The Peculiar Feminism of Feud


Though Feud: Bette and Joan focuses on a rift between two women, a strange version of feminism still seems to be seeping through the cracks to teach us a lesson.

The bombshell first episode of Ryan Murphy’s new lady-driven bio series deftly introduced us to the lifelong feud between icons Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Their individual strengths, often hidden insecurities, and overall refusal to be ignored or suppressed in any way clearly made them, when shoved together, perfect rivals. But in the latest episode (wherein they begin to outwardly acknowledge that the studio heads don’t have the best interest of the actresses in mind as much as they do the best interest of their wallets) the women make a thin attempt- but an attempt, nonetheless- to work together.

This gargantuan shift could’ve, in a fictionalized series, turned the tables on the whole situation. It could’ve been the moment our heroines realized that their differences weren’t as important as their shared strengths, that empowering each other was more productive then tearing each other down, and that their combined power could rip down any walls that have been put up by powerful men. But this is real life. And in real life, things don’t work quite that easily.

As we explored last week, the real genius of Feud doesn’t lie in the exploration of the way women operated within the Hollywood system a long, long time ago, but rather in the way it turns the mirror on the current treatment and behavior of women, and shows us that maybe things haven’t changed as much as we’d like to believe. And the particular brilliance of the latest episode? In showing us what it looks like when women choose to work “together,” we got an unsettling shock to our feminist systems. In showing us what we have lazily come to accept as empowerment, it is revealed that perhaps our current version of feminism is still all-too-often defined by and framed within the context of men.

‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ Image Still via FX.

After immediately feeling threatened by the young, beautiful blonde on set slated to play the next-door-neighbor, Joan takes matters into her own hands by manipulating Bette into striking until the ingénue is fired. In other words, the women only find each other useful when they need to dispose of another woman. Furthermore, the real issue our ladies have isn’t in the young actor’s behavior or talent; it’s that she’s more sexually desirable, and therefore poses an imminent threat.

So though we get tiny scenes of camaraderie, they’re all rendered moot when we reflect upon what that partnership really means. It means women can’t exist in harmony unless they’re preying on one another. It means the opinions and potential actions of men are given the power to overtake women’s sense of self-worth and drive their actions, even when the women aware of the sexism at work. It means that men’s sexism doesn’t push women to mobilize against it, but rather to internalize it, and accept that to lash out against other women is the only way to regain power and remain in control. It means that Bette and Joan, in joining forces, are really playing into the ideologies of the men who set up the framework of the industry’s systematic sexism more than working to break it down. And it means that Ryan Murphy, ever the cultural philosopher, knows that that’s exactly what we’re doing, too, when we tune in to shamelessly devour this story of female-on-female warfare each week.

Next: Feud: Bette and Joan Season 1 Episode 2 Recap

So, when we watch Feud, are we really doing it to intentionally expose ourselves to the cultural parable that is made up of Bette and Joan’s mistakes? Are we hoping to understand the historical context of sexism within the industry so that we might work harder to dismantle it today? Or are we doing what Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) told us women inescapably, inarguably, relentlessly seem programmed to do: “Eat their own and pick their teeth with the bones.” In the scariest Ryan Murphy-helmed twist of all, an answer remains unsettlingly inconclusive.