Fannie Flagg and Rita Mae Brown

Fried Green Tomatoes in the Rubyfruit Jungle

Although their writing styles and life experiences differ greatly, Fannie Flagg and Rita Mae Brown each has illuminated what it means to be a woman -- and a lesbian -- in contemporary American society.

When ABC revived some of the more popular game shows of the ’70s and ’80s for its current Sunday night line-up, older viewers couldn’t help but compare the new versions to the shows they loved while growing up, including evaluating the hosts (could Michael Strahan be a suitable replacement for Dick Clark on The $100,000 Pyramid?) and reminiscing about game show panelists long forgotten. The latter was especially true for Match Game, a show that took B list celebrities and turned them into household names, such as Richard Dawson, Charles Nelson Reilly, Brett Somers, and Fannie Flagg. These names are no doubt unknown to the generation of millennials, but one of them should be in the lexicon of any LGBT individual. Fannie Flagg is one of two Southern writers of the ’80s and beyond who has helped pave the way for today’s lesbian authors.

Fannie Flagg was born Patricia Neal in 1944 in Alabama, a place she still calls home. After six tries, she walked off with the crown of Miss Alabama, then set her sights on being a star, preferably a comedian. Unfortunately, there was already an Oscar-winning actress walking around Hollywood with the name of Patricia Neal, so she opted for a new name: Fannie, a name suggested by her father, and Flagg, suggested by a friend because it sounded good with “Fannie”. A great name for a comedian, “Fannie Flagg” wasn’t the best choice of names for someone who wanted to be taken seriously as an author, a fact Flagg acknowledged later in her career.

However, Fannie Flagg didn’t start out with aspirations of being a writer. Such a goal was unthinkable for someone with dyslexia, a condition that Flagg has long been open and outspoken about. Nevertheless, her first big gig in Hollywood was as a writer, working behind the scenes of Candid Camera, a popular hidden camera show in the ’60s. Soon, Flagg was moved in front of the camera, co-hosting the show with founder Allen Funt.

This helped propel her career forward, leading to two comedy albums, costarring roles on The New Dick Van Dyke Show and Harper Valley PTA, and roles in such films as Five Easy Pieces, Stay Hungry, and Grease. Still, it was her appearances on the talk show circuit and Match Game that brought her the most attention.

Through most of it, Flagg had to play along with the heteronormative standards of the time, often building her comedy around being a single woman in search of a man. For a Johnny Cash special in 1969, she belted out a torch song (badly — on purpose) before launching into a comic diatribe about her failed marriage to a gardener (“He put his arm around me in the morning glories, but then came the afternoon when he kissed me in the iris.”) On the game show Tattletales, which featured married celebrities answering questions about their spouses, Flagg appeared frequently as a “couple” with closeted Bewitched star Dick Sargeant. Flagg’s adherence to the stereotypical man-hungry single woman role, a common theme for comediennes of the era, is seen in the following clip from Match Game:

It wasn’t until winning a short story writing contest in 1978 that Flagg decided to devote her energy to writing full time, turning her winning story into her first novel, Coming Attractions, later reissued as Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man. The autobiographical tale of an 11-year-old girl with an alcoholic father and proper mother became a New York Times best-seller. Since then, Flagg has written eight more novels, including last year’s The Whole Town’s Talking and her most acclaimed book, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. The film adaptation of the latter, starring Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy, garnered Flagg both an Academy Award and Writers Guild nomination for adapted screenplay.

This acclaim for writing was foreshadowed when Flagg won her first writing award at the age of 11, winning a blue ribbon for her essay “Why I Want to Be Bald Headed”, inspired by the fact that her mother would braid her hair so tightly that it gave her headaches. Today, her inspiration comes from a different place, as she told Parade magazine in January of this year: “One thing that keeps me writing is that the world has gotten so dark, and somebody has to continue to remind people that there are nice people living out there. It seems like nobody is writing about really kind, nice, normal, ordinary, middle-class people.” (“Author Fannie Flagg on Why She Keeps Writing”, 9 January 2017)

It wasn’t until Flagg attended a party thrown by Marlo Thomas that her lesbianism became widely-known. There, she met another writer, Rita Mae Brown. Brown was already well-known to the general public, not so much as a writer but as the spurned lover of tennis great Martina Navratilova. Thus, when Brown and Flagg became lovers, Flagg’s sexual identity became public knowledge. The relationship didn’t last, though, because the two women were too dissimilar, according to Brown.

