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Family Definitions:

Defining a family is something that I find difficult to adequately express in words. It is a definition that is constantly changing and redefining itself, and I often find that many definitions for such a word fail to apply to everybody.  In Family Communication: Cohesion Exchange, the authors provide an argument from Fitzpatrick which states: “…Society needs to ’employ definitions of the family that depend on how families define themselves rather than definitions based on genetic and sociological criteria.'” (Galvin, Bylund, Brommel: p.5)

In the movie Steel Magnolias, there are only two members of the family with blood ties: M’lynn and Shelby; however, Ouiser, Annelle, Clairee, M’lynn and Shelby form a community over time that is deeply rooted in loyalty, support, and kinship. Through common experience and tragedy, the family that they become is unique in many ways: for one, it is comprised of all women. There is also a multigenerational element to this family as well, which provides a solid lens in viewing each woman and comparing their similarities, as well as differences, regarding beliefs, values, and ideals. All of these are greatly influenced by the generations which the family members are born into.

Family Role Functions:


M’Lynn is the mother of Shelby. She is a Housewife. Very domestic and provides nurturing and emotional support for her family. She is also a disciplinary and a very important model of gender development. M’Lynn also plays a doctoral role since Shelby has diabetes.


Shelby’s main role is to provide kinship maintenance as well as emotional support for her mother and other members of the family.  However, when it comes to emotional support, there is a role conflict here because Shelby also plays the role of wife in her other family and her husband’s wants and needs clash deeply with her mother’s (Jackson wants to have a baby but, with Shelby’s illness, M’Lynn begs her not too).


Truvy is the owner of the hair salon that the family frequents. The salon is where a majority of the family’s intimacy and bonding takes place. Truvy’s maine roles consist of providing emotional support and- more so than any other family member-providing gender modeling. While I understand that the book specifies “providing gender modeling for children,” I think the gender modeling can be taught or serve as a constant reminder to anyone at any age. Truvy provides the other members with a conventional ideal of a feminine beauty standard. Truvy also acts as a mother to Annelle and in doing so provides individual development. When Annelle goes through a series of identity crises, Truvy supports her but doesn’t cling to her which provides Annelle with the perfect conditions to grow.

(Example of gender development/female camaraderie)


Annelle is somewhat of a new comer to the family since she was not raised in the same town as the other members. However, Annelle quickly finds support as well as her role in the family: she provides emotional support as well as empathy. While this is very clear through out the movie, it is even more apparent when Shelby dies and Annelle is able to offer M’Lynn some very uplifting words to make the situation as optimistic as she can.


Ouiser (pronounced Wee-zah) is the oldest member of the group along with Clairee. Ouiser’s role is also to provide emotional support. Ouiser, however, is a cynic, sarcastic realist with a dry sense of humor. We only see Ouiser’s soft side when Shelby’s health begins to decline.


Clairee is similar to Ouiser in the sense that she was raised in the same generation and that their role in the family is to provide emotional support. Clairee, however, is very optimistic and is much more cheery than Ouiser. Clairee often gossips and feels the need to know everything about everyone, which provides for great narration/story telling.

Communication Patterns and Family Functions:

The textbook we use provides the reader with what is known as a circumplex model. This model is an “attempt to integrate the numerous concepts related to marital and family interaction…(Galvin, Bylund, Brommel: p. 30). One concept found in this circumplex is cohesion, which is “defined as the emotional bonding that family members experience with each other and include concepts of ’emotional bonding, boundaries, coalitions, time, space, friends, decision-making, interests, and recreation” (Galvin, Bylund, Brommel: p.30).  When examining this particular family, it is clear they have achieved a level of connection; meaning that they are very intimate, loyal, loving, and supportive, but also have enough separation from one another to develop and maintain a sense of individuality.

It is also important to note that levels of cohesion can shift during different times. For example, after Shelby’s death we see that members of the family lose some of their individuality (ie. loss of focus on their own problems, constantly providing support for one another, etc.) and become enmeshed. However, I find that when a tragedy such as death happens, this is not only common, but healthy and even necessary. I believe that if members of a family are going to grieve properly, support to the utmost extreme must be provided.

Complex Relationships:

Complex relationships are defined as, “A traditional hierarchical view that establishes parents as more powerful than children. In almost all cultures, authority, respect, and power go to the older generation…” (Galvun, Bylund, Brommel: p.67). This concept is best exemplified when Shelby defies M’Lynn’s authority and becomes pregnant. During one particular scene, after M’lynn reprimands Shelby for going against her mother’s say, Shelby states, “Youre jealous, because you know longer have a say so in what I do and that drives you up the wall. Youre ready to spit nails because you can’t call the shots.” M’Lynn quickly responds, “I did not raise my daughter to talk to me like that.” Clearly, M’Lynn feels she is being attacked and disrespected, which, in a complex relationship where the elder has the authority, is a major insult.

Functions of Secrets:

According to the textbook, “Secrets create or reinforce boundaries… Control is a boundary issue because people believe private information is owned or co owned with others and revealing private information may make one vulnerable” (Galvin, Bylund, Brommel: p. 91). It is also important to note that there are different types of secrets as well as different functions. Types of secrets include: Essential, Toxic, and Dangerous. Types of functions include: Bonding, Evaluation, Maintenance, Privacy, and Defense. In the photo above, the whole family (aside from M’Lynn who already knew) is just discovering that Shelby is pregnant. This is considered an essential secret with an evaluation function. This is because Shelby feared that her family would worry for her health if they knew she was pregnant and she wanted to “avoid negative evaluations of the family” (Galvin, Bylund, Brommel: p.93).

In this scene, Shelby reveals yet another secret: that she is having a kidney transplant and her mother M’Lynn wil be donating the kidney. I would also categorize this secret as essential, however, I would say the function is geared more towards maintenance, because Shelby and M’lynn wanted to protect other members of the family from worry or sadness.

Family Developmental Stresses:

According to the text, “major events and circumstances impact developmental patterns… With each new developmental shift, parents may question ‘Should we go along with this or not?'” (Galvin, Bylund, Brommel: p.256-257) When Shelby reveals to M’Lynn that she is pregnant, M’Lynn communicates with Shelby very angrily and tells her she is not sure she can provide the support Shelby is asking for. Had M’Lynn not accepted Shelby’s pregnancy and supported her through such an important time,  the family may have seen a dramatic shift in communication; one that may have halted further communicative development and effected the entire family.

Family Themes:

I would say that this family is best defined through two themes: “You can always depend on your family” and “When community becomes family.” These women manage to show unconditional support and love for one another no matter the severity of their problems, all without blood (except for M’Lynn and Shelby) or marital ties. For example, when the family finds out that Annelle is new in town and struggling to make ends meet because her husband stole from her and vanished, Truvy firsts hires her to work, then invites her to Shelby’s wedding, and also gives her a place to live. At Shelby’s funeral, the remaining family sees M’lynn standing at all alone at Shelby’s grave. The members all stand behind her, listen and support her when she is having an intense emotional outbursts, and then they make her laugh. These examples demonstrate a cohesive family in which members are able to depend on one another for support. This is especially phenomenal since they do not have official family labels such as sister, aunt, or grandmother.



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