thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

The Wonderful Women of Friday Night Lights

In gender on December 30, 2011 at 10:05 am

Phoebe B.

Of late, I am watching a lot of Friday Night Lights (it is all on Netflix streaming!) and I just finished seasons 1, 2, and 3 and now am swiftly moving into season 4 (I have big plans to watch the whole series over Christmas Break, so we shall see how that goes). Many things strike me about this show as a first time viewer, including its candid, important, and often uncomfortable discussions of race and racism, including but not limited to interracial dating, in a network landscape currently dominated by problematic post-racial fantasies. But the topic of this post is another phenomenal facet of FNL, which is the wonderful, nuanced, complicated, and dynamic female characters. I am blown away by the women of FNL, whom I did not expect to encounter in a show dedicated to the male-driven world of Texas football. For example, Tami Taylor, Corrina Williams, Tyra, Mrs. Saracen, Waverly, Julie, Devon, and even Lila, to just name a few. Recently, Sarah T. posted a wonderfully detailed account of Tami Taylor’s awesomeness on GLG, but I want to highlight and celebrate my other favorite FNL lady characters, who are by no means perfect but strong and complicated women, the likes of which are rarely seen on network television. So here I want to highlight why Tyra, Waverly, Mrs. Saracen, and Corrina Williams (my favorite) are a particularly refreshing escape from a network landscape too oft-populated by post-racial fantasies and one-dimensional women.

Tyra:

Tyra (on the right) with her mom and sister on her sis' wedding day

Landry and Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) have a heart to heart

Tyra suffers consistently from her class position as much of the town reads her as ‘white trash’ and she is plagued by other people’s conceptions of her as such. However, we see her strength when she stands up for her mother against her abusive boyfriend, and she even stands up to her mother for her mother’s own sake. In season one, Tyra convinces her mother to attempt life on her own after an affair with the town’s resident football lover and car dealership owner, Buddy Garrity, leaves her jobless and angry. It is in these rare moments early on that we see Tyra’s strength and her potential—something Tami Taylor (Guidance counselor extraordinaire, Principal, and wife of football coach Eric Taylor) also realizes. Throughout the show, we see Tyra struggle as she falls in love with Landry, the most wonderful and smart and awkward kid in school (who, not to give too much away, also saves her life). Landry functions, for me, as a means of viewing Tyra outside the town’s perspective and judgment. Landry sees that she is is strong, smart, and capable in a way that she does not see or value. However, at times she is selfish and frustrating, but that is part of what makes her great (which Landry points out to her). What makes Tyra wonderful is that she makes bad and good decisions, and she must be forced to take herself seriously (instead of skating by on her good looks), which in and of itself is a struggle.

Waverly:

Waverly teaches Lila to Shoot

Waverly (Aasha Davis)and Smash

Waverly is the politicizing force for Brian ‘Smash’ Williams and his girlfriend in the first season. However, she is very much a character in her own right and she represents one of the more interesting and nuanced visions of mental illness that I have seen in television. We see her when she is on her medication, when she is manic, and when she is and depressed, and when she is scared. The show seemingly treats her characterization with a particular brand of empathy and awareness that lacks judgment: she avoids telling Smash about being bipolar; she goes off her medications when she is with him and happy; she is manic and fun and exciting; then she is depressed and embarrassed and angry. : That she is bipolar is not a narrative move used to make a point about Smash, but rather part of her character and part of makes her complicated, loveable, triumphant, and scared. But her character is by no means just about mental illness. Indeed she is political and smart and motivated and she never buys into Smash’s larger than life persona. Plus, in a great girl bonding moment, Waverly teaches Lila Garrity to shoot, which makes Lila worlds more tolerable and Waverly just plain great. Waverly is a rare and impressive character on network television because in a landscape severely lacking in complex portraits of African American women, she stands out as self-possessed, really smart, loving, and truly complicated. As an aside, I was hoping she would stay on the show longer.

