On Sweet Home Alabama

I really do love Sweet Home Alabama because I love these sort of romantic comedies. C. Jay Cox also wrote Latter Days, which is not surprising that I would enjoy this so damn much. It is not without it’s problems though, as stated in Postfeminist Double Binds: How Six Contemporary Films Perpetuate the Myth of the Incomplete Woman by Samantha Senda-Cook:

Sweet Home Alabama, The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Down With Love, Never Been Kissed , and Miss Congeniality position the lead female characters in thriving careers, but ultimately resituate the women primarily as love interests. In doing so, these texts qualify as postfeminist. In all six films, the women have secured great jobs as writers (in three of the films), a wedding planner, a fashion designer, and an FBI agent. However, when confronted with the decision to remain single and professionally successful or become romantically monogamous and have questionable career success, in every case the women choose the boyfriend. The question remains: is a heterosexual, monogamous relationship oppressive? Heterosexual monogamous relationships do not necessarily oppress women. However, I contend that when coupled with the career/financial/self sacrifice each woman makes, they become oppressive. An expectation is formed; a hegemonic structure reified.

These films strive to separate what second wave feminists attempted to conflate: the personal and the political.While shrugging at the importance of having fulfillment outside a relationship, these films elevate romance to an unquestionable sphere by ignoring the fate of the career by the end of the film and concentrating solely on the love relationship. They purport that (a) of course, a woman wants (needs) a relationship, and (b) audience members should not challenge this with arguments of social implications. By focusing on single women—that is, women without children or a husband—these films update Jamieson’s double binds so that they apply to women earlier in their lives.

Updating Classic Double Binds

Sweet Home Alabama, The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Down With Love, Never Been Kissed , and Miss Congeniality earned over one hundred million dollars in their opening weekends alone, confirming that not only are these films highly visible, they are also well supported. My analysis of these films suggests two major double binds that reinforce hegemony: (1) the need to choose between a career and a man; and (2) the need to transform to be complete.

In these films, transformation is used as a rhetorical device to show audience members how to negotiate problematic career/love situations in a world shaped by feminism. The first theme involves the basic plot of each film. In all the films, a woman has a job. One is already successful, four want to advance and need to prove themselves, and one must redeem herself. Each protagonist meets (or already knows) a great guy, and must choose between this man and her blossoming career. In all six, “true love” wins and the audience is left to wonder what will become of that career for which the lead has worked so hard. This theme plays out in two ways: (1) the lead character keeps the man and likely loses job/promotion, or (2) the character keeps the man and probably keeps the job/earns respect.

The exposition and conclusion of each film are the two most revealing parts of the films. In the exposition, the audience learns about the lead character and her problem(s). At this point, the filmmakers invite the audience to identify with the protagonists by offering personal information to which other characters do not have access. For example, in Sweet Home Alabama, the audience sees a memory of Melanie’s childhood through a dream. In the conclusions of Sweet Home Alabama, The Wedding Planner, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, the protagonist successfully captures the man, and the audience is lead to believe that she loses her job or promotion. The second group of films, Down With Love, Never Been Kissed, and Miss Congeniality, features the protagonist winning her love’s affection, and probably keeping her job, but the audience does not know for sure.

Whether the protagonist keeps her career or not, the filmmakers undermine this element by avoiding closure. As all the films illustrate, even if the woman focuses on her career at the beginning, by the end, the romantic, heterosexual relationship has become the salient concern. For example, at the end of The Wedding Planner, Mary has not only broken the cardinal rule of wedding planning—she has fallen in love with the groom—but she has also acted on it. In doing so, the audience is lead to believe that she has lost her promotion. In another example, although Josie, in Never Been Kissed, makes career advancements for her investigative reporting, she is unhappy. The climax of the film is based not on a precarious career situation, but rather on a precarious romantic situation—will Josie get her first kiss? Thus, the audience is expected to focus on the “true love” aspects of the film, emphasizing the importance of “love” (or heterosexual relationships) to the characters and audience members. The second theme examines how this “love” is made possible in the films.

