By Abby Ann Ramsey
We all know the classic plot that’s essentially “small town girl moves to a big city to make her seemingly impossible dreams come true,” and if you’re like me, it’s the plot that gives you a feeling of empowerment and hope. It brings the feeling of instant pride while watching Anne Hathaway’s “Andy Sachs” in The Devil Wears Prada realize her worth as a journalist and the feeling of immediate joy when watching Emma Stone’s “Mia Dolan” undoubtedly nail an audition in La La Land. It’s the plot that people tend to label “cheesy,” “predictable,” or the worst of all, a “chick flick.” Although “chick flicks” can seem to place women in a position that capitalizes on their sexuality or that boxes them into their stereotypical gender role, they can also empower and inspire them to follow their dreams, be successful, and perhaps find love along the way.
Now, what’s so intriguing about this theme in romantic comedies, or even just movies about young women following their dreams, is that their happiness often comes with a skyscraper background. Rarely do we get to see a girl be completely content with a Southern lifestyle, which as a girl in the South, has made me idealize city life over suburban life, even though I have a deep appreciation for my hometown. Even less often do we get to see a girl follow her big city dreams, get everything she thought she wanted, and then realize her original life wasn’t so bad, and that she doesn’t necessarily have to choose all of one or all of the other.
We never see a woman admit that her ambitious decisions might have been a mistake, not because they were ambitious, but because she needs more than a career and a perfect husband to make her happy. This is where Sweet Home Alabama fills a gap, although a gap that could have been filled with a more accurate portrayal of the South, in the common thread of “chick flicks.”
Within the first ten minutes of Sweet Home Alabama the audience learns that Melanie Carmichael is living large in New York City. Not only are media outlets calling her the next great fashion designer, but she just got engaged to the mayor’s son, Andrew Hennings, who of course is played by none other than Patrick Dempsey. Her name flows off the tip of everyone’s tongue so effortlessly that she begins to think she has accomplished her dreams and even that her made-up last name is truthfully her own.
When Melanie quickly realizes that she has some loose ends to tie up in her hometown of Greeneville, Alabama, the look of disgust and shame on her face is hard to miss. After all, just before this, her openly gay fashion colleague and friend (Nathan Lee Graham) refers to her as “Miss Dixie” and says, “Seven years ago, you were this little debutant straight off the plantation, and now you’re my steel magnolia!” After a short period of time in New York, Melanie has completely detached herself from her past, saving nothing but the slightest of country accents. She has fallen into a pit of resenting Alabama and constantly making fun of the community she once called home.
To be fair to Melanie, Sweet Home Alabama’s portrayal of Greeneville, Alabama is not exactly what I’d call glamorous. Before we even see the town, Andrew asks her if her parents will hate him because he’s a yankee, to which she quickly retorts, “well that – and a Democrat.” Her resentment for home is so clear before she even gets there, and is just built upon when she arrives at the home of her soon-to-be ex-husband, Jake Perry (Josh Lucas), and he is quick to say she has turned into “some hoity-toity Yankee bitch.” At this point, viewers are crossing their fingers hoping she’ll get out of this scary town quick enough to still have Andrew awaiting her in New York.
That is until we get the first glimpse of Reese Witherspoon fully buying into Melanie Carmichael when she looks at Jake and says, “I’m not your wife, Jake. I’m just the first girl that climbed in the back of your truck. But, you’re right. I have changed. I’m not that girl anymore.” Instantly, we want to know who Melanie was. This perfect New York fashion designer obviously had a past life that she is terrified to confront because what if she hasn’t changed? What is she’s the same Melanie she was before, just in different clothes? What if she still belongs to her real name, Melanie Smooter?
From this moment forward, we witness Melanie in a power struggle. Not a power struggle with Jake, Andrew, her parents, or even the South, but a power struggle with herself. As she begs and begs Jake to sign the divorce papers so she can return “home” to New York, she begins to see Alabama for what she used to. The second she runs into an old friend played by Ethan Embry who goes by the name of Bobby Ray Carmichael (the inspiration for her new identity), her southern accent is full blown, and a smile is restored on her face.
Soon after, however, she attempts to deny her contentment with judgment and superiority when she goes to a nearby bar filled with almost everyone in the town. As she ends a phone conversation with Andrew before walking in, the country music blares and she labels it “the sound of [her] past” while rolling her eyes. Terrified to admit that she might actually want to be there, she saunters in with her designer top and orders a martini. An old and kind friend compliments her and attempts to work up a fashion conversation, and an outraged Melanie replies that she designed the shirt herself because she is a New York fashion designer. In what seems like an attempt to at least sound friendly, but is extremely judgmental, she looks at the woman and says, “Look at you! You’ve got a baby… in a bar.”
