By Alyssa Rosenberg | Women and Hollywood December 11, 2013 at 3:00PM
Juliette Barnes stands several professional levels above Scarlett and Layla in Nashville's hierarchy, and she's a year deeper into her negotiation with her brand. Barnes' story arcs are often where some of Nashville's soapiest segments take place. In the first season, her mother, a serious drug addict, killed herself after murdering her former sober companion, who had tried to blackmail Juliette after the two became lovers. This year, she started schtupping a married record-station mogul whose wife would badly like to get in on the action.
But when she isn't the subject of scandalous storylines, Juliette is often in the midst of a battle to the death with her record industry for her independence as an artist -- and for her psychic survival. As unstrategic and flailing as her efforts often seem, they constitute a kind of primal scream against Jeff Fordham's attempts to manipulate her and the tyranny of teenbopper taste and required profit margins.
Negotiation is rarely Juliette's tactic of choice. In the first season of Nashville, and in the midst of an enormous tour, Juliette began switching up her act, placing extra stress on her band and giving Edgehill's previous chief fits when she started experimenting with acoustic sets and playing songs that weren't even available as iTunes downloads, much less tied to a larger record that Edgehill could sell. This year, out on a solo tour, Juliette has accepted Layla, who she despises as a pale imitator, and Will, as her opening acts. But Juliette's done everything she can to avoid being pushed out in favor of a girl just a few years younger than her, whether she's punishing Layla for taking an encore, or co-opting a planned duet between Will and Layla so Layla can't be the original artist associated with a promising new single.
It's a profoundly unsisterly set of acts, playing straight into the competition set up by Jeff Fordham. But what choice does Juliette have? Should she submit quietly to the idea that her career should only be a few years long? If the entertainment industry is forcing women into competition with each other, is the most feminist thing to do to surrender?
In another area, Juliette acts with the broader interests of women in country music in mind. Her radio-station mogul suitor, eager to prove that he takes Juliette seriously as an artist and that he values her more than his business, fires a DJ who has the power to make or break a new female singer with his endorsement, and who has used his stature to sexually harass Juliette and other young women in her position. Juliette is initially furious at her boyfriend's white knight-like intervention -- she'd told the DJ to take his hands off her himself. But she ultimately decides to use the situation to her advantage, having the DJ rehired and summoning him for an audience where she delivers an ultimatum: the next time he touches another girl and Juliette hears about it, he's gone for real, and for good.
Using your married boyfriend's business connections to exact revenge is not exactly a sustainable plan for social change. But it makes sense that an angry, isolated young woman who's suffered both physical and psychological abuse during her time in the music industry would be impatient. The story was a powerful reminder of what it takes to make gatekeepers in the entertainment industry change their behavior, and how ephemeral that change can be. If Juliette and her suitor break up, if the radio station is sold, if the DJ decides he can risk Juliette's wrath, this small victory can be quickly reversed.
Finally, there's Rayna James herself. Rayna's past the age where she's a target of casual sexual harassment, and she's sold too many records to be subject to quid pro quos. But that doesn't mean that she has complete artistic independence. And her storyline this season has illustrated how difficult it can be for women to amass the financial capital that would purchase them the independence to make their own choices about their careers -- or about anyone else's.
At the end of last season, Rayna set up her own label and reached handshake agreements with Scarlett and Will to sign them as solo artists. But when she was sidelined by a car accident, Jeff Fordham offered them both record deals, and Will, tempted by the bigger money and more significant opportunities that Edgehill could offer him, walked. A start-up is a tempting idea, but it requires an enormous amount of personal focus to get off the ground, and Rayna, who's been dealing with her physical recovery, the dissolution of her marriage, and the revelation that her oldest daughter was fathered by a different man than her ex-husband, simply doesn't have the bandwidth to do it right.
The obstacles aren't just psychological and timing, either. As part of her plan to break free from Fordham's influence, Rayna planned to buy back the masters of her recordings from Edgehill, using a loan from her father to acquire assets that would guarantee her financial independence. But when her father was indicted and his assets frozen, Rayna couldn't follow up on her plan. And Jeff used Rayna's contract terms to justify seizing the master recordings of songs she'd planned for her new album. The law and the larger pool of money are on Jeff's side. Rayna may be famous and wealthy compared to most of the country, but it's established in Nashville's pilot that her family is cash-poor. The capital it takes simply to buy back your own music, much less set up a label that can survive independent of a larger corporate umbrella, is daunting. Rayna's ambitions are admirable, but she's running up against a system that has had decades to perfect its self-preservation mechanisms.
The truth is, if Nashville told these stories straight, we might feel crushed under their weight. As a woman who writes a great deal about how women have been systematically excluded from producing creative work in the corporate entertainment system, how few women are in ownership and leadership positions in the industry, and how rarely women are the subjects of entertainment in meaningful, substantive ways, I can tell you, that story gets exhausting. Even if Burnett and other people involved in Nashville's production are trying to keep the show from getting utterly ludicrous, those suds do make the story slide a little more easily. And every week, Nashville gives us gorgeous music from Rayna, Juliette and Scarlett. It's a beautiful reminder of what they're fighting for -- the right to make stunning art, and to preserve their humanity while doing it.