thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

“Nashville”: This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Them. Or Is It?

In class, gender, Nashville, The South on October 15, 2012 at 9:46 am

Firstly, welcome back Tami Taylor! I mean, Connie Britton! You are the best. Secondly, Nashville premiered this week on ABC–a show we at GLG have been super-excited about since the upfronts came out. So we wanted to take a little time to ponder the new series, its leading ladies, and its representation of the South.

What did you think about the Nashville pilot?

Phoebe B: I enjoyed it in part because I sort of love country music and really adore Connie Britton. I am also intrigued by the politics side of things, which appear ridden with mystery and corruption and family drama. I also was intrigued by what seem to be a criticism of youth culture in the music industry and the ways in which female musicians, for example Rayna (Connie Britton), are pushed out in favor of autotune and youth. I also worry, however, about the women in competition with each other aspect but also the show seems to figure that competition as perpetuated by the men of the music industry. Basically, I am excited for more Nashville but also wary of certain aspects of it.

Sarah T: As a fellow lover of Connie Britton and of Nashville (pretty much my entire paternal side of the family lives there), I’m rooting for this show to knock my cowboy boots off. So far I like, but do not love it — but hey, it’s only one episode! The show’s original music is great, and I’m excited to see the relationship and rivalry between the two female leads develop. I am also somewhat confused about whether or not Nashville owes Country Strong a cut of its royalties, since it has the exact same plot minus the older star’s alcoholism. And there are no baby birds in boxes. YET.

Chelsea B: Like both of you, I mostly watched because I adore Connie Britton and had my fingers crossed that her Nashville character would just be Tami Taylor in sequins and with a slightly different drawl. Rayna wasn’t quite that, but she also wasn’t a total disappointment. I also am bummed that the central storyline revolves around building competition between two female leads. I comfort myself (as a long-professed Taylor Swift anti-fan) by imagining that Hayden Panettiere’s character, Juliette Barnes, is actually a direct portrayal of Taylor Swift, despite claims to the contrary. I’m also into the political intrigue, even though Rayna’s daddy issues driving a lot of that conflict are already a bit wearisome. And I’m totally with you on the Country Strong comparison, ST! Leighton Meester could only have improved this show.

In many ways Nashville seems to be about the competition between women in the music industry. What do you think about the way the show pits the female musicians against each other?

Phoebe B: I don’t like this part of the show and am secretly hoping that they’ll like unite or something agains the men who appear to be running the music business. However, that is perhaps unlikely and wishful thinking. On one hand, I think it is interesting to see how the show might critique the structure of a business which values youth and specific kinds of beauty. But on the other hand, I worry that the show will sort of strip its female characters of power (aside from sexual power as clearly Hayden Pannettiere’s character, Juliette, possesses). For example, the moment near the end where Rayna’s horrible dad says something about how she didn’t achieve anything on her own was terrible, even as it acknowledges the ways in which money and power made things available to her that would not have been otherwise.

Sarah: The rivalry between Juliette and Rayna actually doesn’t bother me — I thought the show did a good job of portraying the conflict between them without framing it like “Ooo catfight, growl.” It was believable to me that Juliette, as an up-and-comer who I’m willing to bet has fought tooth and nail to get where she is, would be throwing shade at Rayna, a star she’s hoping to supplant. And given Juliette’s rudeness (the whole “my mom listened to you when I was just a baby in her belly” thing), I thought Rayna’s distaste for her was completely justified. I’m also more willing to tolerate their rivalry because I’d bet good money that their relationship develops and gets more complicated as the episodes go on. After all, that’s what Country Strong did.

Chelsea: I agree with you both in hopes/predictions that the competition will evolve into a scarily powerful and complex united throne. I don’t imagine Rayna and Juliette will be braiding each other’s hair anytime soon, but I think the (super white) men of the record label who mostly faded into the background during the pilot will become a force worth uniting against. Neither Rayna nor Juliette will stand for being anyone’s puppet. Bottom line: I’ll be disappointed if the conflict remains the central one of the show’s season, but I don’t think it will.

What do you think of the family angle of the show? For example, Rayna’s horrible and scary, yet super powerful and rich, politician dad? And Juliette’s mom who appears to be a drug addict?

Phoebe B: Firstly, Rayna’s dad is horrible! And super scary and seemingly cruel. I think it is interesting that Rayna comes from this really wealthy family, but separates herself from them while Juliette seemingly comes from working class roots and has a mother who is a drug addict that she also goes to great lengths to keep at a distance. The sequence where Juliette is on the phone with her mother is heartbreaking and also of course gives her character more dimension and underscores the differences between her and Rayna. I thought too that the juxtaposition of the two women (and these two types) then also makes visible the kind of privilege that helped Rayna get to the top of country music versus Juliette’s clear use of her sexuality seemingly to transcend class and industry barriers.

