Student or Learner
QUESTION: ME AND MY FRIENDS ARE WORKING ON A PROJECT TOGETHER FOR FUN. OUR QUESTION IS CAN THE NASHVILLE TELEVISION SHOW THAT IS SO OSTENSIBLY INTERESTED IN THE FEMININE ALSO BE FEMINIST? THANKS FOR YOUR HELP.
May 22nd, 2013 BOTH FEMININITY AND FEMINISM have become harder and harder to define in 2013. In regard to the first, there are as many examples of femininity in the world as there are people (not just biological women) who embody them. As for the second, the term feminism is now so loaded with meaning, confusion, and incorrect associations, that it has become all too common, especially among young women, to disavow the term entirely. Into this complex terminology, enter Rayna James (Connie Britton) and Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), the lead characters of ABC’s Nashville, created by former Nashville resident Callie Khouri. Khouri is a film veteran who wrote 1991’s Thelma & Louise, a feminist classic that also won her the Academy Award for best original screenplay (typically a heavily male-dominated category). In its first season, the show has explored what it means to be both feminine and feminist in the world of country music and television.
Ultimately, any female-driven television show has to contend with these two concepts —whether that treatment is overt or more indirect, if only because every female-driven show will ultimately contend with the characters’ love lives and how they interact with men (since their romantic interests are, almost always, male). But what stands out about Nashville, among all female-driven television shows, is that it places these omnipresent questions in unique contexts: professional, rather than personal, in the frame of a highly gendered genre, industry, city, and region. But can a show that is so ostensibly interested in the “feminine” in sexual and romantic relationships, in motherhood and daughterhood, in short skirts and spangly tops and big hair also be feminist? That same question has been asked time and time again about country music itself, long considered a bastion of heteronormative, gendered songs about pick-up trucks. Historically, most feminist ire lands squarely on the shoulders of country music legend Tammy Wynette, and her biggest hit, 1968’s “Stand By Your Man,” in which Wynette advises the listener to forgive your man and, for that matter, to be “proud” of him, even when he’s off having “good times/doing things that you don’t understand.” Whether these things that “you don’t understand” are cheating, boozing, gambling, or other unsavory activities is not entirely clear, but still, Wynette counsels the listener to stand by him “’cause after all he’s just a man”; in other words, he can’t help it, it’s in his Man Nature to mistreat you. There are countless other songs, less famous than Wynette’s, with the same degrading message, but critics keep circling back to “Stand By Your Man” as a kind of shorthand for anti-feminist doctrine in country music, and, to a greater extent, life in general. In 1992, Hillary Clinton referred to the song when responding to allegations of then-presidential-hopeful Bill’s extramarital affairs. “I’m not sitting here some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” she said in a 60 Minutes interview. (In a whole other layer of feminist rhetoric, Clinton was pressured into apologizing to Wynette only days later by legions of country-music fans who said it was an unfair comparison.) Still, plenty of female country musicians have serious feminist chops, using their lyrics to take on political feminist issues from birth control and abortion to equal pay and spousal abuse. Loretta Lynn’s 1975 song, “The Pill,” is the first major song to mention oral contraceptives; more recently, Neko Case’s 2002 song, “Pretty Girls,” examines the judgment that comes with abortion. Other songs — about disappointment in marriage and motherhood, about not being slut-shamed for wearing a short skirt, about hitting your cheating husband upside the head with a cast-iron skillet — are not as overtly political, but still deal with realities of female experience head-on, without conforming to gender norms or social conventions. Of all female country musicians, Dolly Parton presents the most interesting example of the tension that exists between femininity and feminism. Her 1980 classic hit, “9 to 5,” is set to a catchy beat but makes a political point about being an ambitious woman in a discriminatory workplace. Lesser known, her 1968 song “Just Because I’m a Woman,” took on sexual hypocrisy and double standards way before “slut-shaming” was even an established phrase. But these days, Parton is often discounted as an artist — and as a feminist — made into a punch line about breast implants and plastic surgery; even when she is held up as a feminist icon, the argument often comes with a tone of questioning surprise and an acknowledgment that her big hair, big breasts, and tiny waist make her a less-than-obvious feminist heroine. In their music on the show, both Rayna and Juliette fall firmly in the Dolly Parton camp of female country music star; while their songs are not overtly political or feminist — no abortion or birth control talk here they are very much about women standing on their own, standing up for themselves, and being respected. Titled “Wrong Song,” the song is a fiery duet, addressed to a lying, cheating man, and in classic Rayna/Juliette fashion, it stands up for the woman, saying that she won’t stand for that. But “Wrong Song” goes a step further than the usual woman-power advocacy, adding a meta-layer of commentary on country music (and music in general), turning the song into a defiant take on expectations for country music and female narratives in general. And then there comes the booming chorus, both women’s voices coming together for the coup de grace, calling out all those songs before it for so easily forgiving wayward men, and also calling out the listener himself for expecting that they would forgive him, just because they are country music singers, just because they are ladies. If you think you’re getting the stereotypical female narrative of passivity and forgiveness (a la “Stand By Your Man”), they tell the listener, then you’ve got the wrong song and the wrong girl:This song, this performance, is the epitome of Nashville womenhood: active, empowered, and take-charge. But this song is more than just a statement on behalf of the characters. In one catchy chorus, it takes on the music industry and its demands on female artists, and then goes a step further by putting that examination on television, a similar crucible of issues concerning money, sexuality, female image, and power. As characters, Rayna and Juliette are strong women, still rare on television, but not impossible to find. As a show, though, Nashville in its unapologetically pure focus on female characters, its self-aware examination of the struggles of female artists, and its critique of male-dominated industries — is one of the most feminist television shows on television. Still, neither Rayna nor Juliette is a feminist, or, at least, we’ve never heard them say that they are. Nashville has never dropped the F-bomb, surely afraid of alienating part of its audience. As the show goes on, however, and as both Rayna and Juliette give more and more fictional interviews to television talk shows and magazines, the absence of the word “feminist” becomes a more glaring omission; after all, media love to ask women to define themselves in terms of feminism, especially strong, powerful women. But that kind of definitivestance feminist or not feminist doesn’t interest Nashville. There is only one notable exception to this otherwise consistently empowered cast of female characters: the needy, conniving, and man-reliant Peggy Kenter, who has an affair with Rayna’s husband and leaks Rayna’s subsequent divorce to the tabloids. In both her demeanor and her actions, Peggy appears like a caricature of a helpless female, as if a reminder of all the ghosts of stereotypical soapy female characters past. Peggy is also notably the only character whose situation is presented without a trace of compassion; the show, it would seem, has no sympathy for a woman like Peggy — a woman who belongs in a different kind of world, on a different kind of show.
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