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'Feud' Loves Difficult White Women

Ryan Murphy creates and celebrates roles for (white) women of a certain age in Hollywood

There are plenty of viewing-party invites to go around when a new Ryan Murphy series is about to debut. After all, Murphy is the patron saint of Gay Men with a Predilection for Divas, Drama, and Dinner Parties. So when Feud: Bette and Joan was announced, with Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange playing the respective Hollywood icons, you can imagine my inbox was full.

I won't deny that Murphy provides a space for women who have been rejected elsewhere. His roles are the meaty, messy kind that women, especially women over 25, can bite into. When films like Autumn Leaves, All About Eve, and Mildred Pierce debuted, women's pictures were au courant in Hollywood. Actresses like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis dominated the box office. Nowadays, the greatest actresses of our time who aren't Meryl Streep have to sign on for television and snatch up an Emmy before they get their well-deserved Hollywood accolades (take Viola Davis going from How to Get Away With Murder to an Oscar win this year). Complex roles for women have all but vanished from the cineplex, but are de rigueur on television. No one understands that more than Ryan Murphy, who's made a career out of creating female silver-screen roles that populated movie screens decades ago.

Well, white female roles, anyway. Jessica Lange. Susan Sarandon. Kathy Bates. Ellen Barkin. Catherine Zeta-Jones. Gwyneth Paltrow. Annette Bening. These women's roles range from the dark to the comedic to the tortured, but they are each layered, complex depictions of "difficult women" (first described by The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum in response to Brett Martin's book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad) that hearken back to when studios made pictures starring women for women. If those roles are a bit messy and unfortunately revert to the stereotype that powerful women are inherently sad and preoccupied with their image, at least it gets them critical acclaim. These women have played the governor of Katrina-stricken Louisiana, aging witches, and mothers grappling with homophobia. Murphy's greatest muse of all, Sarah Paulson, was never an A-list film actress like the aforementioned women, but her Emmy-winning role in The People v. O.J. Simpson as Marcia Clark cemented Murphy as the go-to man to give women their due when no one else will.

But when it comes to black actresses, Murphy's attention span mirrors that of the men who often invite me to their viewing parties. As Joan Crawford decries the sparse roles (ingenue, mother, and Gorgon) available to women in Hollywood on Feud, I often find that's the case with black people in white, homosexual spaces. Black men often exist not as fully realized entities, but as finger-snapping divas like Kimmy Schmidt's Titus Andromedon, or sexual fantasies like Idris Elba or, more recently, Moonlight's Trevante Rhodes, who caught eyes in a Calvin Klein spread. And Murphy’s work is no exception. After all, black gay men are all but absent from any of Murphy's work, save for Unique on Glee, who was later written as transgender because it fit a story line. As for women, well, when Angela Bassett starred in American Horror Story: Coven, she played a voodoo-practicing witch from the hood. Then there’s Niecy Nash, who plays a sassy security guard on Scream Queens, alongside Keke Palmer, who's just there to mimic black gay slang like "that's the gag" ad nauseam.

Don't get me wrong — Feud is an excellent series that continues the aesthetic of restraint and simmering camp Murphy learned in The People v. O.J. Simpson. The interior lives of Crawford and Davis are depicted with tenderness, if at times too much sorrow, but that's Murphy's method. It's the thesis of The People v. O.J. Simpson's "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia" episode spun into an eight-episode miniseries. And as the series explores the cruelty of men in 1960s Hollywood, it also expands to topics like women taking an active role behind the scenes (Alison Wright plays Pauline, an assistant who wants to write and direct her own script) and gay rights (Dominic Burgess portrays Victor Buono, an actor who's arrested for being homosexual) — but the focus is squarely on whiteness. Which, for a miniseries focused on the drama behind the scenes of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, feels like a glaring oversight.

Maidie Norman was 50 when she played domestic Elvira Stitt in Baby Jane. Norman did something completely unprecedented while working on the film: She rewrote her own lines because, as she explained to director Robert Aldrich, "You know, this is not the way we talk these days. This is old slavery-time talk." Feud mines drama from Crawford and Davis's alleged on-set antics and power struggles with Aldrich, and the power struggles his own (fictional) assistant Pauline has with him, but there's not a single instance in which Aldrich has a heated encounter with Norman. In fact, she's not in the series at all. It feels like an extra cruel irony to omit Norman on the heels of an awards season that celebrated Hidden Figures, which rectified the historical omission of black female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the early '60s space race. As Hollywood pats itself on the back for discovering that black women played a part in American progress in the '60s, here's a Hollywood drama that outright pretends a black woman didn't exist.

In Feud, the one glimpse of a black woman is as a domestic. Which is, ironically, the very role to which Norman sought to bring gravitas. After all, the only black woman who'd been fêted by Hollywood at that point was Hattie McDaniel, who in 1940 won an Oscar for her role in Gone With the Wind. She'd portrayed a domestic in that film, and the dialogue Norman was given in Baby Jane mirrored the same dialogue for which McDaniel won her award. But Norman refused to play a role that "deprived black women of their dignity."

Norman's absence on Feud was even more significant to me in a week when a real-life feud between two black women dominated pop culture. Rappers Nicki Minaj and Remy Ma reignited a hip-hop beef born years ago when the women fell out after Remy Ma went to prison and claimed Minaj took advantage of her absence from the industry to stake out her own career and disparage Remy Ma's in the process. Throughout the week, many pieces have decried that two women are being pitted against each other in a male-dominated industry like hip-hop and theorized that in a perfect world, the two women would still be friends.

But this ignores the fact that these women very much have agency in their own lives, just as Crawford and Davis did, and they understand that trading barbs, throwing shade, and embellishing their feud does more for their careers than keeping quiet would. After all, men have carved out careers over hip-hop beefs — and how many Hollywood bad boys like Mel Gibson, David O. Russell, and Casey Affleck still get the limelight even when their behavior should preclude it? If Murphy had more than a passing interest in the lives of black women, he might see that they understand something about Crawford and Davis that he never will. Feud seems focused on the idea that male-dominated Hollywood destroyed the lives of these two powerful women, without acknowledging that they were fully aware of the roles in which they were partaking and knew it would be beneficial to their legacies. Murphy seems rather focused on this type of narrative, the one found at the conclusion of Baby Jane, when Jane asks Blanche, "You mean all this time we could have been friends?" Women like Minaj and Remy Ma see how women who remain friendly for appearances fade from the spotlight. And Norman, who went to set every day with the feuding Crawford and Davis and survived both women by a decade, probably would've loved to be remembered as a formidable adversary herself.