Actress Reese Witherspoon poses for photographers. (Joel C. Ryan/Joel C. Ryan/Invision/AP)
Columnist

Pretend you’re a supervillain. Your goal is to lure a bunch of middle-class white women to an arena for a nefarious plot. I have gamed this out for you, and your best option is to charge them between $60 and $400 apiece, and tell them Reese Witherspoon will be appearing on a book tour.

They will show up by the thousands, as they did a few nights ago in Washington. They will rove in packs of three to six, ready to get their wine on or purchase tote bags that say, “Totes, y’all,” or break in suede boots they’ve been fixin’ to wear on the town. They will mostly be there in support of the Oscar-winning actress, who has written a New York Times bestseller, “Whiskey in a Teacup.”

Essentially, the book is a literary companion to Reese’s clothing and decor brand, Draper James. It’s part memoir, part home design tips, part meditation on things such as the meaning of Christmas and the Kentucky Derby and lemonade stands and ceramic flea-market soap dishes. It’s full of recipes for unfussy casseroles made with Jiffy corn bread, and outfits made with bell-sleeved dresses. There’s a whole sidebar on how to catch a frog, if you’re into that.

Reese, 42, is from Nashville, and “Whiskey in a Teacup” purports to boil down the winsome, honky-tonk, Steel Magnolias version of Southern womanhood — “delicate and ornamental” on the outside, Reese writes, but “strong and fiery” on the inside — and make it available for purchase.

Which all seemed, to a cranky Northerner like me, totally ridiculous. Until I took my nosebleed seat in the theater, and ended up thinking about power, and femininity, and ya-ya sisterhoods up the wazoo, and feeling oddly moved.

As a book, "Whiskey in a Teacup" is — eh. I have read many worse celebrity books and many better ones. The weirdest thing about it is the conceit, organized chapter-by-chapter, that everything wonderful in life is Southern:

Juleps are Southern. Road trips are Southern. Dogs are Southern. The “fight for fairness” is Southern (???). The omen that breaking a mirror causes seven years bad luck is Southern. Am I Southern? It is possible.


“Whiskey in a Teacup,” by Reese Witherspoon (Touchstone/Touchstone)

As a lifestyle guide, it’s earnest. Filled with admonitions to try a little harder. Reese does. Reese always puts her best foot forward. If you’ve paid attention to her at all, you might have noticed she’s having a prolonged moment: She has a television deal with Apple, including a $240 million drama about a morning news show, co-starring Jennifer Aniston. She was a founding signer of the letter that launched the #TimesUp legal defense fund. I recently met a magazine editor whose publication wanted to draw in more young women — the kind of smart, accomplished women who, say, liked a good book club. They’d nicknamed this ideal cohort “ ’Spooners,” and guess what it stood for?

When Reese comes onstage here in Washington, she reminds the audience that she was supposed to be here last month, but got sick (Y’all, I’m so sorry!). Instead of canceling, she rescheduled and dragged herself back across the country and away from her family.

“It’s my 6-year-old’s birthday today,” she tells the audience, and all 2,000-plus women go, “Awwww!”

The women in the audience — they are buying what she is selling. They have already bought what she is selling. There are many, many Draper James dresses here. There are many, many breezy blowouts on the heads of women ages approximately 25 to 45.

When I think and write about celebrities, I’m always less interested in who the celebrities are than in the fan base that created them. What are we lacking? What are we hungry for? Who are the ’Spooners?

Reese Witherspoon is a polarizing figure. She’s polarizing in the way Anne Hathaway is polarizing: relentless competence and a willful good cheer that leaves some people inspired and some people exhausted.

Neither of them act as if they rolled out of bed looking like this. They act as if they set alarms, went to Pilates and put their noses to the grindstone. “I think you gotta get up, you gotta work out, then you gotta get dressed in a real, proper outfit by 10 in the morning,” Reese writes in one chapter. It’s not the success that makes it hard for some people to identify with her, it’s the trying. The discipline. The secret that the only secret is hard work: the appearance of effortlessness takes vast amounts of effort.

And this is why, maybe, the “Whiskey in a Teacup” content hadn’t struck a chord with me. In the dumpster fire of 2018, it’s hard to figure out how putting my effort into finding a good cake plate will gird me with the necessary strength to battle the world.

But at Reese's book talk — in a packed concert hall — I am sitting next to a 20-something woman named Emily Smith, who, it turns out, is the perfect seatmate to provide another interpretation of 'Spooner culture. Emily is a health-care consultant who is originally from Nashville. She went to the same private girls' school that Reese Witherspoon did: One year there, she won the school's Reese Witherspoon award.

