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Is ‘Nashville’ the Most Radical Feminist Show on TV?

Earlier this week, ABC announced that Nashville had been picked up for the rest of its first season. Happy news for us, since the show remains one of the best new dramas of the year, winning hearts where Revolution and Last Resort had left us wanting. Now that we’ve had five episodes to settle into its rockabilly arms, let’s look at what makes what’s ostensibly just another story about country music and heartbreak so refreshing.

Despite its mileage on country clichés, Nashville feels like a sparkly newcomer to the television scene. Beyond the cheatin’, schemin’, and burning old flames, the drama is at heart about two women: the older established country star Rayna James and poppy newcomer (as well as potential rival) Juliette Barnes. Rayna’s and Juliette’s characters are inflected and mediated through their interaction with men — sexual, economic, and otherwise — but these alliances take second stage to the female networks that underwrite the world of Nashville. The show is, in a sense, as heterosexual as they come, but its portrayal of female relationships makes me wonder if it’s not one of the most distinct feminist dramas to appear on network television yet.

As with most melodramatic soaps, Nashville often frames female interactions in terms of mutual undermining. Yet these contests aren’t just manifestations of girlish pettiness, envy, or “bitchiness”; nor are they made for the sole sake of men. While the quest for creative fulfillment is more often framed as a male-dominated realm (on television, as in real life), Nashville upends these expectations by making women the center and source of artistic talent. As shown through Scarlett O’Connor (the third main songstress of the show), a woman’s success still unnerves the men who expect nothing more from them than domestic and romantic support. As the season goes on, I suspect Scarlett will learn a thing or two from Rayna and Juliette: women who aim to speak for themselves as female individuals in a male-run music business. When Rayna and Juliette come head to head, viewers sense that there’s more to this dispute than just a “catfight” for catfighting’s sake. There is history to this anger. If anything, these battles over creative control and headlining rights express a kind of ruthlessness and vicious entitlement not often portrayed by women characters.

When the show premiered, Alyssa Rosenberg urged viewers to see Nashville’s two female leads as more than their aggregate altercations: “Juliette and Rayna may go personal in their attacks on each other, but that doesn’t mean their differences aren’t substantive.” Rosenberg touches on Juliette’s and Rayna’s respective mommy and daddy issues, suggesting that family structures work to determine their behaviors. Rayna’s hostile reaction to any suggestions of financial help from her father is matched only by Juliette’s desperate measures to distance herself from a drug-addicted mother who, for the most part, seems to need as much mothering from Juliette as Juliette does herself. Perhaps especially in a place like Nashville — where everything from the music business to the political circuit seems rooted in the family model — it seems that much harder for women to mark their roles outside of the traditional household.

Yet, Rayna and Juliette reject the part of sacrificial mother and respectful daughter over and over again. The stance of adulthood even gets muddled when it comes to Rayna and Juliette, what with the former having “diva dip” tantrums, and the latter attempting to leave her mother in the “rear-view mirror.” Let’s not forget to mention Deacon, the male love object shared by both female leads. Sure, Rayna is already married with two daughters, and Juliette is something like two decades Deacon’s junior, but this doesn’t stop Nashville from moving its narrative along the simultaneous potential of either romance plots.

The heterosexual love plot, however, is probably the least interesting plot in Nashville. While I admit that the political B-plot isn’t doing many wonders yet, the show’s economic narratives are wholly fascinating, convincing, and, more importantly, central to these women’s lives. While the show contains its share of sexual intrigue and love triangles, none of these stand in isolation from its economic narratives. Rayna and Juliette both know that to be powerful is to have money, but that having money means little if you’re not also the one who controls how it gets to be had. Sitting in rooms full of male producers and managers, Rayna’s unrelenting pride isn’t just an emotional reaction, but a business move as well. One senses the same with Juliette’s brash interactions with her male manager; her meanness isn’t cattiness, but a reaction against external pressures that wish to manage and own her as a well-rehearsed persona. For Rayna and Juliette alike, these rejections of male control can lead to financial ruts, but this doesn’t seem to devalue the spirit of these rejections. To defensively run away from a world that tries continuously to mold you might not always be wise, but it can be necessary.

If the typical soap circles around images of the Good Mother, then Nashville it is not. As screenwriter Callie Khouri’s famous Thelma & Louise anticipates, this feminist-driven show only opens with marriage. What happens afterwards is in the hands of vividly drawn female characters with their own keys to a Chevy. Juliette and Rayna — both wary of manipulative paternal figures — seek ways to achieve independence. As Rayna’s opening song to the pilot makes clear: “It’s a long, long road to independence.” That Nashville has been given an entire first season to explore this road is positive news for us all.

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