This dissimilarity is evident in their writings. While Flagg’s heroines are often on journeys of self-discovery and empowerment, any allusions to lesbianism are subtle and implied, rather than explicitly stated (although more explicitly stated than the film version of Fried Green Tomatoes would indicate). Brown is far more direct, with the approach of “Hey, this is a book about lesbians and their lesbian lovers and their lesbian lives.” Among Brown’s most noted works in the lesbian fiction genre are Sudden Death, loosely based on her relationship with Navratilova, Six of One, and the ground-breaking Rubyfruit Jungle, one of the first mainstream novels to address the issues facing lesbians in a patriarchal society. In addition, she has published numerous mystery novels (with the assistance of her cat, Sneaky Pie), the Mrs. Murphy series; several books of poetry; numerous screenplays, including one of the first TV movies to address bisexuality, My Two Loves; a biographical novel about First Lady Dolley Madison; and several works of non-fiction. Her latest work, A Hiss Before Dying, was published in May of this year.

Where Flagg had to accept heterosexual standards in order to be successful in Hollywood, Brown fought to overthrow those standards. She was expelled from the University of Florida at Gainesville for participating in the civil rights movement, and later, she was kicked out of the newly formed National Organization for Women because of its reluctance to address the problems facing its lesbian members. She told Time in 2008, “Here I am, a southern country girl, so I was easy to write off as a stupid kid. I still had my accent — I have it when I go home, but I hadn’t learned how to disguise it. I raised the issue of class differences between women and racial differences… Then, of course, I raised the issue of gay women. That was all it took. [Betty Friedan] got rid of me in a hurry.” (“Rita Mae Brown: Loves Cats, Hates Marriage”)

Brown wasn’t born a southern girl, having been born in Pennsylvania to an unwed mother who put her up for adoption. She wound up being raised by her mother’s cousin in Florida during a period of social unrest and change, facts that helped shape her world view. After her rejection from NOW, Brown went on to help form The Furies Collective and was the co-author of “The Woman-Identified Woman”, the lesbian manifesto read at the Second Congress to Unite Women in 1970. A group of lesbians in the feminist movement basically staged a hostile takeover of the convention, referred to as a zap, to read their manifesto, the essence of which can be summed up in the following passage:

It is absolutely essential to the success and fulfillment of the Women’s Liberation Movement that (the issue of lesbianism) be dealt with. As long as the label “dyke” can be used to frighten women into a less militant stand, keep her separate from her sisters, keep her from giving primacy to anything other than men and family — then to that extent she is controlled by the male culture… As long as male acceptability is primary — both to individual women and the movement as a whole — the term lesbian will be used effectively against women.

Despite her political stand, though, Brown rejects being called a lesbian herself or a lesbian writer, arguing that literature is about art, not labels. Still, despite having written over 50 books and nine screenplays, it’s her first novel that still generates the most discussion. Brown recalls that Rubyfruit Jungle almost wasn’t published, though, saying she had splinters in her nose from all the publishing house doors that were slammed in her face. Eventually, Daughter’s Press published the book with no fanfare, as Brown recalls in her Time interview, “I never had a book review, never had an ad, didn’t have a hard cover until I guess one of its anniversaries. It exploded and they couldn’t keep up with the sales. They couldn’t print them fast enough.” Eventually, the novel was picked up by Bantam and sold over a million copies.

Subsequently, the novel has been a staple of Queer Studies and Gender courses in colleges and analyzed by literary scholars. James Mandrell, in his article “Questions of Genre and Gender: Contemporary American Versions of the Feminine Picaresque” in the Winter 1987 edition of Novel: A Forum on Fiction observed that “The most subversive aspect of this novel is… its rejection both of traditional male/female roles and even of non-traditional gender roles within the substrata of gay and lesbian culture…(Lead character) Molly and the complicitous author, Brown, stage a successful coup in that they demonstrate and represent respectively the vile and insidious nature of the world, supposedly turning what would be the tools of repression into a liberating force in society.”

Both Brown and Flagg’s southern upbringing meant being exposed to the gentile woman of the Deep South and the proper Southern Belle. In a time when those roles of femininity were being overthrown by a growing women’s movement and the presence of lesbians as a cultural force was first seen, they were able to capture the experiences of not just Southern women, but all women, and beautifully and frankly relate those stories in prose that has stood the test of time. Although their writing styles and life experiences differ greatly, each has illuminated what it means to be a woman — and a lesbian — in contemporary American society. To that, we raise a glass and shout the battle cry of Fried Green Tomatoes, “Towanda!”