“I am not a flimsy person by any means,” Emily tells me. By this, she means that she’s not here because of Reese’s dress line or biscuit recipe. “I’m here because what I love about her is the idea that you can be feminine and powerful.”

When Emily got her first job after college, her mother wanted to take her shopping for some celebratory jewelry. Emily declined, saying she instead needed to buy black pantsuits. “It was like I didn’t want my colleagues to know I was female,” she explains, dryly.

But then she thought of Reese, who is not only female but relentlessly, florally feminine — and polite, and collaborative, and accommodating, and also rich and powerful as hell — and that was inspiring to Emily.

I tell Emily I hadn’t thought of it that way, but the more I do, the more sense it makes.

Think of all the essays dissecting whether princess Halloween costumes are harmful to young girls. Think of all the endless work advice doled out to young women: Lower your vocal pitch. Negotiate like a man. Smile less and more. Don’t personalize your cubicle. Don’t wear bows or lace. You are still talking too high.

Here comes Reese Witherspoon, violating all of these rules and representing a fairly revolutionary concept: What if frills were great CEO attire? Reese wears them. What if, instead of a round of golf to close out a business deal, the real power move was to invite folks over for a monogramming party where everybody spends two to three hours discussing fonts?

What if we stopped viewing those kinds of things as slight feminine hobbies, and elevated them to important things we were allowed to care about?

What if instead of saying, you can be feminine and powerful, we said, feminine is powerful? Cake plates for everyone.

Is that what Reese is saying? What the ’Spooners are saying? I like the book better when I think she’s saying that.


Witherspoon arrives at the world premiere of “A Wrinkle in Time” at the El Capitan Theatre. (Colin Young-Wolff/Colin Young-Wolff/Invision/AP)

Reese was interviewed onstage over the course of an hour by TV personality Ali Wentworth, and here are some things she told us:

She told us she founded her own production company because her agent sent her a script with a dreadfully underwritten female lead. When Reese complained, the agent said half the women in Hollywood were battling for this role, because that’s how slim the pickings were. Reese was determined to change that.

She told us if you are hot-rolling your hair, you cannot take the rollers out until they have fully cooled, “or else your hair will fall right flat.”

She told us that women should know more about finances and take active roles in working toward their own financial security. She told us she thought about how much harder achieving security in the world could be for women of color and members of the LGBT community.

She told us she once called the screenwriters of “Big Little Lies” in the middle of the night and asked if she could have a scene where she threw an ice cream cone at Meryl Streep’s head.

She told us that you will know she considers you a true friend if, after she brings a casserole to your house, “I let you keep the dish.”

She told us that she’d had an ovarian cyst. The room tittered nervously at first from the privacy of this revelation. Onstage, Wentworth said she had one, too. They both agreed the pain was awful. And then at least five women in the section I was in murmured that they, too, had suffered through ovarian cysts. They, too, knew the pain was awful.

It was quietly amazing. It made me think about how, even though I went to an all-women’s college, I still have not been in many rooms where women talked frankly about the particular pains and pressures and interests of womanhood.

A few weeks ago, I was in Nashville for work, with a morning to kill. I'd just finished "Whiskey in a Teacup" so I decided to walk to the flagship Draper James store, located in a trendy shopping district. I'd been oddly nervous about dressing appropriately — Reese makes a big deal in the book about dressing appropriately — and spent 15 minutes in my hotel room skimming the website to figure out what combo to pull together from my suitcase.

Then I got to the store, and it was full of a bunch of exhausted-looking women my age, some wearing droopy sweatpants with slogans across the butts, which is precisely what I’d been wearing before my Googling.

And none of them appeared as if their main goal was shopping. They were definitely buying things; people were definitely leaving the store with Draper James bags filled with velvet slippers and “What Would Dolly Do?” napkins.

But mostly what I noticed was how many women were just coming in to sit. To accept the complimentary sweet tea with the environmentally friendly paper straws, and just flop into a fluffy chair.

Across from me, one woman was upset about her boyfriend, I think, and another woman was on her phone, and a third was telling her friend, in the most serious tone imaginable: “Just try it on. I will tell you if you look like a cow.”

In that moment, paying $60 to $400 to be in a room full of women searching earnestly for a way to be with one another, and to be like Reese Witherspoon, did not seem completely insane. It seemed like a place you might go expecting to make fun, and then end up sitting for a spell.

So at the Draper James store, I bought a candle. It was $32 and smelled like orange blossoms. I don’t know. I guess I got sucked in.

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more, visit wapo.st/hesse.