Mrs. Saracen:

Mrs. Saracen orders a tiara

Matt and Mrs. Saracen (Louanne Stephens)

The great QB1 Matt Saracen’s grandmother, who while getting older and suffering from dementia as the show continues, is truly caring, witty, and spunky. In season one, she gets drunk with Tyra and Julie and lets Tyra paint her nails. Then, in the season one finale she gets a ride from Landry in a carful of women, including Tyra, and they have great girl time with three generations of women in the car. A brief aside: the ride to Dallas showcases the joy and freedom experienced by the women in the car outside Dillon and outside the pressure of romantic relationships. But back to Mrs. Saracen: she is by far Matt’s biggest fan, she always shows up for his games, and she always knows more about him than he thinks. Although we are led to believe that Matt takes care of her, she too takes care of Matt, and she did seemingly raise him on her own. However, Mrs. Saracen is also perhaps one of the most empathetic, upsetting, and realistic pictures of aging and dementia that I have ever seen on network television. From her lucid moments to her self-named “spells” and Matt’s realization that caring for her may beyond his ability, FNL showcases both the joy of Mrs. Saracen’s relationship with Matt and the confusion, frustration, and sadness wrought by her dementia. And their relationship (perhaps only rivaled by Smash and Corinna Williams’ relationship) is one of my favorites on the show.

And perhaps most importantly Corrina Williams:

Corrina Williams and Smash

Actress Liz Mikel who plays Corinna Williams

She is Smash’s mother, but also so much more. She, like Tami Taylor, is a fierce mother who handles her children with strength, kindness, empathy, and drive. We see her relationship with Smash really develop in Season 2 and 3 as he is recruited by Universities to play football, loses his scholarship, is injured, and then works his way back to playing football. She is consistently the voice of reason and education and for life beyond football, even when Smash does not (like most teenagers) want to hear it. She is hard on him when she needs to be and is always there to remind him that he has a brain and is smart, rather than just a football player or skilled athlete. But she simultaneously supports his football career and his love of the sport (she is at every single game) and protects him. For example, she won’t let Smash or herself be bullied into his attending any particular University during his recruitment. And she, unlike many women in Dillon, has a career. She is a successful nurse and supports her family on her own including taking a second job so Smash, post-knee injury and the loss of his scholarship, can go to college (the father of her kids is deceased, we learn in Season 2). We see her awesomeness in that the kids are fiercely loyal to and respect her—something often lacking in the Taylor household with Julie. One of the things I admire most about her character is that she asks for help, for example, from Coach Taylor, when she needs it. Lastly, but importantly, Corrina Williams negotiates Texas racism with grace and extraordinary poise, particularly where her children are concerned (I don’t want to give anything away but we see this most clearly in Season 2).

To be awesome like Corrina Williams, be strong yet empathetic; be smart and care deeply about education; be willing and able to stand up for yourself and your children; and mostly just be awesome. Corrina Williams is amazing in a landscape populated by very few complicated and wonderful African American female characters. And she is particularly important, I think, to recognize, remember, and celebrate. Indeed, many of the African American women on network (and even cable) television wind up playing police lieutenants or partners, which often feels like a feigned gesture at diversity or a result of blindcasting, which comes with its own set of issues. However, that is perhaps a topic for another post.

FNL is in many ways the story of rural Texas, and Dillon specifically, and the ways in which it forms, fosters, and oppresses the many different people that live there. And what I find truly interesting is the ways in which the women of Dillon negotiate, hate, love, and often leave this place because of discrimination, prejudice, and frustration. The show rarely rushes or romanticizes these characters and instead allows conflict to emerge, remain unresolved, and apparent. In this vein, FNL does not pretend that privilege, race, gender, class, and sexuality no longer exist or have ceased to signify—a move remarkably different than many of the post-race network shows (for example, as Vampire Diaries or Secret Circle to name just two). There is much more to say about Corrina Williams, Mrs. Saracen, Waverly, Tyra, and the other many FNL ladies but I will leave it at that.

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  1. i absolutely love your post! You will love the other seasons as well if you have not already watched them….it is certainly a shame that this show was cancelled, one of the best shows on air!

  2. I think the new female characters brought in Seasons 4 and 5 after Tyra and Lyla left don’t have the same depth and complexity as the two of them. But that’s probably not a fair comparison, Tyra and Lyla had more episodes to bond with the viewers.

    • I think I agree with you (I just just finished season 4), although I feel like Tami at least continues to be complicated and we get a little more of Julie as she grows up. Also, I am really interested in both Jess and Vince’s mom and how their stories develops. But I do think you’re right about how the later female characters as they don’t quite have as long to develop as the earlier characters …

  3. Yeah I also agree that the newer female characters don’t end up getting as much depth — but I do love where the series goes with fleshing out Mindy’s character. So much love for Big Sis.

    • Oh yes! Mindy (and Billy Riggins too) is so awesome in Season 4 and 5. I’ll take Mindy-Becky over Luke-Becky, any day, depth-of-relationship wise.

      • Oh yes and yes … Mindy is awesome! I am definitely loving the Becky-Mindy relationship and seeing Mindy become more of a full fledged character too particularly in season 5 (which I just started) …

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