Early on in my advertising career, some well-meaning (and unintentionally misogynistic) colleague warned me about working for or with other women. “They’ll stab you in the back,” I was told. I remember how much it bothered me, and as I progressed and eventually managed an ad agency myself, I made certain that I never participated in or condoned that stereotypical girl-on-girl cattiness. Happily, it wasn’t hard to avoid. But, it’s a perception that successful females in every industry have to deal with. Successful men are “ambitious.” Successful women are “bitches.”
In the marvelous new FX series Feud: Bette and Joan, the bitchery is taken to extreme (and extremely entertaining) heights. As aging divas Bette Davis and Joan Crawford collaborate on the 1962 classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, they bare their teeth and claws, attacking each other through pointed on-set insults and gossip column exclusives. It’s campy and great fun to watch. But what really makes Feud transcend soap opera is an insightful look at why the two are behaving as badly as they are. Each woman is coping with her own professional expiration date. And, while aging isn’t easy in Tinseltown, it’s exponentially more difficult when the studio encourages – and incites – ruthless competition between the two stars in order to increase publicity and box office.
Feud is another passion project of television’s wildly successful Ryan Murphy. Murphy has made a name for himself by pushing boundaries across a variety of genres: from the troubled (and politically incorrect) teens in the musical Glee to the decadent gore of American Horror, the much lauded The People vs. O.J. Simpson, to Nip/Tuck, The New Normal, Scream Queens, and more.
A big part of the allure Murphy felt for this material was examining what it’s like to get older in an industry that idolizes youth.
“I’ve grown up with many women in my career now, all of whom come into my office and sometimes break down in tears, saying suddenly the phone has stopped ringing,” he recently explained to The Hollywood Reporter. “’Suddenly people aren’t interested in me anymore just because I got older.’ And I’m very moved by that. Persevering and fighting to stay in the game instead of giving up and still fighting to demonstrate your self-worth is tremendously moving. For me, the saddest thing in the world is always lost potential. That is always the most heartbreaking thing when there’s something left to be mined from a situation or a person that goes unexplored; that’s a tragedy to me. I looked at the piece as a sad tragedy about this group of people who oddly had so much in common even though they didn’t know it at the time.”
As Feud argues, that sense of “lost potential” is even more heartbreaking for women. “Scotch gets better as it ages,” Jack Warner remarks to director Robert Aldrich in Feud’s second episode, “Broads only get sour.”