In each of the films, the audience is allowed to view some change in the character. This second theme of transformation occurs in two ways in the films, defining two types of double binds that mirror the two outlined by Jamieson, which I previously discussed. Set one, comprised of Sweet Home Alabama, The Wedding Planner, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, modernizes the womb/brain double bind by focusing on the transformation of the career-oriented woman into the “non-professional woman.” Set two consists of Down With Love, Never Been Kissed, and Miss Congeniality and updates the femininity/competence bind by portraying the transformation a “professional non-woman” must undergo to be a “real” woman. Because the producers of these films show this to the audience these transformations function rhetorically to illustrate for the viewer what “good” actions are in this society.

Transform the Woman and the Career to Keep the Man

Instead of seeing the womb/brain double bind in terms of a mother attempting to go back to work, Sweet Home Alabama, The Wedding Planner, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days illustrate the difficulties associated with maintaining a heterosexual relationship after establishing a career. The womb/brain bind typically has focused on a woman already in a heterosexual relationship or with children and how these aspects contribute to an inability to effectively perform a job. However, the films I examined assume that women value seeking a profession first, an acknowledgement of feminism.With this presumption, Sweet Home Alabama, The Wedding Planner, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days portray beautiful, career-minded women in a career/relationship bind and illustrate the transformation necessary to complete their lives.

Sweet Home Alabama

Sweet Home Alabama provides two transformations through which Melanie struggles before finding her love. First, she had to leave her rural roots behind to pursue a career in New York. She does this so well that when she returns to Alabama, she must readapt to the environment. The audience knows the second transformation, back into a rural Southerner, is complete when Melanie punches her would-be mother-in-law in the face for insulting Melanie’s mother. Her father confirms this by shouting, “The South has risen!” Returning to her supposed Southern ways Melanie may now be with the man she truly loves, Jake. This implies that the identity Melanie adopted to establish her career felt false even to her.

The dichotomy between urban and rural life perpetuated through Melanie’s identity is significant here because it connects feminism with urban, career success and “acting” like something she is not. The geographical location’s connection to identity reinforces the double bind of career/love. The film assumes that people have essential identities and to be professionally successful, women must deny that essence. On the contrary, to be socially successful, women must embrace their roots and are refused the opportunity to change. The alternative perspective in the film is Jake, who successfully combines a Southern lifestyle, a creative and professional career, and true love.


Transform the Woman to Keep the Career and the Man

Down With Love, Never Been Kissed, and Miss Congeniality incorporate a postfeminist logic into the femininity/competence double bind. Mediated representations of the femininity/competence double bind generally portray women as either beautiful and stupid or ugly and intelligent. The three films in this category appear to promote empowerment because, in the end, the protagonists presumably keep their jobs and snare the men. However, to accomplish both of these tasks, the woman must undergosome transformation to conform to hegemonic femininity.

Down With Love

Unbeknownst to the audience, Barbara Novak begins as Nancy Brown. After realizing that Nancy Brown—plain, socially unskilled, administrative assistant Nancy— will never have the opportunity to date Catcher Block, she transforms into Barbara Novak—attractive, charming, best-selling author Barbara. Before ever meeting Barbara, Catcher assumes that she is ugly. After all, why would she write a book denouncing love if she were attractive? However Nancy has become Barbara for the sole purpose of appealing to Catcher. She knows that Catcher dates multiple beautiful women, so Barbara must stand out. She essentially builds a career and transforms her appearance so that she can capture Catcher. She could have established her profession as a writer without altering her physical body, but to be completely successful by contemporary U.S. standards, she must have a man as well. After Catcher agrees to marry her, she discovers that she does actually want to keep her career and leaves Catcher. Barbara feels she must stick to the rules she has set out in her book; she should forget love and focus on her career, starting a new magazine. Catcher evolves to accept that Barbara can be married and have a career, and so they reunite. Transformation, then, functions rhetorically in this film to show that women can “have it all” as long as they change themselves first.


