prominently, whether or not gay people were going to hell (her answer was a firm yes, and so was mine, albeit my agreement was only out of abject fear and ignorance). The latter affected me the most, because - surprise! - I’ve known since I was 10 years old that I liked girls. I didn’t have a term for my sexuality until I was 20, and came out to my then-boyfriend as bisexual (and coincidingly rejected God around that time as well). But I didn’t tell my own mother that I was bi until I was 31 years old. I’m sure you can imagine why.

I grew up in a small Southern town and felt like an outcast both in my home and outside of it. I searched for someone, something to relate to. I’m an only child, so I grew up watching a lot of movies - but they were never the movies my peers were watching. I distinctly remember watching a kid from my 5th grade class flouncing into a showing of Volcano while I probably went to go see Jungle 2 Jungle again, which is problematic on many levels, least of all being that Tim Allen is the hero in that movie - but I digress. I really wanted to fucking see Volcano, but couldn’t, because it was rated PG-13. By 1997, I was 11 years old (or nearly 11 years old), but I still couldn’t watch PG-13 movies. In fact, I couldn’t watch PG-13 or R-rated movies until I was in college. And I still lived at home in college.

Growing up, my story felt unique to me and of course, I know now it wasn’t. There was nothing special about my suffering. Kids bullied me for being smart, but they didn’t beat me up. My mother was strict and religious,  but she never told me to go into the closet and pray (ironic). But one scarring childhood doesn’t negate another, and my foremost fear from age 10 on was that my mother would find out that I found the same sex attractive. She didn’t of course, until I told her when I was a mother myself.

But before all of that, there was Sally Field. My ok-to-watch-movie-repertoire included Julia Roberts films (thank GODT for Runaway Bride) and Dolly Parton masterpieces (9 to 5, anyone?). So, it should come as no great shock that Steel Magnolias was one of those films that was in heavy rotation in my home. Julia’s smile lit up a room - I never saw what she saw in her on-screen husband. He seemed kind of useless. Dolly was beautiful and glamorous, and I had a huge crush on her. I wanted to be Olympia Dukakis when I was “old.” And I wanted a mother like Sally Field.

Sally Field’s character, M’Lynn Eatenton, is not an easy one. She spends about half the movie shitting on Julia Roberts’s character, Shelby. M’Lynn never approves of anything Shelby wants to do, largely due to Shelby’s diabetes and the fact that she’s prone to seizures (why was diabetes the “glamorous” disease of the nineties? It was threatening but not too threatening, and only skinny beautiful women seemed to have it). In fact, Shelby’s diabetes is apparently so bad that doctors told her she shouldn’t have children - but she does, anyway! What a rascal. As we all know by now (and if you don’t - SPOILER ALERT!), the can’t-have-kids-because-of-diabetes-combo eventually kills Shelby in a horrible scene involving dinner being left on the stove. That scene still gives me anxiety re: making sure I check the oven before I leave the house.

Back to M’Lynn: her overprotectiveness resonated with me, but for some reason, it’s easy to hold something at arm’s length and appreciate it for it is, rather than confront it head-on. So my secret love of women stayed inside of me, and I never fought against my own mother like Shelby did with M’Lynn. I was never open with my mother like Shelby and M’Lynn were, because despite of their many differences of opinion, the two were best friends. They told each other everything.

I never had any serious girlfriends, and I told myself if I did, I would tell my mother. I never did - I met my husband in 2011, and we’ve been together ever since. We got married (duh), had a kid - the whole nine yards. But anytime my mother made a passive-aggressive remark about queer folx - the people who were and are, my family - the seed of hypocrisy grew into a festering bunch of brambles around my heart, until I couldn’t stand it anymore and came out to her in an email. Much like my childhood, it felt much more dramatic than it was. I did it just before Thanksgiving. My mother wrote back and told me she still loved me. She said other things of course, but she said it twice: she still loved me. No matter what. It was my Sally Field moment. It was the unconditional love and understanding and friendship I had been craving my whole life and thought I didn’t (and would never) have. And, like growing up, it wasn’t as dramatic as I thought it would be. But that didn’t matter. Even at 31, even with a child and family of my own, my mother finally knew who I was. I had revealed what I thought she would consider the worst part of me, and it didn’t matter to her. My Bible-thumping mother, of all people! It didn’t make her hate me. It didn’t make her want to hit someone until they felt as bad as she did. Because she didn’t seem to feel bad. She just seemed to love me. And in that moment, I understood her, and loved her back, almost as much.

Join WUSSY on Sunday, September 22nd at 5pm for a special one-night screening of Steel Magnolias at Plaza Theatre, hosted by Molly Rimswell. Tickets are available here.


Anna Jones is a writer and producer currently based in Atlanta. She is the proud owner of digital copywriting agency Girl.Copy and independent film production company Tiny Park Productions. She loves a lot of stuff, but mainly: her husband, kid, and cat, writing and filmmaking, coffee and Diet Coke, millennial pink, sushi, gay stuff, and horror films.