In FX’s first episode of Feud: Bette and Joan, institutionalized sexism is rampant. Find out more about the men who perpetrated it and the women who participated in it below.
If you watched Feud‘s premiere episode last Sunday, there were likely at least 5 and up to 50 points at which you contemplated yelling at your television re: the incessant, somehow simultaneously blatant and casual sexism. Whether it came from the director who initially rejected the idea of Baby Jane, from the studio heads who couldn’t imagine a movie starring two older women succeeding, or from those women themselves, the damaging treatment of aging ladies and the crooked cultural context within which our two heroines existed remains all-too-resonant today. But who were those men, and how much of Ryan Murphy’s portrayal of the industry as a complete and total boys’ club was actually true to life?
Half of the starring duo, Susan Sarandon, offered some insight into the validity of the fictionalized portrayal of the making of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? in a wonderfully candid set-visit interview with Vanity Fair. Of the noncompliant, and, arguably, actively villainous heads of the studio system, she had this to say:
"“In Bette’s time, the [Hollywood power brokers] really knew how to pit these women against each other, so that they had more control over them. They couldn’t afford for women like Bette and Joan to join forces. In that time, women always aligned themselves with the power, which meant they aligned themselves with men. They saw other women as threats.”"
And this isn’t far off from the things the real Bette Davis had to say about the men in charge. In an interview promoting Baby Jane, Davis spoke of the director’s plight in finding funding. She said:
"“When Aldrich tried to interest the studios in Joan Crawford and myself, the moguls said, ‘We wouldn’t give you a dime for those two old broads.'”"
Despite the obvious hand the male moguls had in perpetuating the hostility between the two women (and amongst women in general), the real disparity always came back to the women’s own refusal to lean in and work with each other. In fact, even after Davis gave the above statement, Joan Crawford sent her a letter “asking her to please never refer to her as an ‘old broad’ again.”
Needless to say, the power of feminism and the notion of women supporting women was nowhere near a valuable commodity in the time Bette and Joan were struggling to thrive. But if it had been, would the famed feud have fizzled out faster? Would the men’s attempts to pit them against each other have backfired? And perhaps an even scarier question: have women really evolved to a place, in 2017, where they view each other as friend instead of foe? Of that, even creator Ryan Murphy isn’t sure:
"“I wanted to make the show because I wanted to tell a story about modern issues that are facing women today, and, oddly enough, nothing’s changed. You’d think things have progressed. They have not. So really it’s a show about sexism and misogyny, and Why aren’t women being paid as much as men? And Why in our culture we have ‘It’ girls and not ‘It’ boys? And Why do women feel there’s only room for there to be one successful woman at a time? … All of these things are very interwoven in a very juicy, fun, but ultimately, I feel, a tragedy.”"
Of course, depending on how you choose to look at the question of sexism and the evolution of feminism, the very existence of Feud can work to support your thesis. On one hand, the clear differences between Bette and Joan’s Hollywood and today’s industry can buoy your confidence that the future is female, and reassure you that no matter how bad things seem today, we’ve come far. OR, in a reality scarier to swallow, the present cultural resonance of the women’s rift can reaffirm your suspicion that we, as a gender, are always being held back- either by our own fear, by a society ill-equipped or unwilling to view us as innately valuable, by men in positions of power, or more likely (and a terrifying reality most heavily supported by Feud), by each other.
We’re only one episode in, and though most of us know where we’re headed, there is a tiny chance Feud will turn into a cautionary tale for today’s women, rather than a reflection of our continual compliance in our own subjugation. But with what we know of today’s entertainment industry, of the 2016 election, of the backlash against the Women’s March, of the constant refusal to acknowledge women’s rights to choose for themselves, and of the very scary statistics that prove women have their hands in supporting the initiatives and ideals of all of the above? As per Ryan Murphy’s statement, we might not deserve to be given any glimmers of hope.
We might not have come as far as we like to tell ourselves. We might not be ready to be anywhere other than engaged in a feud.