The Women of “Nashville” — Are They Feminists?

NashvilleIf you are my friend on Facebook or in real life you know that I have developed something of an obsession with the television show Nashville. The roots for this are clear; I love Connie Britton (that’s Tami Taylor to so many loyal Friday Night Lights fans) and if the project interested me even a little bit, I’d watch a show based solely upon her presence in it. However, the music maybe might have snagged me. If you were to get in my car, the soundtrack from the show would be playing pretty much constantly and I will additionally confess my daughter sings along to Lennon and Maisy and Hayden Panettiere.

Okay, then. Onward.

The question a recent piece cross-posted on the LA Review of Books site and Salon was whether Nashville is the most feminist show on television. Start with the obvious; the show is created by Callie Khouri, whose feminist cred—she was the engine behind Thelma and Louise—is high. Here’s the article’s caveat: both feminism and femininity are murky in 2013. There are some pretty smart observations in the article that put words to some of what I felt all season long — such as, the heart of this show isn’t a soapy who-is-loved-who-is-wronged melodrama, but a work-place story, the work-place being Nashville and its music industry. And this: the men are weak and relatively uninteresting compared to the women, who are compelling and vibrant and strong (save for Peggy Kenter).

The work, from the songs featured to the process depicted—tours, publicity jaunts, recording, writing, performing and award show-going—is most certainly the center, the heart of Nashville. Everyone dances (okay, and sings) in and around it in every which way. That’s why Rayna and Juliette are who they are and how they are; that’s the lure the character Scarlett experiences, as do the young men who wrestle with ambition right alongside her. It’s terribly interesting to look at ambition so directly, the way it pulls and pushes and draws people in and sometimes spits them places they’d never wanted to go. The trappings, from achievements within the music to the billboards and advertisers to the private jets, all of that is in there. How human relationships survive within this kind of ambition and the harsh media glare factors in, but it’s as if none of those relationships could occur the same way outside the central theme. Ambition defines so much about the artists and the people surrounding them, too.

Even the flawed women—and let’s face it, the women are to a one flawed—are still strong and driven and talented and focused and ultimately assume their personal agency. I love the notion that the competition between the “fading star” and the pop star is in the work arena and not beyond, and that even the jealousies between the pair the pair feel more professional rather than personal. This came into sharp focus in the season finale, when Rayna reached out to a grieving Juliette with such kindness that all the competition between them seemed to have been left behind.

That overt feminist “causes,” or even the word itself, do not arise within the show doesn’t mean, the Salon article argues, that feminism isn’t flourishing between the lines—and in the lines, too, citing the fictitiously “co-written” raucous collaboration between Rayna and Juliette entitled, “Wrong Song,” in which a woman is not forgiving of her lover’s faulty moves. It’s not, the singers insist, “a little stand by your man.” Instead, “hey tell the listener, you’ve got the wrong song and the wrong girl:

“You’ve got the wrong song

Coming through your speakers

This one’s about a liar and a cheater

Who didn’t know what he had

‘till it was gone”

So, if the music tells Nashville’s story, then somehow the feminist answer’s gonna be this: the women will win. Thank goodness we’ll get to find out how during Season Two.

You can find contributor Sarah Buttenwieser on Twitter at @standshadows and at her blog, Standing in the Shadows.

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  • At first, I was sort of embarrassed by how much I loved this show. It was just so soapy. But I’ve embraced my delight in it. And basically I would watch anything with Connie Britton in it. And you’re right: the women in the show are strong and complex, while the men are mostly boring and whiny.

  • Elizabeth

    I admittedly love this show, and I agree with categorizing it as feminist–not in-your-face explicitly, rhetorically feminist, but feminist in its very substance and material.

    That said, as a former musician–who essentially allowed men to frustrate and bully me out of playing in bands many years ago–I get irked that the women are almost exclusively vocalists on this show, while the men are the “real” musicians, who help compose the songs *and* provide most of the instrumentation. I remember being enraged by male bandmates who thought I should be flattered when they said things like, “Wow, a chick who can *actually* play!” Granted, Scarlett has picked up a banjo on stage, and Juliette I believe has strummed along during songwriting sessions. But this notion that women are pretty, sparkly songbirds who can’t actually play instruments is a nagging assumption, and I wish the show did more to combat it.

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