“My whole mantra from the beginning is this is not a catfight! I’m not doing a catfight!” Connie Britton, the Friday Night Lights and American Horror Story actress said on stage at the Television Critics Association press tour on Friday where she was introducing her new ABC drama Nashville. The show stars Britton as country singer Rayna James, whose sales have dropped as she enters middle age, and whose label wants her to tour with Juliette Barnes, a Taylor Swift-esque ingenue played by Hayden Panettiere. It was smart of Britton to get out in front of the issue, given that the pilot, written by Thelma & Louise scribe Callie Khouri, features the two women taking delicious swipes at each other on questions of age, authenticity, and talent. And it gets at a larger question: How can pop culture get at the rivalries between women, who are often pitted against each other in the corporate and entertainment worlds, without devolving into cliche catfights?
In Nashville’s case, Britton and Panettiere hope to avoid that trap by making the characters’ differences substantive. “When I have to go on set and complete go against the grain and complete disrespect someone so wholeheartedly, I get a little shy,” Panettiere said. And she suggested that the things that divide Rayna and Juliette would turn out to be less record sales and support from their shared label, but life stages and philosophical differences. And Britton said that where the characters are in straightforward competition, Nashville would be about the forces that create a false sense of competition for resources. “I think we have a real opportunity here to show the complexities of these two kinds of people in show business, and particularly women,” she told critics. “I for one feel a really strong responsibility to do that in a way that is true and dignified.”
When Nashville arrives on sets this fall, it will do so on the heels of Political Animals, the USA Network’s miniseries about a former first lady turned secretary of state, a Maureen Dowd-like political columnist, and the blogger who is nipping at her heels. Carla Gugino, wo plays the columnist Susan Berg, told Salon’s Willa Paskin that she’d made it clear to Political Animals creator Greg Berlanti that she had no interest in playing a nasty rivalry between women. “I’m intrigued by the fact that there are these strong women who are ambitious, who are successful, who are very career-oriented, and who would therefore understand each other more than anybody else—and who would understand what it took to get where they’re at more than anybody else. So why is it so often that these women are on the opposite side to the track, so to speak?” she asked. “And what if they were able to somehow play on the same team?”
So maybe that’s the secret, to have women who are set up as rivals come to learn more about the things and forces that have pitted them against each other, whether it’s ambitious newspaper editors or profit-oriented record executives who narrowly believe that only one woman can be successful at a time. And maybe when we’ve realized that women are often pitted against each other artificially and gotten rid of those faked conflicts in pop culture, it’ll free us up to appreciate that not all women, fictional and otherwise, need to get along.