Country superstar Rayna James is racing around her well-decorated mansion, chasing after her two daughters and taking pins out of her hair. "Teddy, a little help please!" she yells. Her husband swoops up the kids, preparing for a night of baths and bedtimes, while Rayna gets ready to perform for hundreds of screaming fans. It's clear from the first 30 seconds of ABC's "Nashville" who has more power in the country star's marriage. Rayna James (Connie Britton of "Friday Night Lights" and "American Horror Story") is not just the star of this television show, she's the family breadwinner.
There are a lot of things about "Nashville" that make it worth watching -- its interesting take on female rivalry, its not-terrible original music, the fact that it's set in Nashville and its female-centric storyline involving Britton's Rayna and her young, pop-country sensation rival Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere).
But there's one more noteworthy aspect of the show: how its powerhouse female characters relate to the men in their lives. On "Nashville," gender dynamics are in flux. The setting is a post-recession world where women have increasingly become the primary breadwinners, large numbers of men have stagnated professionally and who holds the power -- financial, emotional, sexual -- in relationships isn't predetermined. In short, "Nashville" looks a whole lot like the present reality journalist Hanna Rosin described in her September 2012 book "The End Of Men."
Rayna's relationships with her husband Teddy (Eric Close) and her bandleader Deacon (Charles Esten) are the most obvious examples of the show's upended gender dynamics. Teddy is a stay-at-home dad whose career went bust during the recession, turning their family into a "cash poor" single-income household. While Rayna tours and performs, Teddy takes responsibility over many of the everyday domestic duties.
Teddy isn't some doltish dad we're invited to laugh at because "OMG he's a dude taking care of kids." He clearly cares for his children and is perfectly capable of fulfilling his domestic responsibilities. The "less than" feeling that he has about his role as the not-breadwinner is primarily self-imposed. When his kids complain about their mother leaving to perform, he explains her absence, "Someone's gotta work around here." He tells Rayna in the first episode, "I know I've let you down. I'm sorry as hell about that," then adds, "I'm not the first guy to go bust." We can see that Teddy is a great dad and partner, but he sees himself as a failure.
It turns out that his sense of inadequacy and the uneven power dynamics are a major source of stress in the marriage. During the pilot, Rayna's label threatens to stop promoting her new record, and her power-brokering, businessman father, Lamar Wyatt, offers Teddy the chance to run for political office. "Do you understand the kind of power you'll have?" he asks Teddy, dangling before his son-in-law the promise of a more traditionally masculine role. When Teddy entertains the offer, Rayna is less than understanding. "You want me to just take some time off so I can stand on the side of the stage and smile and shake hands?" she screams. "You want to tell me something about standing on the stage that I don't already know?" Teddy retorts. "How about letting me step into the limelight for a change?"
The other man in Rayna James' life, Deacon, her ex-lover, bandleader and confidante, is also less successful than Rayna by conventional measures. He's single, his songs have never been hits -- "It is available in antique stores here and there," he says wryly when speaking about his first record -- and he only has a job if he's involved with Rayna or Juliette's tour. We learn that he's "the best" bandleader out there, yet he's never really been able to make it on his own. Even in the stereotypically male-dominated south, the women surrounding Deacon hold the cards in his professional and romantic lives.
Juliette Barnes embodies a different, younger female archetype that's emerged amid the changing gender dynamics of the last 20 years. She has an insanely successful career at a young age and doesn't apologize to anyone for that success (many have compared the character to Taylor Swift, although Juliette has none of Swift's bubble-gum persona). She's unabashedly aggressive -- both sexually and professionally, often blending the two without thinking twice. She's the girl who came of age at the height of hook-up culture and is still embracing that mentality, achieving varying degrees of emotional and sexual fulfillment. In "The End Of Men," Rosin writes: "Young women may be less vulnerable than ever but that does not mean they experience that as empowerment ... Ultimately the desire for a deeper human connection always wins out, for both men and women."
The "deeper connection" part seems to be what Juliette still struggles with. At times her ambition borders on manipulation, and she uses sex to avoid dealing with her demons, rather than confronting them. In one telling scene, one of the men Juliette is sleeping with finds her crying on the phone in a closet at the recording studio. Instead of explaining what's wrong, she grabs him by the jacket and pulls him into the closet with her, starting to make out with him before her tears have dried.
"Nashville" also highlights the idea that as professionally successful as many women have become, we don't live in a matriarchy. Rayna and Juliette are talented, accomplished and adaptable, but they're still beholden to others, namely their parents and those at the top of the country music industry. The characters with the greatest amount of traditional power -- Lamar Wyatt and the head of Rayna and Juliette's label, Marshall Evans, are men, just as outside of TVLand, most Fortune 500 CEOs and government officials are still male.
Rosin herself has said that we often use mediums like television to work out our collective feelings about changing gender roles. "Pop culture is like our subconscious," she told the Washington Post in September. "There are two cultural areas where I feel like we are working out how we feel about masculinity and feminism. Dominant, aggressive women -- how much can we handle women in power? I think pop culture has been throwing that at us for the last year ... Then, how much can we accept a domesticated man who's not emasculated?"
"Nashville" highlights the ways in which we're still figuring out the answers to these questions. Marriage, sex and work are changing all around us, and the show mirrors those changes back to us -- just with more rhinestones, love triangles and twang.
LOOK: Scenes From "Nashville"
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