Miss Congeniality

Miss Congeniality provides the most stereotypical representation of a woman in a position of intelligence and power. Many of the characters in this film (Victor Melling—her coach, Eric Matthews—her friend, Kathy Morningside—director of the Miss United States pageant, and Stan Fields—host of the pageant) freely comment on Gracie’s masculine walk, physical look, eating style, manner of persuasion, fighting ability, and type of dress. Because she ignored her boss’s direct orders on a sting mission, Gracie has been confined to deskwork. Eric, the lead crew member of the next mission, convinces their boss to let Gracie go undercover in the pageant. Thus, as in Never Been Kissed, Gracie’s career success depends upon her ability to feminize herself in every aspect. The audience has the opportunity to see exactly what this process involves: manicurist, pedicurist, hairstylist, make-up artist, tanning bed, waxing (body hair removal), limited diet, new clothes, new walk, and better manners. The “bonus” for this new Gracie is the affection of Eric, which solves another problem outlined by Victor. He asserts Gracie is incomplete because she does not value relationships, thus Gracie’s transformation redeems her professionally, and completes her socially.

By directly reasserting the importance of appearance, Down With Love, Never Been Kissed, and Miss Congeniality suggest that without a heterosexual relationship, these career-minded women are incomplete. These films place the protagonists in positions of professional power, but illuminate the romantic problems that occur in such situations. In Down With Love, the physical transformation indicates Barbara’s success. In Never Been Kissed and Miss Congeniality, Josie and Gracie must physically transform not only to excel at their jobs, but also to complete their lives through a romantic relationship. Professional and social successes are predicated on physical and mental transformations. Rhetorically, this is important because if the women were only changing their physical appearances, it would be easier to write the films off as outdated or antithetical to feminism. However, because the women’s physical transformations fuel mental transformations, such as gaining confidence and grace, the changes can be couched in a larger discourse about becoming a better person rather than one associated with pursuing a man.

All six films incorporate postfeminist ideology, highlighting a transformation in the main character and modernizing two double binds. The films begin with the women having successful professions, but imply (or state explicitly) that they are incomplete. To acknowledge the career path of these women modernizes the double bind. They complete the postfeminist logic, however, by leaving the heterosexual romantic relationships unquestioned. These films encourage the audience to forget that in half the films, the women had to transform their career expectation to propel the romantic relationship and, in the other half of the films, the women had to undergo a personal transformation to be attractive to men and keep their careers. By the ends of the films, the focus shifts from career to love and the audience is equally encouraged to forget about the career.

The fact that these films are romantic comedies is also significant because they are perceived as innocuous. I think it is common for audiences to forget that humor also functions rhetorically. Rhetorical criticism has not ignored the persuasiveness of comedy. Ann Johnson explains that one potential reason why a television show like The Man Show escapes criticism of its blatant misogyny is because of its humor. She states, “Humor allows audiences to enjoy the pleasure of the diatribe and perhaps also see some truth in the observation on which the diatribe is built.” Although

the films in question in this essay do not adopt a diatribe format, they do use humor to excuse any potential sexism present and encourage the audience to identify with the parts of the films that ring true for them. Thus, even though audience members know they are not “real,” they still have a powerful message because they respond to contemporary social situations, such as work/life balance, and do so with a subtle, humorous hand.

According to The New York Times review:

When Reese Witherspoon flashes her thousand-watt smile, she projects a fundamental niceness that makes it impossible to begrudge her all the goodies that flutter into her lap like candy sequins raining down from Barbie Doll heaven. That smile isn’t just any old beauty-pageant grimace. It has a backbone. The tirelessly chipper star, exuding the confidence of a miniature general who has never lost a battle, leads with her chin in a way that recalls the younger Sally Field. Every physical twitch signals an unflappable determination to conquer whatever challenge presents itself.

In the opening scenes of ”Sweet Home Alabama,” a ball of fluff whose charm stems largely from Ms. Witherspoon’s plucky effervescence, the goodies that arrive are the sorts of rewards a screen Cinderella usually reaps just before the final credits. Her character, Melanie Carmichael, a rising New York fashion designer, arrives home one evening to find her apartment flooded with roses sent by her rich, handsome boyfriend Andrew (Patrick Dempsey).

