In 1985, graphic storyteller Alison Bechdel devised a test for sniffing out gender bias in fiction and film. The test is simple: to pass, the narrative must include two named female characters who speak to each other about something other than a man. With its all-star female cast, Steel Magnolias aces the Bechdel test. It also qualifies as a “chick flick.” One measure for determining what constitutes a chick flick is an affirmative answer to the question: Does the movie provoke weeping in women in a similar way that porn incites orgasm in men?
Robert Harling’s original 1987 play consisted only of the six female characters and took place entirely in Truvy’s beauty salon. The film includes more marginal characters and expands the setting to show more of the Louisiana town, but Dolly Parton’s Truvy Jones does plenty to ensure that beauty, or more precisely “beauty” remains a crucial theme. Looking back at Susan Sontag’s seminal 1964 essay, Notes on Camp, it’s clear that Steel Magnolias meets nearly every criterion. Sontag begins by defining Camp sensibility as “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” The armadillo shaped red velvet groom’s cake certainly fits that bill. Furthermore, Sontag continues, “Camp sees everything in quotation marks … to perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role.” Even if she had only a cameo role, the presence of Dolly Parton guarantees that Steel Magnolias can be viewed as Camp.
In addition to her augmented body, Dolly Parton works to maintain the over-the-top persona that has secured her place as the “Queen of Country Music” and $177 million in album sales. When asked about her experiences with plastic surgery in a 2003 broadcast of the Oprah Winfrey show, she said, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” Truvy Jones, her Steel Magnolias character, is also a font of one-liners. Most notably, she declares that her motto at the salon is “There’s no such thing as natural beauty.” Another of Sontag’s Notes reiterates Truvy’s motto: “the way of Camp is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” Olympia Dukakis’s character Clairee Belcher underscores this with another zinger, “The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.”
To watch Steel Magnolias without a Camp sensibility, without “converting the serious into the frivolous” as Camp encourages, is perhaps to reduce the film to that weepy chick-flick porn category. Robert Harling’s play is based on his sister’s struggle with Diabetes and the tragedy of her death. I’m not suggesting that the story was contrived as a vehicle for parodies of southern women’s lives, but it is the element of seriousness in the script that enables the film to succeed both as Camp and as a chick-flick. “Camp rests on innocence,” Sontag reminds us, “Camp discloses innocence, but also, when it can, corrupts it.” Why corrupt a tragic story portraying the death of the writer’s sister? An answer may lie in another of Truvy’s adages, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” There are viewers without Camp sensibility who flocked to the film, and no doubt contributed to its box office gross of $95,904,091.
Truvy is not the only character who makes pithy quips. Sontag holds up Oscar Wilde’s epigrams, (and to a certain extent the form of the epigram itself), as grand examples of “wholly conscious Camp.” The campiest actors, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine, and Dolly Parton were cast as the characters with a flair for the quick retort. The movie succeeds as Camp because of the performances by these actors. Describing Camp taste in persons, Sontag explains that they are “the great stylists of temperament and mannerism.” This can certainly be observed in Olympia Dukakis’s facial expressions and gestures as Clairee Belcher, and in Shirley MacLaine’s scowling delivery of lines like, “I’m not crazy, I’ve just been in a very bad mood for forty years!” Dolly Parton plays a version of herself, and audiences would have been disappointed otherwise. Here again, one of Sontag’s notes is apropos: “What Camp taste responds to is ‘instant character.’” The rest of the cast, Julia Roberts, Sally Field, and Daryl Hannah also portray their characters so that we instantly recognize each woman’s position and circumstance. Harling’s character descriptions also invite this kind of simplification. Shelby Eatenton, the character based on Harling’s sister, who is played by Julia Roberts, is described in the screenplay as “the prettiest girl in town.”
Whereas such flatness of character might reduce the appeal of another chick-flick, in Steel Magnolias the instant character phenomenon increases the allure. Sontag reminds us that “to emphasize style is to slight content” and that “the whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious.” I don’t believe that the campiness of Herbert Ross’s film undermines the place of genuine grief from which Harling wrote the play. Much of what makes us laugh is meant to be funny, and it is by viewing the film not only as a tragic-comedy, but also with a Camp sensibility that it is spared from being – horror of horrors – merely sentimental.
LB Thompson received her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and her M.F.A. in Poetry from New York University. She is a recipient of a 2010 award for emerging writers from the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, and an award for emerging women writers from the Rona Jaffe Foundation in 2002. Her poetry has been published in journals including The New Yorker, Fence, and Stonecutter and her nonfiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner and transtudies.org. LB teaches Creative Writing at Rutgers University and The New School and lives on the North Fork of Long Island.