In the second episode of Feud, Ryan Murphy’s latest FX offering, B-Movie director Robert Aldrich (played by Alfred Molina) slinks back to his car, and his wife, after a late-night rendezvous with Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon). I was watching with my mom, and when Aldrich stumbled out from Davis’s door, in middle-aged paunch and sweat, my mom murmured, still staring at the screen, “Why does everyone want to get with him?”
It wasn’t a question so much as a miserable acknowledgement of the ways women’s power is often relegated to her sexual attraction. Aldrich is an overweight, nervous pulp director in an a career slum, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis are two legendary Hollywood actresses, both with Academy Awards to their names, and yet, we see both of them in deploy the same tactic, seduction, in a desperate bid for his favor. (We can imagine for ourselves the pattern repeating with the young blonde actress Joan and Bette forced him to fire from the film).
When people use the phrase “sleeping to the top,” it’s almost always with derision at the woman in the sentence’s subject. So-and-so has slept her way to the top, someone spits with scorn at a water cooler. She has nothing to offer but her sexuality. So pathetic. The implication is that she’s cheating in some way, that (as people who hate feminists love to remind women) she’s using an advantage that men don’t have!
What Feud beautifully captures is that a woman using her sexuality for personal gain is a woman cornered. It is a woman helpless. Society has stripped all other remaining bargaining chips from her deck. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were two incredibly gifted and successful actresses with no more roles. A woman accused of “sleeping her way to the top” was a woman desperate to create even the illusion of a balance of power between her and the men who control her fate, if only for a fifteen minutes and a cigarette afterwards.
Here is the dirty secret of the world: the scarlet letter is always put on the woman who “slept her way to the top,” and not the men who hold all of the power in this imaginary scenario, these faceless businessmen in suits who are deciding promotions based on blowjobs. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were both gifted and charismatic actresses—their talent is never in question when studio heads are debating whether to distribute a new movie starring them. Instead we get men saying they’re too old, musings on whether or not the director would fuck them, cheerfully reframing the movie as a vehicle for Natalie Wood in the role of the young, sexy neighbor.
“Men built the pedestal, darling, not me,” gossip columnist Hedda Hopper says to Joan Crawford as they discuss the rise of tits-and-ass ingénue Marilyn Monroe. “There’s only room for one goddess at a time.”
“Men may have built the pedestal,” Joan responds, “but it’s the women who keep chipping away at it until it comes tumbling down.” And then she does her part: criticizing Monroe for her lewd sexuality and allowing the carousel to spin on.
In two sentences, we get the most bitter and succinct summation of the female struggle. Women are often celebrated—ingénues are repeatedly gifted with Oscars and Vogue covers, think pieces and #yaaaaasqueens. But the insidious machine is still at work; what was obvious as an exposed nerve in Hollywood in the 1950’s has been coated by 2017 feminist empowering mugs and t-shirts and red lipstick as if by a thin coat of paint. Because when one girl is on the pedestal, whatever It Girl of the moment, a counting clock begins until she is dethroned. Jennifer Lawrence was adored for her down-to-earth, cool girl attitude, until we decided it grated us. Lena Dunham was a feminist hero until she became everything wrong with feminism. Taylor Swift had the drive and talent to become a superstar at 16, but a professional detachment from politics that would have gone unnoticed in a male artist (who did Adam Levine vote for?) means she has betrayed women. Anne Hathaway seems like she tries too hard. Amy Schumer is gross, and she isn’t funny.
The problem is not that these women shouldn’t get criticized or don’t (as we all do) often deserve criticism: the problem is that we exalt them in the first place as heroes and champions. Overnight, a woman becomes a “feminist icon” the same way Joan Crawford was a screen goddess—and it’s pedestal with a glaring spotlight that invites criticism from every angle (usually about the quality of someone’s ass).
Only two episodes have aired and Feud is already my favorite of Ryan Murphy’s television panoply. From the premise, I predicted it would touch on the sexism Hollywood (and how that sexism becomes exponential as a woman dares to age) and how catfights are the byproduct of a system built by men in which women see themselves as competing for limited resources among themselves, and it is. What surprised me was how clearly it made the pain of all of all of the above felt.
But I shouldn’t have been surprised. The show warned me in its first minutes. “Feuds are never about hate,” Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) purrs about Davis and Crawford. “Feuds are about pain.” And then she repeats it. “They’re about pain.”
And Feud most certainly is about pain, the pain of women celebrated and then scorned for their physical bodies, women with talent but no power, abandoned and alone and isolated in an icy tower someone once promised was a palace. Women were welcome to exploit a system for as long as the system is exploits them for them. It doesn’t feel as though much but the lipstick in style has changed.