Near the end of the third and most recent season of Nashville, Hayden Panettiere’s spoiled country-pop star character, Juliette Barnes, gives birth to a child and with wanton cruelty names her “Cadence.” And it’s all downhill from there, in terms of parenting quality. From the moment she leaves the hospital with her newborn, Juliette approaches her with the gritted-teeth, grimacing smile of a terrified woman, and refuses in ever more flamboyant ways to inhabit the persona of mother at all.
It’s mesmerizing to watch, partly because I sympathize. Every time I see an episode of television about motherhood—from the amusing hallucinations of “baby brain” sufferers Lily and Marshall on How I Met Your Mother to the steely self-sacrifice with which Alicia maintains her family’s illusions of togetherness on The Good Wife—I think I grimace and grit my teeth in the exact same way.
I don’t think I’m alone. I’m a woman in my late twenties, recently married. I read all the posts. The “Why Women Can’t Have It All” post that comes around once a year, mysteriously assuming that women and men “having it all” are somehow on different scales of possibility. The screechy, protesting-too-much “Why Women Can Have It All” rebuttals. The posts about how you might get arrested if you let your kid walk half a block ahead of you (but really only if you’re a woman), about how much it hurts to breastfeed but omg so worth it. The perils, pains, and pleasures of motherhood, all magnified by the media’s current worship of the personal narrative.
Juliette embodies two of my fears about the proposition of motherhood at once. One, that I’ll be too unstable, too immature, too attached to my soft cheese and alcohols, too irresponsible, too selfish, to parent any future offspring currently: a Bad Mother. Two, that any chubby-cheeked little offspring might actually slow me down in my hand-over-hand slog to where I want to be in my creative career.
Most Bad Mother characters fall into a few basic categories, and Nashville itself has abused more than its share of them. We’ve had Juliette’s hot-mess mother Jolene, who stalks the edges of Juliette’s psyche during her pregnancy, reminding her, You aren’t fit to do this, you’ve never seen it done well after all; the narcissistic, insecure, judgmental Beverly, mother of Clare Bowen’s mumbly folk singer Scarlett; and Kiley, played by Alexa Vega, the desperate and pathetic single mother who’s too busy chasing love to take care of her kids in any way.
Overused tropes all of them, and all savoring of sexism. Often, female characters are relegated to the moral sidelines of a show once they become bad mothers, judged solely through the unforgiving lens that we turn on mothers in this country. Only Rayna, well-meaning and yet flawed, caring about her children yet not caring enough to see what her own romantic foibles and her poor choices of mates might be doing to their sense of stability, remains a complex character.
But when Juliette becomes a mother, Nashville manages to pull off a Bad Mother storyline that examines what’s going on with American motherhood today in a nuanced, surprising, and sympathetic way.
Make no mistake: Juliette is no half-baked Bad Mother. She’s the real deal, and Nashville doesn’t shy away from that. She’s descended fully into self-deluding, irrational abdication of responsibility by the time the season ends. She’s thrown a snow globe at her newborn baby and her husband Avery; she has to be reminded not to refer to her daughter as “it”; she hasn’t held Cadence in weeks; and when Avery finally, leaves her, she just insists with a gritted, manic smile to everyone that she absolutely must revitalize her career right now, and yes, everything is fine dammit.
It is easy to see how Juliette’s failures are, in some ways, a mere continuation of what has always been true of her. Even as she develops, over the course of the show, a small measure of hard-won empathy and humility, Juliette always remains somewhat of a selfish, entitled loose cannon.
But I think there’s more going on than the last gasp of a spoiled brat recognizing the end of her irresponsible young adulthood and running screaming away from her new life. The sexism all around her plays a huge part in Juliette’s descent.
Benevolent Sexism: Or, You WANT Six More Months of Maternity Leave, Right?
