Is "Steel Magnolia" the New "Mama Grizzly"?

What Women Really Think
Oct. 1 2010 4:52 PM

Is "Steel Magnolia" the New "Mama Grizzly"?

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Yesterday, I went along with Hanna to the Smart Girl Summit , a conference in D.C. for conservative women. (Many of the women who attended were Tea Partiers.) As I’m sitting here typing up my notes from the event, I noticed that twice, speakers referred to the women of their movement as "steel magnolias," a phrase Sarah Palin used semi-inexplicably while endorsing Rita Meyer . And another speaker, Dana Loesch, said the conservative female movement was like "something out of a Sally Field/Dolly Parton movie." That movie, of course, is Steel Magnolias , from which the fabulous line "If you can't find anything good to say about anybody, come sit by me" entered the culture. Loesch quotes the line, unattributed, in her official bio . (Later, I thought Michele Bachmann was going to quote it, too, but she finished the line the traditional "don’t say anything at all" way-with the crowd joining in-while boasting that none of the mama grizzlies featured in Newsweek ’s recent cover story had agreed to comment.)

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The mean-girl implications of that line also align nicely with the famous Sarah Palin snark. (Another panelist proudly described herself as a mean girl and a bully.) So is "steel magnolia" going to be the new catchphrase used to describe conservative feminists? It’s traditionally been used for a certain sort of tough-but-still-feminine Southern type. That’s also, more or less, how the conservative women’s movement is positioning itself, minus the regional specificity. And it’s more inclusive than the "mama grizzly" label, which implicitly leaves out the nonmothers of the crowd. The movie is about a group of close-knit female friends, a sisterhood of sorts-and this conference was focused on creating precisely those sorts of networks for conservative women.

Magnolia illustration by Francisco Manuel Blanco from Wikimedia Commons.

Noreen Malone is a senior editor at New York magazine.

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