A couple of scenes later, Andrew’s driver chauffeurs Melanie to a strange dark place where a heady surprise awaits. The lights flick on, and what do you know? We’re at Tiffany’s! Beaming from behind their counters, as Andrew kneels and asks Melanie to marry him, the staff begins stacking up baubles of every shape and size. As Melanie catches her breath, Andrew utters those three magic words: ”Take your pick.”

Of course, contemporary excess being as excessive as it is these days, it’s not enough for Ms. Witherspoon’s character to be heaped with roses and diamonds by her beau, who also happens to be the son of the mayor of New York (Candice Bergen). (They’re Democrats, by the way.) She has the added luxury of having to choose between two dreamboats, both equally besotted with her.

Back home in Pigeon Creek, Ala., the little hick town Melanie left eight years earlier, her childhood sweetheart Jake (Josh Lucas), who resembles a cross between Matthew McConaghey and the young Paul Newman, still pines for her. Since Jake is even hunkier than Andrew, the fantasy question posed by the movie asks which one would you choose: the courtly urban prince or the hot redneck stud?

That question brings to mind a possibly apocryphal story from a number of years back about a survey in which women were asked to choose between a suave, politically correct Alan Alda, who was famously sensitive to feminist issues, or the rougher-looking, more overtly sexy Kris Kristofferson. Mr. Kristofferson won by a landslide.

The opening scene of ”Sweet Home Alabama” shows Melanie and Jake as children swearing their love in a raging (and absurdly fake-looking) thunderstorm during which lightning strikes twice in the same place. The second time, it turns the sand on which they are standing into a crystalline natural sculpture that they take home as a sentimental keepsake.

But that was back in the dark ages. In the bejeweled glow of Tiffany’s, Melanie blushingly accepts Andrew’s proposal. Before the lovers can seal their vows, however, Melanie has to take care of some urgent unfinished business. Back in Pigeon Creek all those years ago, she married Jake and is still legally bound to him, since he refused to divorce her.

She hopes to solve that little problem with a quick, furtive jaunt to her hometown where she plans to present him with papers to sign that will instantly dissolve their union. Melanie’s background isn’t exactly the aristocratic plantation life she has described to Andrew and to the fashion press. It’s just one step above trailer. Later, when her New York friends begin appearing in Pigeon Creek, she has some fancy footwork to do.

If ”Sweet Home Alabama,” directed by Andy Tennant from a screenplay by C. Jay Cox, has the ingredients for a classic screwball comedy, the movie is in such a rush to entertain that it barely connects the dots of its story. But it still has its effectively goofy comic moments, especially when Melanie and Jake do battle. When he refuses to sign the papers and tries to have her arrested for breaking and entering, she retaliates by cleaning out their joint bank account. But the heat of battle also heats up their old romance.

As Melanie rediscovers the simple pleasures of Pigeon Creek, her New York chic melts away, and she reverts to her former self, a prankish good ole gal who was always getting into trouble. The final showdown in which Melanie chooses between the prince and the hunk takes place at her southern-fried wedding to Andrew.

The movie, which opens nationally today, jokingly refights the Civil War, with Melanie exemplifying a down-home Helen of Troy who was stolen by the Yankees. When the males of Pigeon Creek are not busy farming or getting drunk at the local pool hall, they’re dressing as Confederates for elaborate re-creations of Civil War battles. Without becoming strident, the movie favors these earthy, yahooing, latter-day Confederates over the cool, sophisticated New Yorkers with their too-critical eyes and overly refined tastes. The movie reveals its bias when Ms. Bergen’s mayor, who resembles an icier Hillary Rodham Clinton, lets her upper-class Yankee snobbery get the better of her and calls Melanie ”a psycho Daisy Mae.”

As another character remarks earlier in the film while observing Melanie becoming tanked, ”You can take the girl out of the honky-tonk, but you can’t take the honky-tonk out of the girl.” In a movie that peddles a faux populist sentimentality, that’s meant as the highest compliment.


4 thoughts on “On Sweet Home Alabama

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