How Pop Culture is Tackling Female Rivalry in the Lean In and Trump Era
A trio of new projects, from the new Ryan Murphy series to a musical, re-examine the roots of female feuds in pop culture and turn the conceit on its head.
In 1979, in an episode of the then popular talk show The Dick Cavett Show, author Mary McCarthy observed of the playwright Lillian Hellman, “I said once in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” The snarky remark escalated into a long-standing, highly-public feud that eventually even led to a libel lawsuit with Hellman suing McCarthy for $2.25 million. Hellman died before it was resolved.
Female rivalry has long been a source of cultural fascination, whether in the realm of history (Mary and Anne Boleyn), literature (Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen), fashion (Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli), sports (Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan) or “reality”— just see: any incarnation of The Real Housewives. The perceived hostility boiling between Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie has sold god knows how many magazine covers, while the alleged acrimony between Taylor Swift and Katy Perry resulted in the former releasing the hit single Bad Blood. What drives the glee with which our culture devours XX chromosome battling? Is it simply a patriarchal device made to hold women back from self-empowerment by pitting them against each other in petty arguments? Or is there, embedded in the in-fighting, a sobering lesson in how women must claw for what little space is offered them in a still male-dominated world, even at the expense of their own sex?
A trio of new projects this spring—the film Catfight, the TV min-series Feud: Bette and Joan and the musical War Paint—is reigniting the issue of female rivalry and more specifically, what purpose it plays in our cultural conversation against a Trump presidency and a newly invigorated women’s rights movement.
Like most movies finding release in 2017, Catfight, from director and writer Onur Tukel, was born in a time when a Hillary Clinton presidency was more than a pipe dream. His initial conceit for the indie, which opens today, was to remake the film Three O’Clock High, a story of a high school boy brawl, with women. Tukel’s first script attempt—a duo of 20-something advertising executives duking it out over a male love interest—failed both the Bechdel test and his own expectations. When he read a news story in 2015 in which a then 37-year-old Maggie Gyllenhaal described being rejected for the part of a 55-year-old man’s mistress based on being too old he thought, “Oh, it’s really unfortunate for these actresses. We could capitalize off this cultural disaster that exists where there’s not as many roles for women.”
So, Tukel pounced on the dearth of parts for women over 20 to nab Sandra Oh and Anne Heche for Veronica and Ashley, respectively, two former college friends who meet again in their 40s and after some passive aggressive words turn into three bloodbaths worthy of Quentin Tarantino that send them both into comas and wreak irrevocable damage on their lives. Set against the backdrop of an escalating Middle East war from which each stands to profit (Veronica’s husband makes money off cleaning up debris from the war; Ashley’s red-stained, macabre paintings mesh perfectly with a hawkish society), the women’s extremely violent feud becomes a metaphor for the high stakes clashing on geo-political battlefields.
“When Anne is beating Sandra on the ground in the first fight, it was for us a statement. Even though we’re trying to make a movie that’s a dark comedy mélange, we also wanted to scare the audience and make them think this isn’t some dainty-women-breaking-a-fingernail-pulling-their-hair movie,” explains Tukel. “There’s something on the line that’s real here: we’re talking about war, we’re talking about the draft, we’re talking about losing children.”
And as for the provocative, controversial title Catfight?
“I can see how women could look at this movie and shake their heads and say, ‘This is really sad that Anne and Sandra have to do [this],’” he acknowledges. “I can’t express why, but we were just trying to make something that pushes its way out of a box that’s rarely opened, which is allowing women to be primal, angry, vicious.”
The viciousness between Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) in the FX show Feud: Bette and Joan, though expressed in words not punches, is as cutting and painful as any physical blows. The first installment in an anthology of famous feuds (2018 will bring Prince Charles and Princess Diana), the series from Ryan Murphy which begins Sunday investigates the long-standing rivalry between the two movie stars as they collaborate on the 1962 movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, in itself a tale of two aging actresses, albeit siblings. Through flash-forwards to interviews with friends like the stars Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates), the show paints a portrait of two women whose hatred for each other was as much a matter of chemistry as it was a product of directors, producers and gossip columnists who fed on and profited from their public sniping.
