You’ve Got the Wrong Song: "Nashville" and Country Music Feminism




You’ve Got the Wrong Song: "Nashville" and Country Music Feminism by Claire Miye Stanford

On ABC's "Nashville" and country music feminism

May 22nd, 2013 reset - +

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.

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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. Juliette’s hits include: “Telescope,” which warns a cheating lover that she knows full well what he’s up to; “Boys and Buses,” advising that chasing after boys is a waste of time; and “Undermine,” a heartfelt ballad about how it’s harder — but more worthwhile — to achieve something on your own than to undermine someone else. Rayna’s songs, tinged with more experience, are more downcast, but they, too, advocate for standing one’s ground: “Buried Under” tells the story of a woman grappling with finding out her lover’s long-buried secrets; in “No One Will Ever Love You,” the singer insists that her love is the best love the listener will ever find, and he should accept it.

Of all Nashville’s songs, the song that Juliette and Rayna fictionally “co-wrote” does the most to situate them within the world of women in country music. 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. The song begins with a series of conditional ifs, setting up the typical country-song scenario — man drinks too much, does foolish thing, woman misses him and forgives him:

If you think you're gonna hear 
how much I miss you 
If you're needing to feel better 'bout yourself 
If you're waiting to hear me 
say I forgive you 
'Cause tequila turned you into someone else

The song then slows down, ever so slightly, as it winds up to the chorus, meanwhile deploying the Tammy Wynette shorthand for the disempowered woman, the country music stereotype who stands by her man no matter what he does:

If you're looking for one more chance 
A little stand by your man 

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:

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 
You’ve got the wrong girl 
Cause I’ve got your number 
I don’t know what kind of spell 
you think I’m under 
This ain’t a feel-good, 
‘Everything's fine’ sing-along 
You’ve got the wrong song 

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.

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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 definitive stance — feminist or not feminist — doesn’t interest Nashville. The show is focused on individual characters rather than overarching labels, in showing how strong, powerful women live their strong, powerful lives. There are men on Nashville, too, but they are pretty much ineffectual; any success they have comes, directly or indirectly, as a result of their partnerships with the show’s various women. Indeed, every woman on the show — not just Rayna and Juliette — is portrayed as a strong woman; they may have their faults, but all of them, from up-and-comer Scarlett O’Connor to Rayna’s sister Tandy to more minor characters like the managers and political wives, have ambition, drive, and agency, as well as a self-possessed dignity that leaves no question about who is in control.

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. 

In fact, even though Nashville is billed as a primetime soap, it is much better described as a workplace drama, where the workplace is the country music mainstage. Along with reproductive rights, women’s advancement and equal treatment in the workplace is one of the last — and most persistent — issues for feminism, a fact that makes Nashville’s portrait of this very particular workplace all the more interesting from a feminist point of view.

As in a workplace drama, we see the way the women express themselves in front of others, but we also see what happens when the stage curtain is pulled back, and how that empowerment translates to both their personal lives and their behind-the-scenes business decisions. And it’s in this offstage life that the show truly uses Rayna and Juliette to explore questions of feminism, especially when it looks at the challenges a woman faces when she insists on being in control of her own life.

These challenges are different for Rayna and Juliette, who are at distinct stages in both their career and personal life. For Rayna, married with two daughters, they manifest as a question of how to balance her career ambitions with being a good (“good”) mother, daughter, and wife (and eventually ex-wife). Rayna never feels guilty about any of the decisions she makes related to her career; she misses her daughters when she is on the road, but she does not feel guilty or ashamed that she has left them with their (very loving) father. On the flipside, when her father has a heart attack, she flies back to Nashville immediately and says she might have to cancel that night’s concert, but those decisions are made without agony, without any drama over where to put family and where to put career. This departure from female guilt over the intersection of professional and domestic priorities is refreshing.

Rayna also faces the challenge of how to stay relevant as a female artist and performer in her forties, an age our society deems over the hill. Again, the show defies the stereotypical storyline — one that might end in a middle-age crisis, substance abuse, or plastic surgery — and gives the character of Rayna the dignity of a real person, taking on a real professional challenge. Rayna has to work even harder to stay relevant; there is no such thing as resting on laurels, especially for a female celebrity over the age of thirty. And, as always, Rayna rises to the challenge, writing more songs, evolving her sound, taking more risks, going on tour. When faced with a challenge, Rayna does not break down; she steels herself and takes it on, and she succeeds — not by chance or wiles, but by hard work and force of will.

