Feud is the platonic ideal of Sunday-night TV. It’s beautifully put together, moves along at a zippy pace and you’re never more than three minutes from a stirring “I gave my life for this business!” monologue from one of the stars. This pulpy homage to classic Hollywood retells the decades-long rivalry between mega-stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, detailing how, exactly, their public dislike of one another grew to be so legendary.
It’s also an unsettling reminder (mild, historical spoilers ahead) that the titular feud in Feud isn’t one that grew naturally – it was created by male studio heads looking to control their talent and knew that the only thing that sells a movie more than two beloved female stars is two beloved female stars who despise one another.
When Crawford and Davis begin filming for Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, there are audible yawns by the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper that there’s not more dirt to dish. “And how are you two getting along?” she asks, disappointed that not only have Crawford and Davis not yet fought, they have, in fact, formed a truce to help them gain a foothold with their director, Robert Aldrich. “Like Hitler’s pact with Stalin,” grumbles Aldrich, played by Alfred Molina.
Hopper is a gossip columnist, but she’s also a one-woman representation for all of celebrity culture and the heavy commerce that comes with a catfight.
"Men built the pedestal, darling, not me,” she says to Crawford. “There's only room for one goddess at a time.”
"Men may have built the pedestal,” retorts Crawford. “But it's women who keep chipping away at it until it comes tumbling down."
Hopper rolls her eyes. You can practically see her thinking, “Oh, God, that old chestnut.” Female solidarity is nice, but its not a headline.
The inevitable occurs. Gossip is planted and the two women are pitted against one another. It’s a teeth-grindingly familiar pattern – one, it seems, we’re doomed to repeat ad nauseam. This was never more clear to me than when, on Sunday evening, I finished watching Feud and briefly looked at my phone to find another one erupting on Twitter.
Comments from Rose McGowan have – not for the first time this year – gone viral, as she claimed that, “Actresses, like Meryl Streep, who happily worked for The Pig Monster are wearing black @GoldenGlobes in a silent protest. YOUR SILENCE is THE problem.” She added: “You’ll accept a fake award breathlessly & affect no real change. I despise your hypocrisy.”
We may smart at the idea of Rose McGowan attacking universally beloved Meryl Streep, but it’s not hard to see her point. (Streep has since said that she truly “didn’t know” of Weinstein’s assault history, something that is becoming increasingly harder to believe, but there you go.)
There’s something of Old Hollywood about Rose McGowan herself – she knows the Hedda Hopper game and she knows that outsized, rageful statements draw more attention to her cause than mild ones. Actress Amber Tamblyn responded to McGowan’s statement by tweeting: “I do not support any woman (or man) shaming or taunting the movements of other women who are trying to create change… This is beneath you, Rose.”
As a woman in the public eye, it is your duty to be one thing: the pretty one, the smart one, the talented one, the political one. There is no duality
Two women arguing about the actions of another woman, who in turn was acting in support of a cause that helps women? It’s simply too delicious – if Hopper were alive, she’d be salivating.
I’d been wondering when this was going to happen. Women in Hollywood have spent the last couple of months trying to chip away at a pedestal created by their great-grandfathers and it was only a matter of time before there was a good, “Hey, glad we’re all chipping here, but is one woman perhaps chipping in a way that is different to another woman’s chipping?” This, it seems, is it: focusing on the personal politics between Tamblyn and McGowan is a fluffy distraction from the weightier crimes of the men they’re arguing about. The headlines are filled with the classic “catfight” verbs – if the two aren’t “clashing”, they’re “sparring” or “warring”. They are “slamming” one another with their opinions. There’s an anxiety in women’s media that any rift within the #MeToo moment will weaken it – an anxiety that, let’s face it, is entirely justified. “The Rose McGowan Twitter fight is why we can’t have nice things like #MeToo” says Marie Claire. It makes you think: why is it, exactly, that when two women disagree, it’s a catfight, and when two men disagree, it’s a non-event? I think I found part of the answer and it’s in episode three of Feud.
“Joan,” says Bette. “How did it feel to be the most beautiful girl in the world?”
“It was wonderful. The most joyous thing you could ever imagine and it was never enough.
What about you? How did it feel to be the most talented girl in the world?”
“Great,” responds Bette. “But it was never enough.”
This is it, I think. As a woman in the public eye, it is your duty to be one thing: the pretty one, the smart one, the talented one, the political one. There is no duality, no opportunity to be many things at once.
Similarly, a female-led movement like #MeToo is constantly teetering on the brink of destruction because, by its very nature, #MeToo represents too many women with too many disparate beliefs and opinions. Women need to be allowed to be varied, textured and flawed. So do movements. It’s only then that we can break the endless cycle of Bette and Joan. It’s only then when Feud will be just another TV show and not an everyday reality.