Cadence’s third week of life sees Avery, who’s also in a band but not famous yet, dashing off for a big-break interview at Pitchfork. Juliette, though she momentarily freaks out at the idea that Avery won’t be at her constant beck and call, eventually accepts the entirely rational premise that Avery assumed from the get-go: that life will go on, and that Avery will keep pursuing his career now that the baby is a few weeks old.
This premise easily could apply to new mothers too. In fact, for some people in Juliette’s world, it does: Avery wholeheartedly supports her once he realizes she wants to go back to working, too. Watching him, I can imagine an entire world in which Juliette doesn’t have to become the screaming, snowglobe-chucking mess that she becomes.
But everyone isn’t like Avery. There are subtle differences in the world around the couple, and in the expectations placed on them, that show up from the start. For instance, no one in Avery’s band or at Pitchfork expresses any surprise that Avery has ventured out of the domestic into the professional world after three weeks of paternity leave. In contrast, when Juliette demands that same day why Glenn, her manager, hasn’t lined up new work for her, Glenn pleads that he thought she wanted time with the family. Three weeks is time, she snarls. This seems to spark her manic desire to prove that the baby won’t hold her back. So she throws guerrilla rooftop concerts to promote her album when her label head doesn’t immediately pour a billion dollars into advertising; she writes an album in thirty-six hours; she books a tour when the baby is still a newborn.
And though Avery is in many ways a near-paragon of husbandly support and fatherly responsibility, even he is living in a world where parenting is by default assigned to women. He’s a good father, even a heroic one: he eventually quits his own band just as it’s on the cusp of fame once he realizes that Juliette can’t be counted on; and quitting is something he never expects Juliette to do. But, true to the subtle differences in how their responsibilities are allocated, he phrases it as quitting the band to “help Juliette”—as if this is somehow her task. Earlier in the baby’s life, he is able to assume that he’ll go back to building his career shortly after the baby was born, while Juliette will stay home awhile, without pushback from anyone except Juliette herself. His reactions show that he subtly, but definitely, expected Juliette to be the primary caregiver, at least at first.
That’s the nature of male privilege in a world no longer overtly sexist: Avery can be, and is, completely gung-ho about supporting Juliette as soon as he figures out she wants to go back to working full-swing (this is before the psychotic break outlined above), but he has to hear her say it first. And so does everyone else. Avery, meanwhile, can count on the fact that everyone around him simply assumes he wants to go back to work; he doesn’t have to defend it, to demand opportunities, to tell his wife he wants to work.
I was struck by the fact that when Avery arrives at Juliette’s side during labor, he heroically announces that there’s nothing more important to him than Juliette and the baby. We all slobber over dads who say this line. It’s fucking catnip for TV viewers: sexy guy AND a great daddy! But what mother have you ever heard say that, unprompted, on TV? Mothers don’t really need to say it, because it is basically assumed.
The show uses Avery’s mother as a mouthpiece to point out the discrepancy in expectations for mothers and fathers. When Avery complains about having to raise the baby alone—totally justifiably, since it’s after Juliette has essentially abandoned them—his mother says, “That’s probably how she felt when you were out on tour and she was pregnant at home.” Indeed, right before the baby was born, Juliette was expressing her displeasure (read: throwing things) over the fact that she had to attend a tacky, pink-themed baby shower thrown for her by Rayna while Avery went out and played with his band. She was also displeased with being ditched by most of her friends, but I think that too fits with Juliette’s bigger problem: that motherhood threatens to separate her from what she truly loves, her career, and trap her in a world where she has never been comfortable, the world of loving family and social bonds—a world she never really entered till she met Avery, having lived most of her childhood in neglect and her adolescent under the withering and isolating spotlight of new fame.
Before his interview, Juliette tells Avery: “Go get all this momentum for your career and not just sit here, like a blob, and be an unemployed milkin’ machine.” Nashville is specifically outlining Juliette’s major fears here: that she will lose momentum, and that her being will be subsumed into the needs of this tiny ravenous creature she’s birthed. Do you have to be a selfish, entitled jerk to feel this way? Your body is being used to nourish another human, it’s being stretched and used and maybe damaged in all sorts of ways for the next generation. “I feel like the life force is being sucked out of my body,” an exhausted Juliette announces at another point. Isn’t it only human to feel, at some point, resentment and maybe even rebellion?
