As 2014 draws to a close, we will soon be moving into the initial phases of the 2016 presidential election. Will Clinton run? Can she win? That decision will likely be made in parts of the country that I’ve never visited. As an urban feminist of color who has lived on both coasts of the US, I am generally ill-equipped to understand the psychology of our nation’s red states. Unfortunately, for many of us urban coastal feminists, accompanying our lack of information is sometimes a snobbery and disdain.
For many years, that snobbery meant that I didn’t watch television. Granted, there were some good reasons for that choice. I’ve never had cable, and until the last decade, roles for women in network TV were so limited that the whole project of paying critical attention to women in television was easy to dismiss. However, in 2008, I began watching internet-based TV, which opened up a whole new world of content.
I love scripted TV shows with ambitious female protagonists. I have always loved mysteries and detective shows, but the level of violence—particularly sexual violence—in today’s cop shows often makes these unwatchable. I began looking for great stories on TV and searched beyond my typical tastes. A friend suggested ABC’s Nashville. I resisted it at first, because country music is so white and male-dominated. But more than that, I couldn’t really imagine having empathy for the lives of these white women who sing this US heartland music. But as a writer, I’ve always been drawn to shows with ambitious female artists: The LA Complex, Smash, even the first season of Glee were all fabulous, in my opinion. But the first two were cancelled, and Glee got ridiculous by season 2. One night, looking for something to watch, I clicked on the Nashville pilot. I was hooked.
Ultimately, the show is about an interconnected set of people, mostly women, trying to make it in the music business. Initially, they just want to break into the music scene. But eventually, all the characters seek greater artistic freedom, power, and influence, and the ability to lead a good life, too. Written and developed by Callie Khouri, the Oscar-winning writer of Thelma & Louise, the show is inherently feminist in its approach. This season, however, three storylines converged to take on sexism more directly than ever before, with characters Rayna, Layla, and Zoey.
Some spoilers ahead!
Rayna James is the Queen of Country Music, and has quit her record company to sink all her money into an independent label with all female artists. She’s also about to marry Luke Wheeler, an equally powerful veteran country performer, and they are in competition for many of the same Country Music Awards. The battle of the sexes has been brewing for several episodes, but in the awards show episode, she beats him in all categories except male entertainer. Throughout the evening, he gets increasingly envious, sullen, and drunk. When the pair both win for a duet song, he grabs the mic and gives a self-aggrandizing speech on both their behalf, completely silencing her. Afterwards, she storms into the men’s room and confronts him. He’s defensive and belittling. Later, when she wins artist of the year, she says the following: “To all the female artists out there who are paving the way for generations to come. And to my man, my love, Luke Wheeler, I share this with you babe. What’s mine is yours. And to all the men out there, just remember we’re never trying to take anything from you, there’s plenty of sunshine for all of us.” Although she’s conciliatory in public, she continues to push him in private. Later, he apologizes (“I’m sorry for being a jackass”) and they make up. He says, “You know how insanely proud of you I am? Congratulations.” When they head to bed, she jokes with him, “Those awards are sooo heavy. I’ve been lugging ‘em around all night. I mean, I’m just exhausted.” There’s no Thelma & Louise moment of revenge where she blows up his gas truck, but the small victory of a woman who lives in a context where the institutional sexism is thicker and less forgiving. Rayna James is fierce in a way that is incredibly gracious. She doesn’t get to mouth off with the feminist monologue I’d really like to hear if she wants to maintain her success or even survive in her industry. I appreciate the opportunity to see the nuances in the lives of white Southern women who have to negotiate old school sexism.
But all of the sexism isn’t old school. Another character, Layla Grant, an ambitious country music ingénue, agrees to star in a reality TV show with her new husband, Will. As their marriage unravels behind the scenes, she smiles painfully for the reality TV cameras. When the show premieres, she is horrified to see Will is repeatedly seen taking off his shirt, and she’s portrayed as incompetent and comical. “They made me look like a total idiot,” she says to him in tears. “They made you look like a sex symbol.” When she and Will present at the awards show, she’s further humiliated. She reads the scripted banter from the teleprompter: “I wore my hair up just in case anything goes over my head.” She attempts to assert her intelligence by going off book. “Just so you all know,” she says, “I deferred Harvard.” But it backfires. At the end of the episode, she lays crying, watching a laptop. She tells Will, “Somebody’s already turned what I said into a rap song and made one of those stupid mash-up videos.” The samples of her voice loop over tinny music from the computer: “In case anything goes over my head…I-I-I deferred Harvard.” Will asks, “Why you torturing yourself?” Layla lays on the bed, defeated and says, “I don’t want to be famous like this.”
