FEUD Review: “Mommie Dearest”

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When I first saw a spot trailer for , I was so excited. I’ve always loved classic film and the animosity between Crawford and Davis is legendary, though largely made up. Turning the myth of that epic conflict into a show struck me as television gold. Then I discovered Ryan Murphy was behind it and I knew exactly what I was in for: a long melodrama about how terrible women are. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what this show has given me so far.

Now, I thought the first episode was great. Just the right balance between reality and fiction, campiness and seriousness. The second episode was a disaster from start to finish. This is my first review for this show, so let me pause for a second to rip last week a bit to give you context for my opinions. “The Other Woman” bills itself as a deep exploration of the tragedy of womanhood. Men are selfish pigs whose nature is unchangeable and who use women up. The sexism of the ’40s and ’50s (and in this case early ’60s which is functionally the same) is presented as a constant that women simply must submit to. It chews them up, spits them out, and there’s nothing they can do about it. The best way I can illustrate the difference between a truly feminist period drama and Feud is by comparing this to another series I used to review: Marvel’s Agent Carter. Agent Carter was set in the 1940s and also used oppressive patriarchy as a plot element. However, with Agent Carter, the sexism of her colleagues was simply another obstacle that the female protagonist had to deal with. The main character was a fully-realized, fleshed-out character with motivations and a rich internal life. In Feud, sexism is not a force that you can resist, it is the defining tragedy of any woman’s life. Does this show seriously expect me to believe that Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were ever ground down by anything? They probably would not have considered themselves what we now call “feminist” but they were complicated, strong-willed, successful women who carved their own paths in a culture constructed against them.

The last people who need to be writing a series about complicated, strong-willed, successful women are a bunch of men who are threatened by complicated, strong-willed, successful women.

I review quite a few shows, and I’ve watched quite a few more through the years. There are about a dozen screenwriters whose work I can almost instantly recognize. I usually pick up a feeling for them by rewatching a show, noting which episodes are my favorites, and then seeing the same names every time I make that note. Sometimes the reverse happens: particular episodes fill me with blinding rage and I develop grudges. Tim Minear is one of my grudges. Minear is the reason I am glad that Firefly was cancelled. Find some interviews with him about the directions he wanted to take the show if you want some real horror. A few of his pet tropes include rape-as-redemption, “sex positivity” that involves shaming women for having sex, and women making sexist comments about how awful it is to be a woman. I see his name on something and I immediately go “oh, Christ.” I always know what I’m in for.

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Which brings me to “Mommie Dearest.” This episode is loaded already with a name like that! Listen: I have a contentious relationship with my mother that made the film Mommie Dearest feel like an eerie documentary when I first saw it. That movie isn’t funny and campy to me. I understand the full horror of what it is supposed to be. “Mommie Dearest” (the Feud episode) doesn’t even comment on bad, abusive parenting for goodness’ sake! The episode has Joan flounce around lamenting her loss of motherhood without even doing justice to how utterly creepy it is. Isn’t this supposed to be a melodrama? You’ve got Joan Crawford—not just Crawford, but the myth of her—and you’re not even gonna use her in all her terrifying glory?

Joan Crawford in real life had to literally buy children to adopt them. No social worker in their right mind would let Crawford adopt a kid, so she went through a “baby broker” in Tennessee who basically would steal kids and sell them to rich people. I’m not kidding, and I’m not making it up. Bette Davis was also kind of a crazy person, but not that crazy. This show is so concerned with underscoring what ghastly creatures aged women are, and here had the perfect opportunity to go full-on campy horror yet tries to soften every truly rough edge off of both Crawford and Davis by emphasizing their delicate motherhood. Screw that. I love the hell out of both of them, but if I’m already watching a fake version of their monstrous personas just go for it. Maybe don’t give me the up-to-eleven Faye Dunaway-version of Mommie Dearest, but at least present that oppression in the subtleties. Emphasize how bizarre it is to keep adopting children and forcing them into strict roles that only serve your own emotional needs. If this is Monster Crawford and Monster Davis then bring it. I thought this show was supposed to be all about the conflict and the crazy. Why waste this opportunity?

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I suspect this episode was such a featherweight on the subject because everyone involved in the production is trying to cast themselves as the vanguard of feminist filmmaking. The irony is that, in trying to soften Crawford and Davis in what I’m presuming is an attempt to humanize them, the result is even more sexist than presenting some semblance of the myth would be. The episode defines them both by their motherhood and can’t decide if the fact that they have these children is selfish or some kind of fulfillment of their life’s ultimate purpose. Feud leaves no room for complexity or character development. Davis and Crawford are both cast as catty, woman-hating divas. Their contentious relationships with their daughters are framed in a way that suggests they hate each other simply because they’re all women rather than because their individual personalities clash or their behavior is repellent.

