The Weird Way “Sweet Home Alabama” Helped Me Reframe a Major Question in My Life
Sweet Home Alabama, the romcom starring Reese Witherspoon, Patrick “Dr. McDreamy” Dempsey, and Josh Lucas, came out on September 27, 2002—my 14th birthday. (Yup, that was 15 years ago. We’re old.)
For my birthday that year, I went to see it in theaters with a group of friends. I remember that day pretty clearly, as well as the pool party and pizza we had at my house afterward.
Looking back, though, my 14-year-old self had no real context for what happened in the film—engagements, estrangements, breakups. I’d never even been to NYC at that point in my life. Still, I loved the movie (I mean, I love everything Reese is in, let’s be real). But it’s funny, looking back, how my 14-year-old had no idea how close that storyline would come to my own life.
When I re-watched that movie last night (thank you, Freeform), I saw an alternate version of myself in Reese’s character, Melanie. In her dichotomy of personalities — the strong Southern woman and the social, successful New Yorker — I saw the inner battle I’ve been struggling with for the past couple years, since leaving New York City and moving back to the South.
Which side of myself is the real “self”? Is there any way to reconcile the two?
Not that we’re the same in every way, of course.
She’s a (sort of snobby) fashion designer; I’m a freelance health and wellness writer.
She’s engaged to the NYC mayor’s handsome son; I’m totally unattached. (Side note: I really hope my future fiancee would never propose to me in the middle of a Tiffany’s store.)
She hasn’t spoken to her parents in 7 years; I talk to mine every day.
But, like me, she’s an ambitious woman in her late 20s, trying to decide between two very different paths her life could take. Like me, she’s from the South, a culture that sometimes can easily feel like “you need a passport for,” like she says in the film, but also that you can’t help but appreciate.
Also like me, she loves and appreciates New York City—the glittering lights; the glamour; the opportunity; the cynical, sarcastic but actually super considerate people you inevitably call friends.
I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, a place that isn’t as “Deep South” as her small town in Alabama, but still pretty Southern. I moved to New York at age 21 to work in media, and ended up staying for over 6 years, making my way through the glossy magazine and media startup world. I had all the NYC experiences you’d imagine—working in skyscrapers; packed subways; late nights at clubs; rooftop parties; picnics in Central Park; weekends in the Hamptons.
I loved it, but after 6 years of overpaying for tiny apartments that kept getting more and more expensive, I figured I should return to my roots. My home. The South.
Melanie didn’t visit her parents for 7 long years, which seems unimaginable to me. But even though I often visited mine, I still had a desire to be closer to them, to be back in the the community where I grew up. So, for a year a half, I tried out Atlanta, GA, where I thought life would be easier, slower, happier.
Slower? Sure. Happier? Hardly. I’ve missed New York, my life there, way more than I expected.
It made me realize that although I can’t forget my roots, and although New York will never be “where I’m from,” it could be the place I belong.
Still, that guilt, that questioning, over leaving my “roots” has continued to bug me. When I recently visited my parents for an extended period of time for the 4th of the July, the Southern charm caught up to me. I got comfortable. It felt… right.
When I think about moving back to NYC—the place where my dream career (likely) is, the place I still crave desperately—I feel a pang in my gut. I’m just not sure what it’s trying to tell me. It’s a feeling I wasn’t able to put it into words…until, well, I re-watched that damn movie last night.
As Reese/Melanie says in the movie,
“My life in New York works. But then I come down here… and this fits too.”
That’s it. It’s these two sides of myself that both fit. They both feel better in some ways, and worse in others.
It’s hard to choose which side is right.
In the end, Melanie chooses to stay in Alabama, with her childhood sweetheart. The movie doesn’t explain, however, what happened to her fledgling fashion career.
And after watching the movie, that’s the only part that bothered me. I assume that she and her hubby have kids and she becomes a stay-at-home mom.
As for me, that’s not what I want at this time in my life, I know that for sure. At this point, making a positive impact in the world with my skills I’ve been given is #1 on my life’s to-do list. While I know NYC isn’t the only place to do it, so far it’s been the only place that’s equipped me with the skills and tools to do so.
As I face the decision whether to move back this fall, it’s a funny thing that Reese Witherspoon’s face keeps popping into my head:
“This fits too.”