Unlike Rayna, Layla won’t play by the rules. She refuses to laugh along with the joke until there’s an opening to reinvent herself outside the female buffoon role that she’s been shoved into. Every attempt she makes to do so is foiled until the mid-season finale finds her facedown in a swimming pool, an obvious suicide, assuming they can’t revive her. But her cause was lost from the moment she used the Ivy League to establish her intellectual superiority. Layla expects her own coastal snobbery to save her, but it can’t. She’s book-smart, but lacks common sense. This isn’t a cocktail party among New York’s prep school set, but the Country Music Awards. She underestimates the power of the red state good-old-boys and thus falls prey to them. In 2013, when Democrat Wendy Davis executed her stunning 11-hour filibuster for abortion rights on the Texas state senate floor, she didn’t rely on her Harvard Law degree, but rather a deep determination to fight for what was right for women in Texas. Layla becomes a tragic figure because she’s trapped by the forces of sexism and conservatism. As a celebrity in her late teens, she doesn’t have time to develop her defenses against male domination outside the vicious gaze of the spotlight, and the weight of it takes her down. The writers make it clear that the ability of some women to gracefully negotiate the sexism of the environment doesn’t mean it’s anything less than vicious. According to Pro-Choice America, in 2002, “Clayton Waagner, who was on a self-described mission from God to kill abortion providers,” was arrested for various offenses, including “possession of a pipe bomb in Tennessee.”
As a woman who had an abortion in my 20s, I appreciate the importance of the fight for reproductive rights. I became a mom later in life, having become accustomed to a highly autonomous adulthood without children. These days, I am frequently stunned by how much motherhood has increased the sexism in my daily life. With a small child on my hip, there is a different price to be paid for unleashing a sharp-tongued tirade at anyone. Whether it is my partner leaving his shoes in the middle of the floor or strangers at the grocery store who talk about how “pretty” my daughter is. Small children need peace and security and not to have mom constantly battling over everything, even sexism. I take many opportunities to identify sexism and help my daughter understand things she sees in the world are not authentic, but distorted by sexist ideology. However, this all gives me more insight into how women in red states need to function, using stealth and cunning.
Chaley Rose plays Zoey Dalton, center.
This season on Nashville, two characters are dealing with motherhood. One has an unplanned pregnancy, and the other has become a stepmother by default. The latter, Zoey Dalton, is the show’s lone ongoing black character. She confronts her white boyfriend, Gunnar, who has recently learned that he fathered a son as a teenager, and the boy has come into his life. Furthermore, the son’s mother has taken off, leaving the kid with Gunnar. Zoey, who lives with them, slides easily into the role of primary caretaker. At the awards show, they fight about the situation. Later that night, she rejects the caretaking life: “I know you how much you love your son and it wouldn’t be fair to make you choose… I’m choosing for you.” She breaks up with him, but during the following show, he attempts to lure her back to him by putting their old band back together. “I cannot believe you manipulated me,” she responds. “You would rather me play mom to your kid than play music. No thank you.” Gunnar responds, “Wow, I had no idea you could be so incredibly selfish.” She fires back, “If it’s selfish not to want to be tied to your responsibilities, then yeah, I guess I’m selfish.” Zoey storms off, and later we see her at the airport, headed onto a tour in LA. I confess, my mouth dropped open the first time I saw that Zoey, not Gunnar was doing the primary parenting of Gunnar’s kid. But the traditional presumption in many places is that the responsibility for cooking, housekeeping and child-rearing falls to the nearest female. Even as a coastal feminist, I have been surprised to see how much this is true in my own life and the lives of women around me in Northern California’s liberal Bay Area. Our delayed motherhood made us think we had less in common with red state moms than we do in reality.
I didn’t expect to find a bastion of feminism in an ABC country music primetime show. However, environments with some of the thickest sexism sometimes make for the strongest storylines of women’s resistance. I hope true stories of women’s resistance like Davis’s filibuster and other activism in the South and Midwest will help feminist activists support local organizing in what often get called the “flyover” states for 2016 and beyond. Meanwhile, I’m hooked on Nashville, and I look forward to seeing what Khouri and the writers come up with next.