Deconstructing Sweet Home Alabama

I saw the movie Sweet Home Alabama yesterday. It was decently entertaining, but later in the evening, I started thinking about the cultural memes that it is propagating, possibly because I have been reading too many of Jessie’s posts. The rest of this post will involve spoilers so if you have not seen the movie and plan to, you have been warned.

Quick plot summary: We first meet Reese Witherspoon as a successful fashion designer in New York City, getting engaged to the New York City Secretary of Housing, who is also the mayor’s son. She tells him she wants to tell her estranged parents about the engagement personally, so she flies back to rural Alabama. There we meet her childhood friends, including her high school sweetheart and husband, from whom she was never officially divorced. Wackiness ensues. By the end of the movie, she chooses her high school sweetheart over the overly coiffed New York paramour.

It’s a bit preposterous on my part to think of such an inconsequential movie as having an agenda, but I thought it was interesting that the film centers on the rejection of New York culture in favor of a simpler, more friendly, family-oriented Southern culture. The New York mayor is portrayed as manipulative and cold, always calculating the political consequences of an action. The Alabama friends are portrayed as living in the moment, having a good time down at the bar each evening. At the climax of the film, where Reese breaks off the engagement at the wedding, the mayor tries to stop her, saying that no poor white trash can do that to her son’s political ambitions, and starts excoriating Reese’s mother. Reese punches the mayor, saying “Nobody talks to my mama like that!” as the crowd cheers this victory over the Yankees.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m a snooty New Yorker now, but this portrayal really bothers me. New York seems to represent a lot of what is great about this country. It is a true melting pot, with people of all nationalities mixing together; it’s almost more common than not to hear languages other than English being spoken. It is a land of opportunity, where people move every year in search of their chance to make the big time, whether in finance or media or theater or whatever. Everybody here is ambitious, aspiring to something great. Yes, New York can be harsh, but as the lyrics state, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere”.

Meanwhile, the stereotypical Southern culture as portrayed in the movie is far more static. Her childhood friends are all still mostly the same, living in the same town, doing similar things. Reese’s father is a Civil War re-enactor, still fighting for the Confederacy. Nothing had changed in the seven years since she had been home. At one level, it’s very comforting; “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”. However, I could also call it stagnant. It promotes a conservative worldview where we can aspire to nothing more than what we already have. In fact, anybody that does aspire to anything more should be thought of as crazy because such ambition implies that the status quo is not the best of all possible worlds. Such ambition disrupts the comfortable community, and thus the agent of change must be treated as an outcast.

At the end, the film tries to have it both ways, by having the high school sweetheart create a business that he can then move to New York and join Reese, holding true to their past but moving forward together into the future. But I find it interesting that they were unable to carry out their dreams in their hometown. They had to move someplace new, using a new context to create a new identity, as Reese did in her initial move to New York, and as she got her husband to do later in the movie. Even in a movie where New York is portrayed as a shallow glitzy sort of place, it is still an environment of change.

And change is good. Change allows for the possibility of improvements. It can mean progress. Change is also scary and terrifying because it brings the unknown, but that can be good as well. I think we should celebrate agents of change like New York; if it weren’t for people like ambitious New Yorkers striving to make their mark on the world, we would not have made nearly the amount of progress that we have.

I find it interesting that the rest of the country despises liberal bastions like San Francisco and New York, and yet celebrates American ideals like innovation and competition, which are best exemplified by those bastions. Conservatives tend to despise the Old World of Europe for holding on to the past, and yet idealize small-town culture (or the stereotypical Southern culture portrayed in Sweet Home Alabama) which is stagnant and unchanging.

It’s interesting how I ended up with a political rant from an attempted movie deconstruction. Cultural memes are transmitted through movies, which influence people’s worldviews by reinforcing certain attitudes and deprecating others, and those worldviews influence how people end up voting. Frames trump facts. It’s also interesting how I’ve become such an intellectual leftist relativist postmodern freak, for having once had such an objective hard-science viewpoint. But that’s another story and another post.

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