Thursday, October 18, 2012

Nashville: This from the writer of Thelma and Louise?

I'm not thrilled with the poster, either.
Before I commence my feminista rant about the road Nashville seems to be traveling, a confession. I've never technically *seen* Thelma and Louise. Some people pretend to have watched The Princess Bride, and I don't make it common knowledge that I've never seen a pretty foundational feminist film. But from what I've gleaned, it seems to be at least a little bit interested in women claiming power over their bodies and their lives. So when I heard that Callie Khouri, writer of T&L, was producing and writing Nashville, a soapy drama about two female country music singers going head-to-head, I thought it would at least be about something similar. At least by episode two, not so much (spoilers follow).

I expected the show to look at how Rayna James (perpetual girlcrush Connie Britton), an old-school star on the decline, and Juliette Barnes (yet to win me over Hayden Panettiere), a pop-country hybrid of the Taylor Swiftian school, mustered their relative power bases to battle each other for professional supremacy. And though that idea didn't make me entirely comfortable (Why is it so interesting to watch female artists tear each other apart? Looking at you, Black Swan.), I thought it could be an entertaining investigation of how women in different stages of their personal and professional lives access and express power in different ways. And I was totally going to be Team Rayna. The first episode included some feisty exchanges between the two that seemed promising, if not as sharp and sparkly as the dialogue of All About Eve, a film to which this show rather bafflingly is continually compared.

But last night's episodes seems to suggest that Nashville is going to be, counterintuitively, more about how these women are locked out of power in every aspect of their lives. Record company executives and video directors (all male) determine their respective career paths and images, and the two women spend most of the show fighting over songwriter Deacon Clayborne, with Juliette resorting to bribery both sexual and material, and Rayna to emotional blackmail in order to secure his presence on tour. Deacon is positioned as the character of authentic artistic worth and talent, with both women acknowledging their careers are unsatisfactory or incomplete without him. This is to say nothing of the (totally unnecessary to my mind) subplot of Nashville's mayoral election, in which Rayna is again a pawn in the game of thrones between her father, her husband, and a (male) family friend.

Even more distressing is how the show seems to be arguing that this system is being perpetuated in the younger generation of female artists. The episode also follows Deacon's niece, who performed a lovely duet last week of a song she had written with a male musician. A male producer wants to produce their demo, but she resists because her boyfriend, a struggling singer-songwriter, might object. Her decision to record the song in the episode's closing minutes come after the producer nonverbally implies that her fate could be Rayna's if she agrees to sing with the man who put her words to music. Though this is meant to be an enticement, it sort of freaked me out, considering the impotence that frustrated Rayna throughout the show.

Maybe (hopefully!) the series will eventually start to critique and dismantle this structure that allows women power only through performances, both onstage and off, that are orchestrated, judged, and made meaningful by the men in their lives.

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