FX Brand Feminism and Justified's Older Women

Curator's Note

FX is one of the US’s most successful basic cable channels with a brand that blends violence, (predominantly) masculine melodrama, and a dark quirkiness to cultivate a posture of mainstream provocateur. In a postfeminist media landscape dominated by young, skinny, white, normatively beautiful women, FX has decided that women of a certain age wielding narrative power is an integral part of its “edgy outsider” brand strategy, and reflects feminism's contemporary status as a dirty word.


For at least the last decade, postfeminism has dominated academic conversations about women in so-called quality TV. Postfeminism implies feminism is no longer necessary because it achieved all its goals; Angela McRobbie has argued that postfeminism’s emphasis on youth has aged feminism into irrelevance. But a subset of recent media products aimed at girls and young women from The Hunger Games to HBO’s Girls have begun revealing the failures and impossible demands of postfeminist ideology.  FX has stepped into the cracks in that dominant ideology offering viewers female characters who are often poor, rural, possibly insane or otherwise marginalized; characters like Katey Sagal’s biker gang matriarch on Sons of Anarchy, Jessica Lange’s often bizarre roles on American Horror Story, and the older women of Justified.


FX’s bad boy brand image benefits from the shock value of seeing older women—women who have wrinkles and adult children, who aren’t concerned with consumerist solutions to aging, work/life balance, or maintaining dominant beauty norms—wielding tremendous narrative power, but this particular brand identity also creates a space for the seemingly controversial expression of feminism as an ongoing necessity in an America, like the Harlan County, Kentucky pictured in Justified, scarred by massive inequality on multiple fronts. In this clip, we see Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) and Helen Givens (Linda Gehringer) using Justified’s trademark archaic eloquence to negotiate a truce to the epic family feud that swirls at the center of the show’s second season (2011). The women never use words like feminist or postfeminist, but their undisputed clan leadership and the way their decisions directly or indirectly control the entire season’s action starts to reclaim some form of feminism, and particularly adult, political feminism from the obsolescence implied by postfeminist culture.



What a wonderful, all-encompassing post to start of the Women of FX week! I have often watched many FX shows with a special eye on female representation, but always with a critical eye on pseudo-feminist women, rather than those who may prescribe to post-feminist ideologies and "lifestyles." Thanks for offering this lens -- I wonder, with the case of Jessica Lange on American Horror Story (AHS) which ways she is considered "post" feminist. I have seen her more as offering up a unique commentary on our ageist anxieties in culture, our fear of aging, and ageist discourse generally. It seems to me that Lange's characters (across all three seasons thus far) seem to feed into, perhaps even further fuel, ageism. Although, as a viewer, I can tell that these issues revolving around age are close to her and vitally important to her acting methods and taping into "the Real." This, I think, speaks to how popular culture reflects life; and life reflects popular culture. I wonder, though, how could this fit into a post-feminist ideolgy?

I completely agree with Ryan! This is a fantastic start to this conversation that hovers between women, agency, and industry practice. This post points out powerful responses to the non-choices offered by postfeminist ideology and I think the move to recapture some of the urgency (and maybe hipness?) of feminism has much to do with the material bodies of these older actresses. Similarly to Ryan, I do get the feeling that the "real" is always threatening to break through with many of the female characters from these FX dramas feature and, as you've stated, they still share the collective trait of instability. I find that I can't stop watching these shows (especially when Jessica Lange or Margo Martindale are anywhere in the frame) and I think that this tension between dated anxieties surrounding female hysteria as a terrifying marker of otherness and a more nuanced understanding of the complex structure of identity is one of the reasons the shows resonate so deeply. Jorie, I wonder what you make of Girls? You mention it above and though I feel like I should love the show for its feminist potential it doesn't quite speak to me the way Justified or AHS does. Am I missing out on something great?

Great post, Jorie – and great clip! I particularly like the idea that these characters (and by extension, these shows) might function to reclaim feminism as a viable and even “necessary” option. I also love Dorothy’s point that the material presence of these older actresses might be partly responsible for helping to revive its ideological cachet (though it’s not FX, I’m also thinking of Top of the Lake’s Holly Hunter here). That said, at least when it comes to Justified and AHS, it also seems important to consider the narrative treatment of their respective characters. I’ll keep things vague, to avoid explicit spoilers. But I wonder if our triumphalist reading of Helen, Mags, and Fiona – as drivers of plot – is complicated by the fact that all, by season’s end, come in for some form of defeat or punishment at the hands of plot?

Thanks for all your great comments. I haven't followed AHS very closely, so I don't know how qualified I am to talk about Jessica Lange's performance, although she does, as you've pointed out, discuss being an aging actress quite often. As I mentioned above, on her blog, Anne Helen Petersen has pointed toward a postfeminist dystopia appearing in films and TV shows featuring younger women like Revenge, Girls, and the movie Bachlorette. I think these older women are part of that same dystopia, highlighting the depressing, confining failures and exclusions of postfeminism by physically embodying their rejection. For Justified, the younger women, (criminally under-used) Rachel and Ava do this too. Dorothy-- If we're talking about slippage between performer and character and the ways embodiment carries meaning in postfeminist culture, (whether willingly as Lange seems to or less willingly as Dunham or, say, Mindy Kaling seem to) Lena Dunham is definitely part of that conversation. Elizabeth-- This is from 2011, so I'm going to spoil: yes, Mags and Helen both end up dead--partly because of Justified's shrinking budgets, partly because of its season-to-season structure. But there's a lot more middle than end to their stories, and their behind-the-scenes wrangling has lasting effects on the whole community, so I don't think their work is really that limited by their demises. Thanks for all the great comments! It was so fun to revisit this season of Justified!

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