The main problem with all of this is that the writing refuses to acknowledge that women have internal lives separate from their physical appearance. Any moments of pathos that Crawford and Davis have had relate to how haggard they appear on screen. The show is straight-up called Feud so its a given that conflict would be the focus of the story, but Feud cannot imagine a world where two powerful women dislike each other for any other reason than that they’re both women. Last week had the incredibly ridiculous rant from BD about how Davis is just jealous of how young and pretty she is. Every interaction between these people completely lacks the contextual understanding of the power dynamics at play. Davis controls BD’s entire life. Do you really think a daughter in her situation would mouth off to her ultra-powerful mother who can destroy her in an instant? None of these characters have personal lives; they just have—and I’m sorry to say this—feuds.

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At least in the first two episodes there seemed to be some semblance of narrative arc. The “Pilot” had everyone coming together to get the movie made despite their differences and “The Other Woman” was a battle of wills between Crawford and Davis on top of being a corny vignette about wandering penises. “Mommie Dearest” can’t serve up anything but some weird, unintelligible comment about motherhood. We even got some bonus Tim Minear rape apologism in the story about Crawford’s abusive childhood! Aren’t we lucky!

And since this is the first episode of this show I’ve reviewed let me back up a minute for my disclaimers. One of my long-time obsessions is old Hollywood. Like any classic movie buff, I picked sides a long time ago in this (largely fabricated) feud. Bette Davis is one of my favorite actresses, and on top of that I’ve always been partial to Susan Sarandon (blame Bull Durham.) I never particularly cared for Joan Crawford or Jessica Lange but “never cared for” in this case is more akin to apathy than a euphemism for “don’t like.” So I’m not sure if it’s just the writing or if I’m coming into this with biases but I feel like Sarandon is doing a much better . Lange isn’t capturing the glamor and grandiosity of Crawford by even half. Neither one of them is trying particularly hard to sound like Crawford or Davis, but Sarandon at least embodies Davis more than Lange does Crawford.

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Honestly, folks, you’d be better served actually watching Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Or even Mommie Dearest. Or better yet, anything either of these ladies did in the 1930s or ’40s. I know this is just supposed to serve up some mindless drama with a side of old Hollywood glamor but that’s all spoiled for me by the thick veneer of disdain for women that’s trying to sell itself as the best and brightest new feminism. Lange and Sarandon aren’t even sharp enough for me to enjoy their sniping. You want some real patriarchal sniping? Try The Women from 1939. Feud‘s portrayal of them is too sly and the series keeps trying to position them as victims rather than agents in their own destiny. Just because something has two women in leading roles doesn’t make it feminist. Nice try.
TB-TV-Grade-DSeason 1, Episode 3 (S01E03)
Feud airs Sunday at 10PM on FX

Read all of our reviews of Feud here.
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Dana is a digitization archivist by day and a masked pop culture avenger by night. She spreads the gospel of science fiction and fantasy wherever she goes.
Follow Dana on Twitter: @DanaLeighBrand
Keep up with all of Dana’s reviews here.

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1 Comment

  1. I don’t know if anyone reads these comments, but I’ll say, fwiw, that I enjoy the show a lot, largely because it pushes my buttons– old Hollywood! end of the studio system! Bette! Hopper!– and that I disagree with much of your review. That being said, I don’t love the show without qualification, and I wonder if our problems with it come from a similar place…

    It seems ahistorical, distracting, and, frankly, annoying, to try to position this show as taking place in a milieu which is Ground Zero for Feminism. Crawford and Davis were the farthest thing from Feminists (in the modern sense), and I don’t think there’s much to be learned about the overall position of women in America (historically or otherwise) from analyzing these two extremely atypical characters. I cringed throughout the pilot, as it became clear that they were trying to make this a “feminist” piece, and I cringed again in Ep 4 when Alison Wright’s character (who would have known better) had to learn about the Wrong and Immoral Institutional Sexism in Hollywood. This is a Ryan Murphy FX show, for godssake, not an NPR think piece– just give us some campy, glitzy melodrama, and move on.

    A lot of your objections seem political in nature– which I’d normally have a problem with (I seem to be one of the last believers in the idea that art’s value is primarily aesthetic, not political, and that aesthetics are an equal if not higher calling than politics)– but in this case, you seem to have political problems with a show that is positioning itself politically, and even I can’t fault you for that.

    So here’s my question: if the show seemed content to exist in the early 60s (rather than existing in 2017 and only being “about” the early 60s), do you think you’d like it more? If it wasn’t trying to comment on the present day– if it was simply telling a timeless, human story that happened to take place 50-odd years ago– would that be better, in your mind, or worse?

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