In Defence of Noreen – Netflix’s Sweet Magnolias

Warning – spoilers alert!

I’m here to defend Noreen. Because us stepmothers, even the fictional ones, have got to stick together.

Netflix is our friend right now

[One of the few businesses which relishes a world, staying at home? Perhaps, but that would be a very different article…]

If you’ve seen the paisley Netflix Original, Sweet Magnolias, you’ll know that it’s just the sort of binge-able, easy watching nothingness that we all need right now.

I am infinitely grateful for the opportunity to think about nothing at all, whilst my brain is fed with margarita nights, “girls supporting girls”, and slightly random capers and japers with men who seem to have haplessly stumbled out of a Calvin Klein ad, straight into the Small Town Gossip Mill.

I have fallen headlong for those southern American accents, the swiftly forgotten legal dramas (what happened to Dana-Sue’s cheffing partner, exactly?) and the fact that every single character, even the smaller ones, seems to be unlucky in love.

The series starts with a divorce, in fact, and in steps Noreen – the serious, doe-eyed, seemingly clueless – oh, and pregnant, Other Woman that one of the Sweet Magnolias’ husbands cheated on her with. (Played by Britney Spears’s sister, Jamie, as it happens.)

She’s a new stepmother to two teenage boys and their little sister, and is also carrying their half sibling and planning a wedding with their father. It’s a lot! And she makes all the missteps.

Photo by Nagy Arnold on Unsplash

Yes, it’s a cliché, but do we care?

She’s a man steeler and a home wrecker. Noreen represents the woman society loves to hate. Maybe that’s exactly why I like her – contrary that I am.

I’ve done some internal digging of my own on this, and I don’t think I like her just because I’m a stepmother myself, and can therefore understand where she’s coming from. I actually think that her character does eventually come off really well, particularly given the tough decision she makes in the end.

And yes, it’s a slight shame that the stereotype of the harlot stepmother lives on in her initially, but let’s be open about this; some relationships do start in this way, and we shouldn’t sweep it under the carpet necessarily.

She still comes up against issues that many stepmothers face, regardless of the circumstances which gave rise to their stepmother-hood in the first place.

What is important, despite the cliché, is that stepmothers are seen as the flawed, loveable, generally well-meaning people that we are, and I’m all for any pop culture which centres on stepfamily relationships.

So, what were her mistakes?

Let’s list it out!

  • She thought she needed to step in as a new mother.
  • She assumed that if you’re not all together in public, i.e. kids’ sports games, then your new family isn’t fully forming (“How is he supposed to know how much he means to me if we can’t share the one thing that means the most to him?”).
  • She looked at the places the previous family used to frequent, and was desperate to make them her own. In particular the family church, which she’d ear-marked for her own wedding (mmmm, GREAT idea).
  • She went to pick up the stepchildren, solo, with no prior warning. This one made me cringe to my toes.
  • She forcefully included the stepchildren where they didn’t want to be included; wedding prep, and talking about them as “our children” just a little too early on.

I do wonder whether the writers either had stepmothers, or were stepmothers, because the new stepmother anxiety is palpable and completely believable. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s the most believable thing about the whole show (too much?).

It’s the driver to get things fixed, ASAP. In wanting to be accepted, and feeling unbearably anxious about the fact that you’re just not, there is a tendency to try to rush your integration; whether with words (“you’re my children”) or actions (matching t-shirts).

It must be pretty irritating for non-stepparents to watch. I imagine they wonder how she dares to insert herself so forcefully, when she was the reason the Sweet Magnolia’s relationship ended in the first place [not true, FYI – read Your First Steps as The Other Woman for more on this].

And it’s downright awkward for us stepparents to watch at times. We know exactly how it all would have gone down in reality because, quite frankly, we’ve been there.

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How many of those mistakes did I make…?

Oh… most of them.

There’s one right royal faux pas I still think about – a scenario which still makes me physically close my eyes when I think about it.

In fact, it’s crossed my mind as I’ve been battling against the mirror in the morning, and I’ve watched my own face fall (a weird feeling. Along the lines of watching yourself cry – not at all recommended, unless you’re of the photograph me now whilst it’s raw ilk).

My stepdaughter’s mother was very upset at the start of our relationship, and she was messaging me – a lot.

On one particular dark and dreary night, I wearily suggested that we meet up to clear the air. But then I thought (perhaps, it’s all a bit hazy), why stop there?

I suggested that she, my partner and I all meet up together to, and I quote, “discuss how to move forward with [my stepdaughter], and decide what is best for her”.

I inserted myself as a decision-making party, at a time when I hadn’t even met my sweet, unsuspecting stepdaughter.

The outrage! Not just from my stepdaughter’s mother, but from everyone around her too. And, in hindsight, rightly so.

So I know exactly the reactions Noreen would have been subject to, because I’ve been there. I’ve asserted my role before it was ready to be asserted, and I’ve had arguments with my partner which just didn’t need to be had. We didn’t have an affair, but our stories are still remarkably similar.

So, what did Noreen do right?

She made a sterling, first class effort – on all fronts.

She discovered her stepchildrens’ interests, and she threw herself at them. She learnt about theatre, and she made the t-shirts for the baseball games. She was embarrassing, and present, and she did everything she could to make the children feel loved by her.

Yes, it didn’t always go down fantastically well. She was told to leave the baseball games for being too distracting, and the unveiling of the children’s roles in their wedding went down like a led balloon.

And her appearance at her stepchildren’s mother’s spa opening… well that was met with incredulity, and she was shunned. However, she still didn’t shy away from trying to build those relationships and finding her place even though she knew that it was going to be uncomfortable.

[Naturally, the mother made it absolutely clear that they would never be friends, but that in itself is a gift. We don’t need to be friends, and often it’s better than we don’t even try. Although as always, if you have genuinely managed that, it’s fantastic and I salute you.]

She made so many mistakes, but how wonderful is that?

People who don’t take risks, who keep doing what they’ve always done, and who keep their head down, don’t make mistakes. They don’t have the opportunity to.

How boring. How utterly depressing.

You don’t make mistakes unless you’re really trying.

That one sentence which riles us all is “you knew what you were getting yourself into” – because any situation, at all, in life, is a complete mystery until you find yourself in it.

Furthermore, the only people who say such a stupidly unhelpful thing, are the same people who wouldn’t have done that thing purely out of fear. If nobody ever took a risk, or put themselves on the line, there would be no progress in science, in philosophy, in human rights…

Every stepmother I’ve ever spoken to knows that there are things they could have done better, or definitely would have done differently. However, even just knowing that means that you’re making some progress, and that is certainly something to celebrate.

And in the end, Noreen made a brave decision which was right for her and her new baby. Watch it, even if just for that.