I always enjoy reading Troy Patterson over at Slate, but his review of Nashville, ABC’s soapy drama about the rise of a great American city as told through the conflict between a rising country star, Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) and a falling one, Rayna James (Connie Britton), reminded me of a pet peeve: the tendency to frame conflicts between women as cat fights, rather than as expressions of legitimate divisions and substantive rivalries.
There’s no question that Juliette and Rayna don’t like each other much, and that they’re downright vicious to each other in a meeting arranged by their label. Rayna makes an effort to be nice to Juliette. But Juliette gives her what can only be described as the best modern cut direct I’ve ever seen, ignoring the attempt at a complement and an outstretched hand and turning instead to a legendary songwriter and radio host, telling him “It is such an honor to get a chance to sing for you tonight.” Even then, Rayna still tries, telling Juliette “You’re burning it up out there, girl.” But Juliette goes in for the kill, telling her: “My mama was one of your biggest fans. She said she’d listen to you while I was still in her belly.” Even if Rayna’s record sales are lagging behind Juliette’s, her fidelity to an old business model hasn’t dulled her ability to bring the burn. “Well, bless your little heart,” she tells Juliette. “That is a charming story. You probably got to go on soon. I’m sure you’re going to want to make sure you got those girls tucked in there real good.”
Taken in isolation, this would be an epic attack of cat-scratch fever. But the differences between Rayna and Juliette are real. Juliette needs pitch correction to make her recordings sound good, and her songs are poppier tunes, engineered to become earworms to listeners the same ages as Rayna’s pre-teen daughters. Those of us who mourn the homogenization of popular musical genres may sympathize with Rayna when she complains “Why do people listen to that adolescent crap? It sounds like feral cats to me. Why does everyone think she’s good?”
But on the other hand, she’s hustling in a way that Rayna’s not. Rayna may not like the new model for the music industry, but her nostalgia’s bread inflexibility. She doesn’t want to tour with Juliette, and she rejects the prospect of doing a tour in smaller venues that would both create artificial demand for tickets and help her reconnect with her most enthusiastic fans. She’s lazy about recording extra tracks for her album, and then irritated when other singers snap them up. It may be obnoxious of Juliette to go after Rayna’s bandleader and other collaborators, but she’s attuned to the careful balance between commercial success and Nashville credibility, and is making more efforts to shore up her weaknesses than Rayna is.
And if Juliette has mommy issues — hers is an addict who Juliette tries to avoid so she won’t let herself be talked into giving her mother money that would feed her drug use — that she works out by seducing any man who crosses her path, even making a play for a guy who bumps into her in a hallway, Rayna has whopping daddy issues. Hers is more present in her life than Juliette’s mother is in hers, and he’s played by Powers Boothe as a wheeling, dealing real estate tycoon. In denial about how much her father has helped her recording career and prickly about the possibility of coming under his influence, Rayna reflexively reacts against anything her father proposes or asks. I can understand why Rayna rejects her father’s machinations just as I can see why Juliette, who lacks the family and support that buoys Rayna, seeks out affirmation elsewhere.
Juliette and Rayna may go personal in their attacks on each other, but that doesn’t mean their differences aren’t substantive, whether they’re throwing down over aesthetics and authenticity, competing for talent, or charming crowds on stage at the Grand Ol’ Opry, where Rayna rules the stage with a queenly distance and Juliette reaches out to let her fans touch her. These are interesting, meaningful questions and jealousies rooted in actual economic pressures, rather than the result of irrational animosities. Juliette and Rayna may have perfectly-manicured claws and blown-out manes, but just because these lionesses are clashing doesn’t mean it’ a catfight.