Why have these once-women-empowering shows turned to vicious tales of female backbiting?
When we watch a scripted television drama, I find myself wondering whether the writers believed they were giving us characters whose behavior is commonly accepted as normal. Because this season’s story lines on Nashville and American Horror Story have not only troubled me—with their prominent girl-hate narratives, resorting to clichéd female behavior to move their respective plots forward—but surprised me. It’s just not like the showrunners to rely on such unimaginative and lazy literary conventions.
Last year, Nashville—helmed by Callie Khouri, who brought us Thelma and Louise—was hailed for being a feminist series about three competing country singers, Rayna, Juliette, and Scarlett. Yes, each woman is hungry for fame and success, but the first season didn’t focus all of its attention on catfights; the writers seemed more intent on showing the creative process, and what it takes for a performer to win over an audience. Now we’re watching the women hating each other, violating the “girlcode”—that unwritten but understood set of rules among women regarding the men in their lives (e.g., never date a friend’s ex, no matter how much time has passed). Girlcode and girlhate are very real, and very toxic: A friend might shun a violator, break confidences, spread rumors. The girlcode seeks to police the behavior of young women so that individuals don’t fall out of favor with their female friends, and spark the girlhate.
And we see this play out on Nashville: The writers have broken up two close friends, Zoey and Scarlett by having the former date the other’s ex. Scarlett reacts by casting out Zoey, her closest female friend. So now this story is all about Scarlett’s grief and Zoey’s guilt. Never mind that Scarlett’s career is taking off—she has a record deal, is an opening act for a country superstar, and has other country acts begging her write songs for them. Instead we see her obsessing over her ex, which renders her pathetic and miserable. You have to wonder whether young women really believe that once they have dated a young man, he has forever become off-limits to her friends. (Apparently.) I’ve always wondered, perhaps naively, why the punishment is meted out to the other woman involved, and not to the man?
Another major character is also getting the business: Juliette has been brought low by the machinations of a younger singer named Layla, who wants what she has. Rather than competing with Juliette by writing better songs and putting on better shows, Layla schemes to bring about Juliette’s downfall through rumor-mongering, by placing a phone call to the gossip site TMZ to report on Juliette’s sexual behavior.
I have seen this aspect of girlcode play out at where I teach. Sadly, the old double standard is alive and well and mostly being enforced by other women. While it’s still considered socially acceptable for a young man to hook up with as many young women as he can, female students have made it clear to me that a young woman who is perceived to hook up with “too many men” is labeled a slut. And, according to my female students, a young woman can be ostracized simply for speaking to too many guys at a bar or a party. Yes, that’s right: They have been slut-shamed not for sleeping with men, but for talking to them.
It’s difficult to know how girlcodes and girlhate came into being, but just as we can trace a correlation between the media’s perpetuation of unrealistic, unhealthy female body images and the prevalence of women with eating disorders and body dysmorphia, I would also argue that scripted television dramas play a role in how women learn how to behave as well.
There would be no reality shows if not for catfights, as Jennifer Pozner has demonstrated in her brilliant study Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Reality Television. But, just as the producers of these reality shows stir up trouble among female participants in order to boost the ratings by amping up the social tensions, so too do writers of scripted dramas teach women what the parameters of their behavior are. After all, are we really expecting the writers of Nashville to let Zoey escape unharmed for falling in love with her best friend’s boyfriend?
Nashville is not the only offender. Though the anthology series American Horror Story was extraordinarily feminist last year, with its excellent social-justice horror tale, Asylum, in which we watched a young aspiring lesbian journalist take on the mental-health industry (of the 1960s) and the Catholic Church, this year’s witch tale, Coven, takes girlhate to extremes. Each of the young witches hopes to be the next Supreme, and several have waged unrelenting psychological warfare upon one another—Madison, a diabolical, narcissistic Hollywood starlet, being the worst of the worst. But she’s only following the example set for her by the current supreme, Fiona Goode, who killed her predecessor to assume the position, and thinks nothing of murdering anyone who threatens to take her place before she’s ready to give it up. (She’s even killed Madison, but nobody on this show will stay dead. But that’s another matter.)
Malleus Maleficarum, the 1486 treatise on the persecution of witches by James Kramer and Heinrich Sprenger, saw witches as the trope of the anti-woman. Witches kill babies, worship the devil instead of God, and control men in a topsy-turvy world. The figure of the witch was a figure of terror, and even though witchcraft did not actually exist, thousands of women and men were killed, often after being denounced by their neighbors through intimation and gossip. It’s an excellent premise on which to develop a story, but American Horror Story creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk has portrayed most of these women as entitled brats who tear each other down, with words, with betrayals, and, in extreme cases, with murder. Resentment and self-absorption impede them from what they can achieve as individuals, and as a unified front. And they should unite, because the witches of this coven have been hunted down for centuries. But those who seek to kill them need only to sit back and watch these witches destroy one another, and save themselves from getting blood on their hands. The girlhate in the home where they all live—Miss Robichaux’s Academy in New Orleans—is more toxic than the nearby oil spill.
Girlcodes and girlhate are the behaviors of the weak. They work to keep women from cooperating with one another to attain common goals. They make competition for men the only socially sanctioned competition that women are allowed to participate in. They prevent young women from utilizing their real powers in order to conform to a system in which the regulation of sexual behavior becomes paramount in order to fit in. It essentially tells young women not to be “too much”: Too popular. Too sexy. Too successful. Rather than celebrating the young woman who achieves greatness, the girlcode is set up to punish women for stepping outside the boundaries of acceptable female behavior. It is not surprising that at its heart, the girlcode regulates female sexual behavior as a means of restricting all female activities. Just as focusing on one’s appearance saps women’s energy from participating as full members of society because we’re too worried that our ass is too fat or our hair has too many split ends, so too does the girlcode take up room in women’s brains to prevent them from breaking the rules.
When television treats the enforcement of the girlcode, and its subsequent ugly stepchild, girlhate, as normal behavior, then it sends the message to those who watch these shows that behaving like a bitch is a normal part of being a young woman, thus perpetuating the ugly stereotypes that teach women that attaining success by tearing down other women is okay. It might be entertaining to watch for a little while, but living the reality, as many of us know all too well, is anything but.
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