“They represent two very different things from their heyday: Joan is MGM, which is a very specific kind of glamour and Bette was from the more realistic, lower budget Warner Brothers world. When you put them together, they have so much in common and yet they are absolutely two different sides of the same coin,” observes the show’s executive producer Tim Minear, who points out the timeline for the rivalry began when Bette fell in love with actor Franchot Tone and Joan married him in 1935 (calling Bechdel!). “The public was interested because they were giant stars and both were successful, powerful women in their own right. And there’s something slightly misogynist about wanting to see two, successful women [at] each other and I don’t mean that in a sexual sense.”
Of course, such a point begs the question: if there is a misogynistic fun in watching two powerful women at each other’s throats, then isn’t there something potentially sexist in a show that focuses on that very thing, however probing its nature? And what kind of conversation does that show open in an era that requires, more than ever, that women band together for their mutual success?
“There were two things we didn’t want to do: we didn’t want to diminish these women as playing out some campy catfight and we didn’t want it to be some camp-fest, either. On the other hand, when you tune in to see the story of Joan and Bette making Baby Jane, you expect some sass and you expect some acid and if that weren’t there, we would be cheating the audience,” says Minear, who along with Tukel is quick to point out the importance of the female voices on his set, in particular that of co-producer and writer Gina Welch (though it is worth noting that Catfight, Feud and War Paint are all the product of male writers). “It’s a balancing act of the fun of petty slights they might take at one another, but then revealing the pain underneath that is motivating that for both women.”
Another posited motivating factor of female rivalry—however subconscious—is the notion that two competitors of equal merit help push each other towards greater heights than they would scale individually, sans acrimony. This more Darwinian hypothesis is explored in War Paint, a new original Broadway musical about the decades-long feud between beauty titans Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) and Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone). Inspired by the dual biography War Paint: Madame Helena Rubinstein and Miss Elizabeth Arden: Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry by Lindy Woodhead and the PBS documentary The Powder and the Glory, War Paint the musical, which starts previews on March 7, tries to understand the struggles of the Canadian Arden (who modeled herself as a member of American aristocracy) and the Jewish Rubinstein as they vie for power in a male-dominated corporate world.
“Their competition was so fierce, they engaged in this eternal game of one-upmanship. Arden would invent mascara and then Rubinstein would come through with waterproof mascara so essentially, their rivalry forged every single product that’s sitting on the shelves of Sephora today,” says Doug Wright, who wrote the musical’s book. “I think if they hadn’t dogged each other constantly, they never would have invented that vast array of products. It’s a way of looking at rivalry as almost a kind of attribute because it forced each of them to be their fullest, truest self.”
Viewed through the lens of joint buoying, female feuding can seem less like a patriarchal device of suppression than a cutthroat social tool. But in order for women to fight (and fight each other) on the same plane as their male counterparts, they need to scale those levels of success in the first place, a path paved with many failed attempts.
“I think stories about women of accomplishment are more important than ever right now because we need to embolden young women and we need them to see the seismic impact women have had in a massive, cultural way because their voices are still being suppressed,” says Wright.
One hopes, however, that those young women can look forward to a future where the road to their goals need not come at the expense of another, singular female standing in her way. Even more optimistically, what would happen if two accomplished, powerful women joined forces for the betterment of both? All competition reaches an eventual rate of diminishing returns to its participants.
“Helena Rubenstein famously said, ‘With my products and her packaging we could have ruled the world,’” says Wright. “They were the only women who lived at that level, both fiscally and corporately. In a way, their greatest tragedy is if they had come together in a spirit of accord and spoken, they might have understood each other. But they never gave themselves that privilege.”
Baby, now we’ve got bad blood. When will we ever have mad love?