Everything Melanie comes across in Greeneville seems to be a problem that she thinks is her own because the South is still a major part of her identity. That night, a hard to watch, drunken Melanie outs her friend Bobby Ray as gay and when Jake tells her she thinks she’s better than everyone there she loudly insists, “I am better than them!” The audience, however, knows the truth. Melanie just wants to be better than the girl she was before – the girl who got pregnant at 18 and was ready to settle down with a high school football star. The South to her is her old self, and thinking about who she used to be terrifies her.
She wants so badly to not be like the people she left in Alabama. She wants so badly to be open-minded, hardworking, and for lack of a better word, glamorous, because she thinks the folks in Greeneville are everything but those things. What she does not realize, however, as she is blinded by what she thinks would make her happy, is that her Alabama community was actually kind and welcoming, while she had become arrogant and exclusive.
After this night, everything changes for her. Jake signs the divorce papers, but it’s obvious she’s still looking for something else. She sticks around for a few more days and confesses her confusion to Jake, with perhaps one of her most authentic and vulnerable lines. “I’m happy in New York, Jake, but then I come down here, and it fits too.” After being so scared of her true feelings toward Alabama, as well as her true feelings toward Jake, she can finally admit that she now sees two cities as home, and neither one is necessarily better than the other. The reason this is so hard to admit is because she’s essentially admitting she was wrong about Alabama the whole time. Melanie Smooter is not the type of person to be wrong, yet she empowers herself by realizing it’s okay to make mistakes and change her mind, even if that means she’ll face judgment from one of her two worlds.
Although many of the people in Alabama are kind and welcoming, it’s impossible to talk about this movie without discussing the blatant political issues. The comments could possibly be the views of director Andy Tennant or they could just be what he thinks are the views of the South. A lot of times, the jokes about the confederate reenactments are, indeed, funny, and I personally laughed out loud when Patrick Dempsey showed up in Greeneville wearing a turtleneck and blazer, and Jake — unaware that this is Melanie’s fiance — assumes he’s Bobby Ray’s boyfriend. But unfortunately, it seems that this movie capitalizes on the stereotypes of the South, a tendency that is hard to watch as a Southerner. It becomes especially hard to witness when at the very end of the movie, Melanie punches the mayor of New York and woman who would have been her mother-in-law (Candice Bergen) in the face and Melanie’s dad (Fred Ward) exclaims, “Praise the Lord, the South is risen again!”
Yes, it is true that there are people in the South who might in fact want the South to “rise again.” What’s more true, though is that I think it’s safe to say there are even more people who don’t feel like the Confederacy should make another appearance. As a Southerner, it’s difficult to think that there are people whose knowledge of the South does not extend past their viewing of Sweet Home Alabama.
What I do love about the movie, though, is how the character of Jake Perry strays from the Southern stereotype enough so that he is not racist, sexist, or homophobic, but not so much that he loses his identity and appreciation for his Alabama roots. Although he labels light beer “chick food” and does assume that Patrick Dempsey’s turtleneck makes him gay, he is also the first person after Melanie to welcome Bobby Ray with open arms, despite the backlash he could face. Additionally, he views Melanie as his equal and knows that he doesn’t deserve her.
Melanie’s friend even tells her that he went to New York to win her back but quickly returned because, “He said he’d need more than an apology to win you back. He’d need to conquer the world first.” Furthermore, he respects Melanie so much that once she decides to marry Andrew, he doesn’t try to stop her, simply for the sake of her own happiness. Jake Perry works hard to make sure he is not exactly the same man he was when Melanie left, but that he still retains his cultural identity.
Because of the issues with the movie, it might be a stretch to say that it’s a film of female empowerment. Nonetheless, just the fact that Melanie can reckon with her past and realize that she does not have to marry a handsome New York politician to be dubbed the label of “successful” is enough to warrant me saying that she is inspiring. It takes a lot for a girl who has accomplished all she has to say that she can also enjoy the simple country life with her high school sweetheart. In fact, it takes a lot for a girl to decide she wants both the city and country life, when at the beginning of the film she said, “People need a passport to come down here.” Just as Andy Sachs must admit that fashion can have as much merit as literature for some people, Melanie Smooter must admit that the South is more than just a place of close-minded people who spend their days drinking beer and driving trucks; it’s a place full of people who love her no matter how what Vogue thinks of her.
Although it might not seem like your classic feminist movie where the protagonist gets all she ever dreamed of, it essentially is that and more. Not only do Melanie’s career aspirations come true, but she also realizes that her past mistakes do not define her future. She can have the New York job, the Alabama husband, and the lifestyle of both regions. Because of her journey of reckoning with Greeneville, it’s clear that she can inspire young women to realize it’s okay to have multiple dreams, even if one seems less important than the other. It’s important to not let the conservative Southern themes in Sweet Home Alabama discount the fact that Melanie Smooter is the epitome of a modern feminist who truly can have it all.