Sex, Career Women, and Country Music: A Conversation About ‘Nashville’

Recently Sarah Seltzer and Lauren Kelley sat down to talk about feminism, fashion, and fame on Nashville, and why the show is so darn compelling.

Why is this show so darn compelling? ABCNetwork / YouTube

Nashville is a television drama that debuted on ABC in October, chronicling the life and career of country music stars Rayna James (Connie Britton) and Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere). Recently Rewire contributor Sarah Seltzer and Rewire Managing Editor Lauren Kelley sat down to talk about feminism, fashion, and fame on Nashville, and why the show is so darn compelling.

Lauren Kelley: Hey Sarah! Let’s talk about one of our current TV obsessions, Nashville.

Sarah Seltzer: Hi Lauren! Despite its fluffy pop star exterior, this is a show that’s created by someone with genuine feminist bona fides, Callie Khouri of Thelma and Louise fame, and starring another recent heroine of reproductive rights on television, Connie Britton, aka Tami Taylor from Friday Night Lights. I think you can see the feminism creeping in at the edges of this show, or at the very least a certain woman-centric point of view. Do you detect any traces of real ideological edge in this primetime soap, or is any impulse in that direction tempered by the need for big ratings?

LK: Ah yes, our Lord and Savior Connie Britton. There are many reasons to love her and the characters she plays. On Friday Night Lights, Britton, playing Tami, has that great series of scenes where she’s persecuted by anti-choicers for discussing abortion with a teenage student. Britton plays those scenes with so much compassion—not to mention frustration at the anti-choice activists (“Come on, y’all”).

As for Nashville, I think you’re absolutely right about feminism “creeping in at the edges.” The show very much passes the Bechdel Test. It’s about strong-willed women, Rayna James and Juliette Barnes, who are super career-focused. They’re vocal about what they want out of their careers, they negotiate hard, and they’re ambitious. There are plenty (plenty) of sub-plots about the men in their lives, but the show is first and foremost about two women who are successful music stars, trying to navigate the industry.

And in real life, Britton seems pretty badass. You read that New York Times Magazine profile of her, yes? I loved hearing about how hard Britton advocates for her characters to be authentic and not clichéd portrayals of middle-aged women.

SS: Yes, the Times profile indicates that Britton has exerted a lot of influence over her character. She clearly doesn’t want the “Is she over the hill” question that dogs her character, the middle-aged, mid-career country star Rayna James, to be about her looks as much as her fame and success, which is a lot more interesting direction to take quite frankly.

LK: And we can’t ignore how much the show delves into “having it all.” The Rayna character is trying to balance work and family, as many people do. Yes, it’s frustrating that the “having it all” conversation is so often about women, but what’s somewhat refreshing on the show is that Teddy, Rayna’s husband (played by Eric Close), has similar concerns. I appreciate that the show’s creators gave his character a lot of parental responsibility. That’s rare to see on-screen, which is pretty pathetic.

SS: You know, I think that is the exact struggle female viewers want to see. I’ve noticed it more and more on nighttime TV, and I think of this show as being part of a trio with The Good Wife and Scandal—they are all populated by these stunning career woman protagonists with messy, transgressive romantic lives but with a primary focus on the workplace ups and downs. I think it’s a show that is designed for the female gaze in every way, even the way the female characters are styled.

LK: The clothes on Nashville remind me of something I once heard Mindy Kaling say in an interview, about how there’s a class of clothing items that women wear primarily because other women like them—things like sequined tops, which are all over the place in Nashville. We can argue about the merit of caring about things like that, but I think there is some nugget of truth to what she says, and it’s on display in Nashville.

SS: The fashion items on all these shows are designed, like the men, for lust. They all share a quality of being put together but edgy and feminine—they are real “message outfits.” And the bevy of attractive men coming in and out who are all somewhat hung up on the female characters. It’s a fantasy, with fantasy complications!

Do you think the show has a positive attitude towards female sexuality? In Khouri’s Thelma and Louise, even though Brad Pitt’s character steals Geena Davis’ character’s cash, the sex they have is so revelatory for her that her rendezvous with him is seen as an important development in her life overall. But I’d also say that most men in her work tend to let the women around them down, and Nashville is no exception. So she’s a sex-positive but man-skeptical feminist, maybe?

LK: Well I’ve been somewhat frustrated with one aspect of the show relating to sexuality, and I know you agree with me, Sarah: Why has Rayna not had sex with any of the many handsome men around her—the hunks who are very much there for viewers to ogle? Meanwhile (spoiler!) her much less attractive husband gets to have a mistress, and pretty much every male character on the show has tons of sex.

SS: Ah, Rayna’s sex life or lack thereof. Even though you and I joke about this, it’s actually a double-standard that is of serious concern! Rayna makes it clear that she and Teddy have had a sexless marriage for a while, too. So while the men on the show and younger pop star Juliette Barnes get to frolic between the sheets all they want, she’s kept celibate and pure—this virginal object of desire. I think Khouri should take a page from the Good Wife writers who allowed their main character to have some pretty risque sex scenes with both men in her life. They can “go there,” and it will make the show richer and more interesting. Rayna is a bit too much of a put-upon saint right now, and it makes the characters around her who are both more and less morally inclined more interesting.

