The Women of Nashville: Age, Agency, and the Power of Self-Reinvention

Best of luck – Jeff Fordham, chief of Edgehill Records

I don’t need your luck. I make my own luck – Rayna James

The second season of Callie Khouri’s Nashville, which premiered a couple of weeks ago, has carried on the first season’s exploration of the difficulties and triumphs of being a woman in country music. Thus far, season two has begun to present an even more intricate and complex depiction of these women struggling with the interrelation of age and agency – particularly through the characters of forty-something Rayna James (Connie Britton), her teen daughter Maddie (Lennon Stella), and twenty-something Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere). For both Rayna and Juliette, the struggle with age and agency has nothing to do with a superficial crisis of getting older or looking older, and that is part of what is so refreshing about Nashville. These country music superstars are fighting to stay relevant, popular, and simply heard. Rayna and Juliette value music as a vital avenue for powerful personal expression, and even protest against oppressive sexist structures, most explicitly seen in their brilliant season one duet ‘Wrong Song.’ But these very sexist structures that the ‘Wrong Song’ rallies against continually threaten their musical careers and personal lives because these structures work to secure women’s continued subordination to men. Here I’m particularly interested in the sexist structures that categorise women’s worth and worthiness based on the fetishization of youthfulness and the demand to perform ‘girliness’ or emphatic femininity.

 

The music label ‘Edgehill Records’ touted Juliette as a Taylor Swift-esque tween dream last season – pedalling what Juliette (rather resentfully) calls a ‘bubble gum and glitter’ persona.

But Juliette has matured, both personally and musically, and wants to create songs that reflect this maturity. This grown-up sound, however, is thoroughly dismissed by the new head of the record label, the obviously evil Jeff Fordham (Oliver Hudson). Fordham is of course money-driven, and Juliette’s grown-up sound, as well as the grown-up audience she now desires, is not the cash cow he wants. Fetishizing teen music stars and exploiting the youth market, Fordham has already begun to reject the maturing Juliette – as she exclaimed in episode two of season two, ‘the new head of the label is trying to prove he has balls by breaking mine.’ Instead, he signs a pretty, young (though rather average) singer named Layla (Aubrey Peeples), and triumphantly reports that ‘the tweens LOVE her.’ Fordham suddenly puts Juliette, no longer a teen and no longer catering to a youth audience, on the shelf; she has begun to be considered ‘old news,’ even in her early twenties. Juliette struggles with the ‘bubble gum and glitter’ age category that she so desperately wants to evolve beyond. But Fordham does not value this evolution. Indeed, he clearly resents Juliette’s demands for greater artistic control, and her desire to reinvent herself and her music. Having played by the record label’s rules, Juliette is now pigeonholed in a restrictive box of acceptable musical expression, and acceptable expressions/displays of youthful femininity. The message seems clear: abide by the strictures set by these men, and you will be put at a disadvantage. The magic of Nashville begins when these women stop playing by the rules and start charting their own paths, musical and otherwise. I can’t wait to see what Juliette comes up with this season.

 

Rayna, meanwhile, forges ahead like the powerhouse she is. Not even a divorce, the death of her father, and having been in a coma can bring this woman down. Rayna sees right through Fordham’s youth-market money-making agenda – and she doesn’t buy it. She considers leaving the record label (and I hope she will soon).

Instead of crumbling under the threat of becoming unsuccessful and accepting a fate of being considered ‘too old’ to be relevant, Rayna has continued to fearlessly reinvent herself and evolve her sound. In season one, she created a kick-ass new record with new collaborators. She even established her own record label called ‘Highway 65,’ signing up-and-coming artists Scarlett O’Connor (Clare Bowen) and Will Lexington (Chris Carmack). Fordham tempts Will into betraying Rayna and sign with Edgehill instead. No such attempt was made on Scarlett, I suspect because Fordham didn’t find her mature stripped-back sound and relaxed bohemian aesthetic appealing as a sure-fire money-maker.

Indeed, I also suspect that after this betrayal Rayna may narrow down to a female artist-only label, which would be awesome. Rayna stormed into Fordham’s office after the betrayal, called him on his bullshit, and demanded an explanation for it. But Rayna doesn’t just rally against the corrupt hypocrisy of the record label and its men in suits. She has also created new ways of doing business and living life in Nashville in ways ungoverned by men – including the major record label, husbands and boyfriends, and even fathers. By creating a new label, stepping out on her own, and kicking up a fuss, Rayna refuses to play by the rules set out by these men. While the series never explicitly calls out this sexism in the dialogue, it nevertheless plays out a significant challenge to it, particularly through Rayna’s refusal to accept her status as a has-been country star and instead harnessing the agentic power of self-reinvention. The series reveals the oppressive patriarchal structures that restrict the women of Nashville – ranging from the familial to the business world – then systematically finds their weak spots, and sets about trying to dismantle them and create something new.

 

Rayna’s daughter Maddie also struggles with the relation between age and agency. At thirteen years old, Maddie has discovered that her ‘uncle’ Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten), a country music superstar who recently fell off the wagon and nearly killed Rayna in a car crash, is her biological father. (Did I mention that Nashville is top-notch soap opera?). I think that Nashville is beginning to explore the interrelation between youth and feelings of disempowerment here. Maddie sits helplessly on the sidelines of this familial drama, doing the sullen teen thing because it is all she can do, or the only thing she knows how to do. In terms of expressing her anger, frustration and disappointment, this is pretty much the only card she has to play. At thirteen, Maddie struggles to access agency in this situation, to exert some control and articulate herself in ways that others will hear, respect, and respond to. The character of Maddie reveals the difficulty with which many teen girls navigate and struggle with feelings of powerlessness, being out-of-control, and finding themselves without satisfying avenues to express themselves and make themselves known, on their own terms, within our culture. I hope that as the season progresses, Maddie will have an opportunity to recognise other pathways to accessing agency, potentially through developing her musical expression and innovation that began to be established in season one.

These three female characters range in age, from the teenaged Maddie, to the twenty-something Juliette, and the forty-something Rayna, but all three women struggle with the categorisations, restrictions, and judgements placed upon them as they navigate the gendered definitions of age, aging and agency. Juliette and Rayna find themselves pigeonholed by the record label as too-mature has-beens; both refuse to play the game of performing emphatic femininity and fetishized ‘bubble gum and glitter’ youthfulness in order to be deemed worthy of attention, air time and respect. Rejecting these sexist limitations and categorisations, they must create something new, and it’s their creative inventiveness (particularly Rayna’s) that provides exciting and hopeful representations of new possibilities for female expression. Teen Maddie sits on the other end of the spectrum of this gendered conflict. For Maddie, it is the extreme limitations placed on what is acceptable for young girls to express and be in the world that constitutes her struggle. All three female characters are pursuing greater access to agency in ways that defy gendered age categorisations. Nashville offers the possibility of imagining multiple ways of reinventing the feminine self and in turn creating new pathways to greater artistic control, personal freedom, and agency.

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