At bottom, her fear of being utterly subsumed—or consumed—into motherhood is driving every seemingly psychotic thing Juliette does. The fear is growing inside her for months. You can see it every time someone off-handedly expresses surprise that she’s going back to work. Every time she pricks her ears up at an opportunity she could have taken if she hadn’t been so busy, you know, being in labor. Every time someone tries to slow her down, at all—including Cadence.
Women in the Music Industry
Another thread that runs under all of Juliette’s fear is one that affects women particularly hard in the music industry: aging.
In season one, Juliette is the young version of Rayna, reigning queen of country music, now threatened by Juliette’s youth and sex appeal.
But as Juliette grows older and her life is rocked by scandal, she ceases to be the young ingenue and an even younger, wispier, more innocent version of herself, Layla, appears on the screen. Juliette, with her equally immense talent for music and for self-destruction, stands at a crossroads; in one direction, she makes a few more false steps and turns into Britney Spears, aging, spoiled, and irrelevant; in another, she turns into Rayna, and grows gracefully into ever greater talents and songwriting ability.
But she can’t stay what she is.
“What if I become irrelevant at 25?” she panics to Avery, explaining in six words her entire season arc. Soon enough, the gloriously nasty ageist insults Juliette was tossing Rayna’s way in the pilot, will apply to Juliette too. And what then? Meanwhile, older male country stars like Luke Wheeler (Will Chase) never experience this threat. Male sex appeal is understood, tacitly, to increase or stay the same as men approach middle age. Avery, who still stands on the cusp of fame, has decades of sex appeal ahead of him, but Juliet doesn’t. The time she takes off for Cadence is just so much sand in the hourglass, counting her down to the moment when she ceases to have the advantage over all those other girls.
The problem is not a lack of talent. As Juliette wages her insane battle to launch her career far, far away from her daughter, the show establishes beautifully that Juliette has something to fight for: the album she wrote in 36 hours is, in fact, a great fucking album. The song she sings at her rooftop concert, “Mississippi Flood,” is a catchy, rousing rock song that’s one of my favorites of the past three seasons. If Juliette is afraid of getting older, it’s not because she doesn’t have the chops to rest her career on her musical talent alone, but because she knows how much harder it is to get attention when you aren’t a beautiful nineteen-year-old. (Let’s not forget Keith Hill and his “ain’t my fault the viewers want what they want,” 15-percent-quota approach to scheduling women on country radio.)
I have to wonder how many great male artists of the past might, like Juliette, have sat downstairs with their ears blocked (whether metaphorically or, like Juliette, by giant noise-blocking headphones) while their babies cried, so that they could keep creating. It’s not an admirable choice. But great creative work requires a level of selfishness that seems to me to be utterly incompatible with the modern, television-sanctioned ideal of motherhood.
And what will happen to selfish, lonely, fearful Juliette when season 4 starts tonight? I imagine she will somehow face down some of her delusions, and step up to the responsibility she’s taken on. But I hope Nashville won’t forget the careful groundwork already done to place Juliette’s problem in a wider landscape than just the individual character failings (and postpartum hormonal chaos) of Juliette herself. Juliette isn’t just a redemption story in the making, and she’s more than her failures as a parent. She’s also an artist, and a woman, whose suffering is intimately entwined with the immense, inescapable force that American ideals of motherhood exert on women’s lives. And the sheer blind force of her rebellion against her role is awesome to watch.
Nashville was treading on rarely explored territory when it created a character who is objectively terrible to her child but who still retains sympathy, and whose most egregious parental sins still have identifiable roots in the injustices of the outside world. No matter how much better our Bad Mother gets, I hope the show doesn’t forget the larger issues it was exploring.
All images (c) ABC