Fried Green Tomatoes was a book and screenplay by Fannie Flagg, an actress and a Southern woman. At the beginning of the 1991 movie we see a mousy, meek Kathy Bates playing Evelyn Couch who visits her husband’s aunt in a nursing home. There she meets a lively, talkative old lady played by Jessica Tandy. Tandy’s character, Ninny Threadgoode, begins spinning a tale (that the movie scenes take up) about two women whose friendship began when they were young: Ruth Jamison and Idgie Threadgood.
Ruth came to Idgie’s small town to work with the church youth. Idgie didn’t care much about church but was drawn to Ruth. As was Idgie’s brother, Buddy. He and Ruth fell in love, but tragedy struck when Buddy was accidentally killed. Idgie nearly lost her sanity.
Years later Ruth married Frank, a cruel man who Idgie later learned was beating her. Idgie urged Ruth to leave him, but Ruth and her widowed mother were too afraid. When Ruth sent Idgie a letter with her mother’s obituary and a page from the book of Ruth that said “wherever you live, I will live,” Idgie went to Ruth’s house with two strong men to get her. In front of them, Frank hit and pushed a pregnant Ruth down the stairs. Idgie brought Ruth back to her hometown where the two of them started the Whistlestop Café which became famous for fried green tomatoes and barbecue.
Evelyn becomes fascinated with Ninny’s stories. While learning about spunky Idgie Threadgood, Evelyn also heeds Ninny’s not-so-subtle suggestions for using makeup, getting a different hairstyle, losing weight, and standing up for herself. And we see Evelyn changing from a woman with no self-esteem to a confident, successful woman.
One of Ninny’s stories involves the murder of Ruth’s abusive husband. Idgie realizes Big George, their protective black employee who is suspected, wouldn’t get a fair trial in a town dominated by Ku Klux Klan members. So she lets suspicion fall on her. Idgie convinces a court that Frank’s death was accidental. At the end of the movie Ninny reveals that Sipsey, Big George’s mother, actually killed Frank. She hit him over the head with an iron skillet to stop him from stealing (and probably killing) Ruth’s baby.
The tagline of the movie is, “The secret of life? The secret’s in the sauce.” After Frank was killed, the movie intimated that Big George disposed of the body by processing it into the restaurant’s barbecue. When diners complimented that barbecue as the best they’d ever eaten, Sipsey replied wryly, “The secret’s in the sauce.”
Fried Green Tomatoes, considered a “chick flick” because of its strong women characters, has an underlying current of violence. But so do some books of the Bible. In the stories of two closely-connected women, Deborah and Jael in Judges 4-5, there is a current of violence. And some surprises. One of the biggest is that in a time and culture overwhelmingly dominated by men, God used two women to free His people. As the saying goes, it is not the rule but the exception that proves the rule. The Israelites had never before—and have never since, except for Golda Maier—been ruled by a woman.
Deborah was a “prophetess” (Judges 4:4-10), a mouthpiece for God who spoke His word. God appointed her a judge over His people, and she served in that capacity without any recorded challenge to her authority. She was not one of nine Supreme Court justices; she was the whole court and the over-ruling governmental authority. Courageous, she went into battle herself when it seemed military commander Barak’s courage faltered. (Think Joan of Arc.) She preached that the Israelites should be fearless, and she practiced what she preached. Israel claimed an overwhelming victory against the Canaanites who never again launched a full-scale war against them. The shame of being routed by an army led by a woman may have been the final straw.
She prophesied to Barak (4:9) that a woman would kill their enemy’s commander, Sisera, and the praise for heroism would go to her. I wonder if Barak thought that woman would be Deborah. Maybe she did too. She knew what God had said but not exactly how He would accomplish it. Like Deborah, we may have a pretty good picture of what needs to happen, but we are often surprised by how He accomplishes it.
Dorothy Sayers wrote, “Are all women created to do the same thing? The obvious answer is no, of course not. Never in the course of history and least of all now. Men and women are created to do a special thing in the world. Their task is to find that thing.”
In Judges 4:11-24 and 5:24-27, we see what Jael did when Sisera fled from Israel and hid in her tent. I don’t think she was a big woman. She knew she would have to make sure Sisera was asleep before she killed him, so she gave him milk and a blanket to take a nap. Jael was no Wonder Woman, but she was strong enough to put a tentpeg to Sisera’s temple and hammer it thru his brain. When God called her to do this, she didn’t argue about how she was just a weak woman and ask Him to get a man. She didn’t claim the sight of blood would make her pass out. She believed it had to be done to save her people from a terrorist, and she did it. She was an ordinary woman working for an extraordinary God, and she did the thing that God created her to do.
Why did God choose to use two women at that time? When God uses something or someone who is considered to be naturally weak to do something powerful, it is to remind us where the power comes from: For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Cor. 1:25 NIV).
Most of us will never be called to stand up to a bully or a whole town like Idgie did, rule over a people like Deborah, or commit an act of violence to save our nation like Jael. But each of us is called to obedience. The most important trait of faith is obedience, the willingness to do whatever God says. Maybe Deborah and Jael so wanted to get their country back to God’s ways because of what could happen to their children if it stayed on its current path. Sound familiar? Today women are active in many organizations that fight evil. The adage about women fighting like tigers to protect their young is true. So the question we need to ask ourselves is: are we willing to be used by God in whatever way He sees fit? We don’t have to be physically strong or mentally exceptional to serve God. But we do have to have spiritual strength—the kind that relies on God to work in us and through us.
When I think of strong women, I think of Deborah and Jael—and my mother-in-law, one of the strongest women I ever knew. She stood a couple of inches taller than my father-in-law and may have even been physically stronger than him. He held the ladder for her while she cleaned out gutters and limbed trees (even into her 70s). She opened the pickle jars. But he also deferred to her spiritual strength. Dad read the daily devotionals and Bible reading at the dinner table, but when there was a biblical question, the “Bible-carrying woman” as he called her, was expected to answer it. In that way, my father-in-law reminds me of Lappidoth, Deborah’s husband, who graciously stepped back as his wife took the spiritually stronger role. Mom’s 84 years of compassion for others, teaching the Bible, and being a prayer warrior, was testified to at her funeral. There were more than 300 people there who had known and loved a strong woman.
SPOILER ALERT: At the end of the movie, Ninny leaves the nursing home alone to “go home.” When Evelyn finds out there is no longer a house there, she goes after her. Only then does she discover that Ninny could actually be Idgie Threadgoode, not just her sister-in-law as she had claimed. (In the book they are different characters.) Evelyn tells Ninny that she is taking her home to live with her. They have become like mother and daughter. Evelyn has prepared a room for her. And she assures Ninny that her husband will adjust to the idea.
©2016 by Vicki Huffman
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