For Juliette — young, hot, and unattached — the challenges are different. More than anything, Juliette wants to be taken seriously: by her record label, by her employees, by her colleagues, by reviewers, by her fans. Her youth is a major part of her problem: her male-dominated world (her boss at the label, her manager, her roadies, her band, the predominately male reviewers) do not want to take her seriously. But, even more problematic for a young woman like Juliette is her attitude. She knows what she wants, and she does what she wants without thinking of the consequences.

Juliette’s behavior is not always perfect, but her slips in judgment are exacerbated by her gender and her age, and these mistakes drive the show’s examination of social and professional double standards. Were Juliette a man, she would be described as “driven” and “demanding” when she fires her manager or changes her set list at the last minute; instead, since she is a woman, she is seen as irrational. Were she a man, she would be called a “bad boy” for her brushes with the law and her late nights clubbing; since she is a woman, this behavior threatens to ruin her career and her image. When Juliette’s ex-boyfriend blackmails her over a sex tape he secretly filmed, the show takes on one of the most gendered celebrity scandals: a sex tape for a male celebrity means almost nothing, but becomes part of a woman’s permanent record.

Even when exploring the rivalry between Rayna and Juliette — one of Nashville’s central plotlines — the show treats the women with sophistication and dignity, making it clear from the start that it’s a professional rivalry. It would be ideal if all women — or, for that matter, all people — could support each other even in competition, but in the world in which that Rayna and Juliette operate, that isn’t an option. This kind of competition is particularly endemic to women and particularly brutal, but professional competition transcends gender. Record labels only have so much promotional money to put behind artists; magazines only have so many pages to dedicate to female country music stars. In the plotline that will wrap up this season, Rayna and Juliette are both nominated for Female Country Music Artist of the year. This turn of events is a brilliant move by the show in that it brings their competition to the forefront.

The show’s recognition of this contest — and also the way the rivalry unfolds — again defies the typical portrayal of female envy. The very fact that competition is the major plot point of the show recognizes that women can compete in the first place — that women don’t always “play nice,” that a woman can want to be number one. Beyond that initial recognition, the rivalry itself is handled with sophistication and dignity. Other than a few snippy comments in the first few episodes when the show was finding its footing, both women are refreshingly direct (the gendered thing to say here would be that they aren’t catty) about their relationship. Other than a few offhand statements, neither of them really talks about the other behind her back; when one of them is frustrated or angry at the other, she says so to her rival’s face. 

Most refreshingly, the competition stays entirely in the professional sphere. When Juliette is confronted with a giant billboard of Rayna’s face as a celebrity endorsement, she does not react by commenting on Rayna’s appearance or her age; she is pissed, but she is pissed because she wants an endorsement deal and a billboard of her own. When Rayna is forced to fly on Juliette’s plane, she is also unhappy, but mostly about the fact that she doesn’t have her own jet. Even when Juliette beds Rayna’s long-ago love, the story focuses more on both women wanting him as a bandleader and songwriter — in a professional capacity — than a sexual or romantic rivalry. 

In fact, in a brilliantly self-aware move, this season’s closing plotline about Rayna and Juliette’s award rivalry perfectly appropriates real-world media commentary about the show itself. When the show debuted in the fall, Nashville’s creator Khouri and stars Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere both had to spend a lot of time (an inordinate amount of time) telling interviewers that the show was not about a “catfight” between the two women. In a recent episode, as Britton’s Rayna and Panettiere’s Juliette walked a red carpet together, reporters ask them how it feels to compete and Rayna, echoing Britton’s real-life remarks, tells them, “If you’re expecting a catfight, you’re not going to get it.” 

Not only does this statement provide a new meta-commentary on female-driven narratives, but also continues the themes established in “Wrong Song” of defying traditional expectations for women, both for the way women act and the way women are represented — and represent themselves. In other words, if viewers come to Nashville looking for the same old soapy female tropes — catfights, bitchiness, seduction, backstabbing — then they’ve got the wrong show.

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Claire Miye Stanford is a freelance writer and editor living in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in The Millions, The Rumpus, GOOD, and other publications. She tweets at @clairemiye.

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