Why Feud Is Actually an Important Show for Women

If you've seen the head-kicking promos, this Ryan Murphy limited series might be the opposite of what you think

By Kristin Dos Santos Feb 22, 2017 3:00 PMTags
Feud: Bette and Joan, Jessica Lange, Susan SarandonFX

If you've seen the promo of Susan Sarandon (Bette Davis) kicking Jessica Lange (Joan Crawford) in the head, you know one thing about FX's Feud: It's devious and delicious.

But after screening the first five episodes, we can tell you, the show is probably not at all what you think.

Yes, it's hilarious. And yes, it's fun a f. But while women-attacking-women catfights have become the new gold standard in reality TV (and hey, no judgments, we get sucked in just as much as the next guy!), Feud is actually doing some pretty great things for women.

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Not only does the 10-episode limited series—from Ryan Murphy, who brought you The People Vs. O.J., Glee and American Horror Story—shine a glaring red light on women's issues, equality, ageism and sexism, it's also putting its money where its mouth is behind the scenes, as the first Ryan Murphy set run predominantly by females. 

"Seventy percent of my department heads on Feud were women," Murphy tells E! News. "So it was a very female-friendly set. I think there were 15 roles for women over 40 on that set. It was a very different environment for all of us. And for Susan [Sarandon] particularly, I think the thing that is what clinched the deal—I told her half the episodes were going to be directed by women. And one of them was going to be Helen Hunt.  She said, 'OK, that's pretty cool. I've never really been on a set before that's run by women.'"

The legendary Hollywood story of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford can't help but feel a bit heightened, given the actresses' exaggerated personalities in their later years, when this story takes place—the series picks up in 1962 when, after years of side-eyed competition, they come together to shoot the cult classic movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Yes, there's hair-pulling and tension and costumes galore, the beauty of Feud is that it digs so much deeper and it is far more relevant than you'd think.

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"People are starting to figure out this is more than just a Hollywood thing," Murphy tells me. "We're talking about women's issues, we're talking about very upsetting things that are happing now, not just in Hollywood but in business with women."

In an era of television where the most talked about reality shows thrive in part by pitting women against each other—The Bachelor, Housewives, etc.—Feud seeks to inspire women to rise above it all, and to fight together on the issues that bind us. 

 "I think people at first blush might think, ‘Oh, this show is glorifying women tearing each other apart," Murphy explains. "Actually, this show is condemning it, and trying to show women, that's not the way to go. And you could be much more powerful united than opposed. That is more important now than we would have ever thought."

The 10 episodes also peel back the layers on why this feud happened, why all feuds happen, and the forces behind the scenes that pitted these two women against each other. Just as Ryan Murphy did for Marcia Clark, he will make you really feel for Bette and Joan.

"Great feuds are never about being bitchy or anger, there's always some huge amount pain behind it," Murphy explains. "These two women had more in common I think than any two women in their lives. They were both married four times, they were both actresses, they both struggled being single mothers. And if only they had come together and were friends and said, ‘We're going to battle everyone together,' they would have been much happier."

Feud: Bette and Joan shows us in vivid color what has changed—and what hasn't—when it comes to the treatment of women in the past 50-plus years. Murphy, who started The Half Foundation in 2016 to give female directors more opportunities, believes there is much more work to be done, particularly when it comes to Hollywood's treatment of women over 40.

"Many times I'll bring women like the incredible Kathy Bates who has an Academy Award into my office and say, ‘I'm going to write something for you,' and they'll burst into tears," Murphy reveals. "And I'll say, what's wrong? And in the case of Kathy, she said, "You know, people just don't, I feel like they don't remember me. They're not interested in me.' There is still a lot that needs to change."

 Feud: Bette and Joan premieres March 5 on FX.