Based on a novel by Rebecca Wells, Callie Khouri’s 2002 film Divine Secrets of the Sister Ya-Ya Hood uses with prodigious thoroughness stereotypes and characters drawn from the South. One wonders what connection the novel, and the film, have to Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1963), which traced the experiences of eight close friends in the years after their graduation from college. Ya-Ya Hood takes as its premise the convention that women, especially but not exclusively Southern women, can share a close bond of friendship that supports them in difficult times and shields them against the extremities of the outer world. This is a theme in Steel Magnolias (1989) and in Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), of course, and in fact Eudora Welty dramatizes the idea in her story “Lily Daws and the Three Ladies” as does Greg Johnson in “Crazy Ladies.”
The four women who are the main characters in this film are true Southern eccentrics (the purported protagonist, Sidda, daughter of one of the sisterhood members, is really just an excuse for the sisterhood members to tell their stories, their secrets). In their early adolescence they formed a secret sisterhood and vowed to remain faithful to each other throughout their lives. The sisterhood is a bond of commonality that supports its members through bad marriages, motherhood, nervous breakdowns, and crisis. In the film three members of the sisterhood decide to repair the relationship of Sidda and her mother Vivi, the fourth sisterhood member. The two have had a difficult relationship. Sidda is a New York dramatist whose plays seem to dramatize her childhood experiences. An interview with Sidda in Time identifies her mother as a source of childhood trauma. Vivi is enraged and cuts her daughter off. Sidda is about to marry an Irishman she lives with in New York, but she has been putting off the marriage for years, and when Sidda is kidnapped, drugged, and put on a plane to Louisiana by three members of the sisterhood, she seems ready to take the opportunity to delay the marriage again.
The basic premise of the movie revolves around the rift between Vivi and Sidda, the difficult times in Vivi’s life which her daughter either doesn’t know about or has repressed (she tells the interviewer that she had an uneventful childhood that gave her nothing to write about), and the importance of sisterhood. Once Sidda comes to understand the difficulties her mother faced (the death of the man she loved, her marriage to a man who loved her but was cold and emotionally repressed, her difficulties with alcoholism, her physical abuse of her children, and her nervous breakdown) then she can comprehend her own relationship with her mother and feel free to go ahead and commit to the Irishman. At least this seems to be the logic of the film.
The Southern environment makes Southern women into eccentrics: this also is an underlying premise. They marry men who have been repressed themselves and who are repressive. The sisterhood gives its members power over the men. Vivi’s husband is a case in point. He married Vivi because he loved her and despite the fact she didn’t love him, because he thought “he had enough love for both of them,” but his frequent absence during the marriage creates problems that lead to Sidda’s breakdown. It is the repressiveness of the Southern environment that makes these characters eccentric, and their eccentricity is what makes them interesting. Or is the film saying that the Southern environment tolerates eccentricity and individuality?
African-American characters are prominent. A black woman is a servant to some of the women (she is in effect an initiated member of the sisterhood). Black characters play music, and at the end there is a birthday party for Vivi where a Dixieland band performs. All the characters intermingle and the implication is that interdependency extends between the races as well as between genders. This is not inaccurate, of course.
One of the best scenes in the film occurs when the four sisterhood girls are taken by their maid to Atlanta for the premier of Gone with the Wind. The girls are enthralled, but the maid is not, and she thinks of the place as hellish. At the breakfast table the young son of the family that is hosting the girls refers to the maid as a “nigger” and the ya-ya hood girls throw food at him. The moment is significant for the irony of this trip for young white girls chaperoned by a black women to the Gone with the Wind premier, by the treatment of the maid at the table, and the snobbishness of their host family. Racial equality and tolerance were not part of the 1930s American South. In this sense the film presents the sisterhood members as exceptions to prevailing racial codes.
Many aspects of the film do not depend on the South for meaning and authenticity. The friendship of the sisterhood women has little to do with their Southernness. The experience of young women whose loved ones go off to World War II is not inherently Southern either. The film strives to portray a universality to the experiences of the women that is not limited by the regional setting.
Ultimately, the characters in this film are stereotypes, comic and even comic book figures. The notion that Sidda must return to her Southern home to face the past (aka Quentin Compson) is a platitudinous plot device. It reminds us of the main character in The Prince of Tides (1991).
This film takes place largely in the rural South, although there is not much evidence of a city or town nearby.
Sandra Bullock as Sidda does not speak with a Southern accent. Her prospective marriage to an Irishman is evidence of her desire to move outside her Southern heritage, but her willingness in the end to have the wedding at her mother’s home indicates her acceptance of or at least acquiescence to that heritage, especially when in the final scene she is initiated into the sisterhood.
The false or absent Southern accents in the film signify that the filmmakers wanted a Southern setting to flavor events but that they were not particularly interested in accurate portrayals of that setting. In fact, I would say the same of the Rebecca Wells novel, which mines the Southern stereotypes for all the comic effect they are worth and creates a mythic world of eccentricity, friendship in the face of suffering, good feelings, and reconciliation that has only loose connection with the outside world.