Feud: Bette and Joan wrapped up on Sunday, going out on a melancholy note as the show races through the seventies to the death of Joan Crawford in 1977. Crawford rattles around her Manhattan apartment alone, her only company a dog and occasional visits from Mamacita, who quit years before because Crawford kept throwing sh*t at her head. One night, during what is politely referred to as a “spell”, Crawford imagines herself playing cards with Jack Warner, Hedda Hopper, and Bette Davis.
It’s a devastating scene, as she and Davis finally find common ground, but only in her imagination. The finale, immaculately directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton—who, amazingly, continues to not be employed directing features—puts a pin in Bette and Joan and underlines that this has not been a biopic but an illustration of how women are manipulated and controlled and backed into corners in order to uphold a system that throws them away at will.
On the same weekend, Netflix premiered their new show, Girlboss, loosely adapted by Kay Cannon from Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amaruso’s book of the same name. The show takes enough liberties that the protagonist is renamed “Sophia Marlowe”, though she still founds Nasty Gal as an eBay store and goes on to launch her own online retailer. Season one ends at the point of the Nasty Gal launch, which means that the show doesn’t touch on Amoruso’s real-life legal issues, or the ignominious end of Nasty Gal, which went bankrupt.
Feud and Girlboss have quite a bit to say to each other, especially about “difficult” women. Sophia, like Crawford and Davis, is ambitious and driven and competitive. And a couple generations on, Sophia has opportunities Crawford and Davis could not have fathomed. The internet offers Sophia a platform, a means of creating income and business opportunities, for which she can take full credit and sole ownership.
Sophia is empowered in a way that Crawford and Davis weren’t, and she’s freed from their era’s restrictive social mores. In some ways, this makes her more of an asshole, enabled and even encouraged to indulge in her selfishness and greed, and she revels in her own bad behavior, unapologetically. But unlike Crawford and Davis, Sophia doesn’t know how to wield her power, and ends up coming off more as a stumbling child than a take-charge woman.
Just as Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon carry Feud, Britt Robertson is charged with carrying Girlboss, and she is, like Lange and Sarandon, obviously having a ball playing an un-nice girl. But Robertson is wildly miscast. A big issue for the show is the “likeability” of Sophia. She’s a monster, and I don’t think we are supposed to like her, and that’s fine. There are plenty of male anti-heroes on TV, having an anti-heroine is welcome addition.
But Sophia is presented in a very straightforward, sitcom-y way, which conflicts with her monstrousness, and, worse, Robertson is too sweet to carry it off—too sweet of face, too sweet of presence. She works hard at it—too hard, frankly, she overcompensates to the point of over-acting—but the profanity and bitchiness and downright meanness of Sophia never quite sit right with her. What Sophia needs is an edgier actress, like Aubrey Plaza or Krysten Ritter, or even Brie Larson, who can nail that “girl next door but secretly your worst nightmare” vibe.
And Girlboss offers no help, as it never draws a strong enough line between Sophia’s terrible personality and the experiences that shaped her. Her bad attitude comes off as typical suburban teen angst, and the subplot about the mother who abandoned her is tied up neatly in a one-episode forgiveness arc. Not unlike Wolf of Wall Street, Girlboss refuses to judge its protagonist—who is a garbage person—which leaves the audience with mixed signals about whether or not we’re supposed to root for or against Sophia.
Feud, on the other hand, manages its difficult women beautifully. Crawford and Davis were capable of incredible pettiness, and yes, even monstrous behavior. But Feud takes great pains to show us the unforgiving and cruel world in which they lived, and how their frustrated ambitions and drive lead them to lash out, at each other and everyone else. The show doesn’t ask us to forgive them, it just gives us opportunities to understand them and their thorny personalities.
The lesson of Feud and Girlboss is that when it comes to portraying “difficult” women, it isn’t about making excuses or garnering sympathy. It’s about humanizing the character beyond her difficulty. Feud gives us two provocative, complicated women, stifled by their industry and their era, and offers us a chance to see beyond the glamour to the frustrations underneath. Girlboss offers no such glimpse behind the veil, and so it ends up a shallower, less biting show than it could have been. But Feud, which invests equally in public and private life, gives us richly detailed portraits of two women who were pitted against each other in order to keep one another in line. We don’t have to like every female protagonist, but we should understand her.