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Southern Lady Code: by Helen Ellis

Southern Lady Code: by Helen Ellis

A little bit of levity can go a long way and Southern Lady Code offers plenty of feather-light musings to help make life just a little bit more bearable.

Southern Lady Code: by Helen Ellis

3 / 5

To stand out as an observational humorist in an era when everyone and their brother thinks they have something witty to say about the mundanity of modern life takes a great deal of skill and nuance. You can’t simply nitpick a universal concept (take marriage, for instance) looking for the humorous aspects within a very particular relationship with its own need for contextualization and make it appeal to an audience beyond your own sphere of influence. And, like the great democratization of photography, the internet and, more specifically, social media has made it so that literally everyone thinks they’ve something witty to say. Be it social commentary, an amusing aside or some random non sequitur, we’ve all been guilty of dabbling in humor to varying degrees. Without a specific hook or angle, however, like stand-up comedy, observational humor in the form of memoirist essays lacks any real gravity or broader cultural relevance.

With American Housewife, Helen Ellis sought to corner the market on the titular demographic from a humorous standpoint. It was a specific angle she sought to utilize in order to create a series of amusing essays that went on to become a bestseller. For her follow-up collection, she’s further refining her “American Housewife” persona and filtering it through a decidedly Southern lens. In its extended subtitle/explanation of the title phrase, Southern Lady Code claims to be “a technique by which, if you don’t have something nice to say, you say something not so nice in a nice way.” It’s an amusing precept and one that, if utilized effectively, could result in a winning collection of essays rooted in cultural malapropisms and back-handed niceties. Instead, Ellis uses it as an ideological jumping off point that crops up only occasionally and wholly out of necessity.

Granted, when the titular phrase is invoked, it’s generally done so effectively: In “Free to Be…You and Me (and Childfree), “a ‘pregnancy risk’ is Southern Lady Code for making out in your bathing suits,” while in “Serious Women,” “‘Every woman carries differently. And he’s a man.’ [Is Southern Lady Code for]…’She’s fat and he’s dumb.’” So yes, it’s essentially a thinly-veiled way of attempting to be nice while being infinitely nastier in the process.

Unfortunately, Ellis tends to wander away from the book’s overriding theme and stray too far into zeitgeist-tapping musings that will be about as dated as that expired container of yogurt curdling your fridge (my own approximation of Southern Lady Code for repellent and in need of throwing out immediately). Marie Kondo comes up a handful of times as though a running bit in a tacky stand-up routine (“Does this tendency spark joy in me? No? Throw it out!”), while her extended musings on the significant role she plays amongst her wealth of older, gay NYC friends feels forced and like an attempt to shoehorn as many stereotypes into singular observations as possible.

But this is of course missing the point entirely of observational humor of this nature as it’s not meant to be culturally or socially groundbreaking or thought-provoking. Ellis’ approach is one in which subtlety is non-existent and the whole point of each essay is to amuse on a surface level. Anyone who’s ever lived with a partner – in or out of marriage – can’t help but smile at the Odd Couple differences highlighted in “Making a Marriage Magically Tidy,” while the pair of post-modernist riffs on Emily Post (“How to Be the Best Guest” and “When to Write a Thank-You Note”) lead rather lazily into the appropriately-titled “An Emily Post for the Apocalypse,” making for a trio of on-the-nose bits of attempted humor that induces both eye-rolling and knowing smirks.

In a world where everything seems to be getting worse by the day, a little bit of levity can go a long way and Southern Lady Code offers plenty of feather-light musings to help make life just a little bit more bearable. [That’s Southern Lady Code for not being complete and total garbage and instead offering up a handful of inoffensive comedic essays.]

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