Laura Sook Duncombe’s previous Literary Ladies Cage Fight columns for The Butter can be found here.
Welcome back, mortals. I can neither confirm nor deny what my sister says I was doing last week, but I can say that I missed you and I am glad to be back. I must also grudgingly admit that Aphrodite did a decent job with the column, and I am allowing her to co-write with me ON A TRIAL BASIS. If she doesn’t embarrass herself too badly going forward, I may allow her to occasionally do the column solo. Don’t get too excited—I doubt she will be able to refrain from liberally sprinkling the column with hearts and flowers and references to films made of these books.
But that’s why the readers love me, Artie! And you love me too—admit it!
I will admit no such thing. Now let’s get down to business.
Whatever you say, sis! To prove how serious I am, I picked the topic this week. In dis-honor of the Oscars, which was sadly lacking in representation of people of color and women directors this year, I chose two characters from (great, IMO) movies that were not nominated for Best Picture. Because the Oscars is a silly old white dude party, and I am so not digging that! So I present Evelyn Couch, from Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, versus Ying-Ying St. Clair, from Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.
A bold move, sister mine. I approve. So, without further ado, the fight.
Ying-Ying, called “Betty” by her American husband, is an odd duck. The first thing we hear about her is from Jing Mei (her daughter’s friend), who says that she’s strange. Ying-Ying herself says she was different from other girls due to her being born in the year of the Tiger. She falls off a boat as a 4-year old child and is permanently traumatized by an encounter with a transvestite. Her own daughter finds her very strange as well and is embarrassed when she visits, hoping she doesn’t do anything too weird in front of her husband. Because she defies expectations and marches to the beat of her own drummer, Ying-Ying is a RAVENCLAW.
Evelyn grows and changes so much over the course of the story—I wanna cheer for her! She is a serious girl-power poster girl. But for the “after” to be good, the “before” has to be pretty bad…and Evelyn is that. She’s timid, overweight, and unhappy. Her husband is a class-A jerk who drags her to hang out with her boring mother in law every week even though the two women can’t stand each other. She knows her life isn’t great, but she doesn’t know how to make it better. Evelyn, at the start of the book, is a HUFFLEPUFF, meek and mild.
WINNER: Ying-Ying. She could tap Evelyn lightly on the shoulder and Evelyn would pass out from fright.
Ying-Ying eventually immigrates to San Francisco, where she meets An-Mei, Lindo, and Suyuan. These three women plus Ying-Ying form the new Joy Luck Club, where they get together to play mah-jongg, eat, and discuss their families. The club lasts for decades and it appears that the women are each other’s best friends. However, as story after story unfolds, it’s obvious that each woman holds dark secrets in her heart—things too painful to share with the others.
Evelyn’s sidekick is her accidental nursing home friend, Ninny Threadgoode. She is way cooler than Evelyn’s mean MIL and tells Evelyn awesome stories about her childhood and her friends Idgie and Ruth. Ninny’s stories help Evelyn get over her sad self and unleash her strong inner goddess in the form of Towanda, an Amazon woman who rams cars in parking lots and wraps herself in Saran wrap to spice up her sex life. Ninny encourages Evelyn to get a job with Mary Kay and to get some menopause meds. Yay Ninny! Women who lift other women up are my FAVE.
WINNER: Evelyn. Ninny shows Evelyn how to get her groove back…or just find her groove in the first place. Anyone who helps a suburban housewife let out her inner Amazon gets top marks in my book.
LOVE INTEREST: Round 3
Ying-Ying has two husbands: her much-older Chinese adulterer first husband and her boring American second husband. Neither one of them is particularly interesting or makes Ying-Ying’s life better. A grievous example: Clifford, her second husband, doesn’t speak much Chinese and uses their daughter to translate and communicate. Both of these men seem like filler—like alstroemeria in a bouquet. (How does it feel, dudes? Do you like being 2-dimensional characters? WE DON’T EITHER. STOP MAKING US ALSTROEMERIA.)
Evelyn’s no-good husband Ed is pretty unremarkable. He doesn’t support Evelyn or let her know how special she is. He views her as a fat older lady, no longer good for sex or anything romantic. Any love he had for her is long gone. The best thing he does for her is forward her mail to her when she goes to the Lodge.
WINNER: Draw. Nothing good happening here. Go find yourselves someone who loves you, ladies! You deserve it. Yeah! You tell them, Artie.
TRAGIC FLAW: Round 4
Ying-Ying’s big flaw is her inability to fight for herself. Once a bold, vibrant girl, she matures into a passive, withdrawn woman. She gives up on life after her first husband leaves her, allowing herself to get involved with Clifford even though she doesn’t really care about him. She lives in San Francisco for years but never really commits to living in the present there. She has a baby boy who dies soon after birth and she becomes a “living ghost.” Her daughter, Lena, says Ying-Ying can predict bad things before they happen, but she doesn’t do anything to stop them.
Evelyn is a classic pushover. She’s been the good girl all her life because she’s worried what people will think of her, but it’s gotten her nowhere. She doesn’t fit in with the “good” wives and she’s too stuck in her rut to explore other options. She describes herself as “too bored for Tupperware parties and too scared to look at her own vagina.” Before she meets Ninny, Evelyn’s life is a one-way ticket to Unsatisfiedville.
WINNER: Draw. Same flaw! Both of these characters demonstrate that when a woman is not allowed to explore her nature and desires, she withers. Although one woman (Evelyn) overcomes her flaw, while Ying-Ying does not (but hopes to help her daughter overcome it), it is telling that two very different women separated by time and space suffer the exact same malady. How many other women are being kept from their own greatness?
HAPPY ENDING?: Round 5
Ying-Ying visits Lena and her husband at their new home. As she tours the expensive house, she points out the flaws, hoping to spur Lena into action. Ying-Ying is determined to save Lena from her fate and break the cycle of passivity. At the climax of the story, Ying-Ying accidentally breaks Harold’s ugly design-school table. When Lena admits she knew the unstable table was bound to break eventually, Ying-Ying asks her “then why didn’t you stop it?” The story ends with Ying-Ying’s wake-up call to Lena about the state of her marriage. It looks like Ying-Ying will get through to her daughter and help her stand up for herself.
Evelyn has such a great ending! Unhappy about her weight, she works hard at Mary Kay until she has enough money to go to the Lodge, a health spa. She informs her husband she’s going and that’s that. She’s got a new job, a new confidence, and a new plan: to take charge of her own life and live it on her own terms. Yay for Evelyn! Towanda lives! Kathy Bates forever!
WINNER: Evelyn, for her fist-pumping, get-up-and-dance, YOU GO GIRL triumph.
It’s a close call, but Evelyn Couch defeats Ying-Ying St. Clair. Thanks for reading! May both of these women inspire you to get out there and bravely own your unique beautiful spirit this week. Until next time, gal-pals!!
Laura Sook Duncombe lives in Alexandria, Virgina with her husband and a mutt named Indiana Bones, Jr. Musical theater, pirates, and Sherlock Holmes are a few of her favorite things. Her work can be found on the Toast, the Hairpin, Jezebel, and at her blog.