Sarah: Yeah, I was intrigued by their opposing class backgrounds as embodied by their parents. We know more about Rayna’s at this point, so I’ll focus on her. She grew up with privilege as the daughter of a powerful and wealthy businessman, and her privilege may have opened even more doors for her than she knows — ie, her dad indicates that he secretly financed her first album. Which, if that’s true, obviously I understand why Rayna’s upset, but it gets at a truth about class politics: nobody becomes successful on their own. Sometimes people trick themselves into believing they did, because it’s important to their self-image and to maintaining their worldview to believe that they’re independent and self-sufficient. But Rayna, for example, can’t escape the truth that her privilege opened doors for her, and continues to do so. That doesn’t make her not talented or not awesome. But it does mean she got help.

I also was interested in the subplot about her husband losing their money in a bad investment — he tells their daughter that they’re still rich but “cash poor.” A very contemporary American point, this. The show’s getting dramatic mileage out of the fact that Rayna has to work and tour and sell records in order to maintain their lifestyle, and drawing further gender-class tension out of her husband’s desire to provide for the family (and, implicitly, have more power within the family as a major breadwinner) motivating his run for mayor.

Chelsea: Undeniably, Rayna’s dad is awful. But I’m already bored with him and their father-daughter dynamic. The writers made her dad-financier totally evil in order to reconcile her as charming singer-of-the-people even though she’s super rich (or at least perceived to be) and benefitted from unspoken privilege to become who she is. Like ST, I think her nuclear family’s financial predicament is a (much more) interesting way of speaking that privilege and making class transparent.

The scenes between Juliette and her mom were more interesting, but also felt really, really similar to the scenes from True Blood a few seasons ago with the panther-people and their meth-making ways. I haven’t seen those True Blood episodes since they first aired, but the similarities of the mise en scene and Juliette’s knife-sharp meanness born from self-preservation resonated with my memory of Crystal and her family in a powerful way. Though not as visible as the types that Juliette and Rayna are playing, the hard-edged, drug-addicted (formerly or presently), skin-and-bones Southern female is a type. Think about The Walking DeadFriday Night Lights, America’s Next Top Model, and I’m curious to see how Nashville will employ and develop that type as the season continues.

Between Friday Night Lights and Nashville, Connie Britton is fast becoming one of TV’s go-to Southern women. What is it about her public image and persona that’s leading her to play Southern characters?

Sarah T: As Tami Taylor, Britton projected warmth and strength in equal doses, and I think those qualities inform the kind of Southern woman that she’s now specializing in: someone who’s got the manners and appearance of a proper Southern belle (huge smile, big blonde curls) with enormous reserves of grit and determination beneath the surface. In an interview with David Bianculli, Britton talked about how her mother–another Southerner–and other women she grew up with navigated ingrained sexism: “And these were not women who were just going to sit back and say ‘Yes sir. No sir.’ But they were sweet because they knew that’s what they had to do to get their point across in that sort of environment.” I think she’s getting chosen to represent the South on TV because she does something similar in her performances. She meets all kinds of cultural expectations about what a “good” wife and mother should look and act like. So she’s reassuring for audiences in that sense, and she seems “Southern” in that the South is often stereotyped as a bastion of conservatism, which applies to gender roles too. But then she also subverts those expectations by bringing a particular kind of authenticity (revealing anger, fatigue, disappointment, ambition) that resists the ideological strait-jacket that requires wives and mothers to subsume their identities to their husbands and children. So I think some conflicted cultural feelings about the South and Southern women (Southern white women, specifically) are getting both expressed and worked out through in her characters.

Chelsea: ST, I think you’re spot-on in your analysis. I just wanted to add that I think her relatively low-profile stardom helps. I don’t mean that Connie Britton isn’t a star, just that she isn’t frequently seen on the covers of tabloids or celebrity gossip magazines. I think she (and her management team) has worked to embody a kind of understated elegance and “aw, shucks” attitude in her celebrity. She’s the inverse of Gwyneth Paltrow (an apt comparison since Country Strong). They’re both respected by their industry, but people (myself included) love to hate Gwynnie and her ostentatious lifestyle publication, GOOP–representative of everything annoying about GP. On the other hand, Connie Britton has devoted leagues of fans rooting for in whatever she does. Not that GP doesn’t also have fans, I’d just rather not know about them. Connie Britton’s manufactured humility–regardless of whether Britton is actually humble or not–directly informs and aids her in playing women from a culture that prizes the same, at least in its women.

Phoebe B: Agreed, with both of you! It is definitely (for me at least) her somewhat secret powerfulness (particularly as Tami Taylor) and as you note ST her sense of authenticity, whether real or not, that makes her more exciting and identifiable with, I think.

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