LK: I absolutely agree. #Sex4Rayna! One thing that annoyed me in the first few episodes of the show was that I couldn’t tell some of the brown-haired hunks apart. That becomes less of a problem as the series goes on, but also I now see that in some ways, a lot of those brown-haired hunks don’t matter so much. They could sort of be anyone! Which is an interesting reversal from so many TV shows and movies, where female characters are too often [insert blonde woman here].

SS: Speaking of blondes, what are your thoughts on young Juliette’s sexuality? Her ease with her sexuality is seen as part and parcel of her troubled persona. But I’m not sure the show condemns her being sexually active. Her marriage plans with a chaste Christian football star fall through, and he turns out to be a jerk.

LK: On the one hand, I think it’s positive to portray a young woman who asks for and gets what she wants sexually. On the other hand, her character does fall into some traps and clichés about sexually active 20-somethings. And I worry that sometimes the writers and/or producers are thinking to themselves, “Uh oh, it’s been one whole episode since we saw Juliette without a  top on,” you know? I’m not sure what the correct balance is between those two things. But without revealing any spoilers, sometimes the show does get into some soap opera territory with regard to her sex life.

SS: I agree, and I worry that it portrays her sexuality too much as part of her damaged, had-to-grow-up-too-fast existence. Although I think that the writers must enjoy writing her as assertive and confident, and Hayden Panettiere clearly relishes the role, so the actual sex scenes read as empowering and kind of undermine that narrative. But yes, I do wish the sexuality were more healthily distributed between our two female leads.

LK: Yes, there’s some value in seeing an imperfect female character on screen. But it is too bad that the “imperfect” parts of Juliette are so often tied to who she sleeps with. And again, it’s not lost on me that the young women and all the men of Nashville get to have sex a lot, while the 40-something woman does not (so far, anyway).

SS: I think the show doesn’t mean to do that—because it’s geared towards older women in a sense. Rayna is the hero. But I think perhaps they’re being too careful and controlled with her story arcs. Let her mess up and be human!

What about the secondary female characters? Any thoughts on the mournful Scarlett O’Connor (played by Clare Bowen)?

LK: This is sort of neither here nor there, but I find Scarlett difficult to watch for her accent alone. Bowen is Australian, and her Tennessee accent is really over the top. Sorry, I just had to get that off my chest.

Also, speaking of clothes that are meant for the female gaze, Scarlett’s home and wardrobe are like an Anthropologie explosion. It’s clear what the costume and set crew were going for there.

SS: I like that her sexuality is more of a given. She has boyfriends. She sleeps with them. It is a healthy medium between Juliette and Rayna.

LK: As annoying as I find her accent, I appreciate that the writers showed her escaping from an emotionally abusive relationship. And she struggles throughout the show with having confidence to put herself out there, especially when she has a boyfriend who’s jealous of her professional success, which is something I think a lot of women butt up against.

SS: Really, a major theme in the show is women’s professional success relative to the other people in their lives, whether it’s lovers, ex-lovers, husbands, moms, friends.

LK: There there are a lot of women outshining and out-performing their male counterparts. And often being paid more and/or being the breadwinner!

SS: To add to that, Rayna is a loving but neglectful mom—again, just like Alicia on The Good Wife. Or perhaps neglectful is too harsh a word—that’s the patriarchy talking through me—but being the perfect mom is not her first priority. She tours and leaves her kids behind for long periods of time. It breaks her heart to do that, but it’s not a question for her that she will.

LK: Though I have to say, she does spend a lot of time worrying about whether Teddy will be able to care for those kids, when clearly he has cared for them countless days and weeks. But that’s societal pressure for ya.

SS: Societal pressure, and the pressure of the writers to find new conflict sources! Teddy is so dazzled by his new side woman that he’s forgotten his daughters. Tsk, tsk. That’s sort of a female revenge fantasy in and of itself.

LK: Right. Time to turn up the nagging/doting mom dial a bit!

But I have to say, I really do love this show. I don’t want to downplay how wonderful it is to see Connie Britton play Rayna, this older character who dodges many (if not all) of the show business clichés about middle-aged women.

SS: The performances are heartfelt and the songs add a surprising layer of depth to the sometimes-soapy plot lines. And it’s a show that orbits around two women’s worlds, and centralizes not just their sex lives but their business doings and artistic and creative processes.

LK: Oh the music! It’s so great. And it should be, because it’s produced by the legendary T-Bone Burnett, who as it happens is married to Callie Khouri. Just listen to the original version of “Undermine,” as written and performed by Kacey Musgraves and Trent Dabbs (H/T to my friend Allison in Nashville for that one). Burnett snagged that song for the Juliette character to sing. It’s a really beautiful song.

Anyway, with a handful of episodes left this season, it will be really interesting to see how some of the show’s plots are resolved—if, in the end, the female characters do pay a high price for their ambition and sexuality.

SS: Yes, and whether the writers can keep all the chess pieces moving in a way that feels authentic for these characters. I’m not sure that Juliette and her mom’s rivalry over Dante, the AA counselor turned enabling manager, will elucidate the rivalry and angst between these two or devolve into melodramatic nonsense. Also whether the new singing cowboy character has eyes for Scarlett—or maybe for Gunnar? I do love the idea of a queer romantic subplot. I certainly hope the show gets renewed so it can work out some freshman kinks and really let these female characters fly.

LK: Agreed! Well thanks for chatting, Sarah. This was fun.

SS: Juliette and Rayna sing together, “This ain’t a feel good everything’s fine sing-along.” Which is great for the show, but the opposite of how I feel about talking Nashville with you, Lauren. I will open for you on tour anytime.