Feud: Bette and Joan (review)

Watching the latest feminist television series Feud: Bette and Joan has me asking, “is this what modern feminism has become?” Whitewashing the abuse of children by alcoholic, psychologically damaged mothers in the name of the sisterhood? 

Soft-spoken Christina Crawford recounts her famous mother trying to kill her at age 13. “She had gone into some other realm. She was like a wild animal,” Ms. Crawford told Larry King in 2001. Her adoptive mother had flown into a rage after accusing her daughter of making a “pass,” at a boyfriend. The story of her abuse was retold in the 1978 book, Mommie Dearest, a harrowing memoir of horrific abuse by a woman whom Christina considers a “sociopath”. Middle of the night rampages, regular beatings and strange psychological punishments were regular occurrences.

Yet, Feud and its strange feminist undertones seem to gloss this over. Joan Crawford is instead portrayed as a tough woman. Producers mock her over-the-top vanity yet they steer clear of the violent, chaotic mothering practices for which she was known.  In fact, in episode three, both women even have a come-to-Jesus moment over their children in a brief truce from their personality clash. In the sisterhood narrative, they realize it is men who are the enemy, while they are just women. Presenting the ridiculous idea that all women would form a loving prayer circle if it were not for men.

Bette Davis was admittedly less abusive. An angry alcoholic who hated men; in a 1985 television interview, daughter B.D. Hyman said, “She thought you were scum. All of you…Every single male on the face of the earth is scum.” She then went on to say her mother was angry with her for having given birth to a baby boy. On top of this, B.D. Hyman also claims Davis would fake suicide attempts as punishment. An act of psychological cruelty if ever there was one.

Instead, Feud plays off the narrative that everything women do that is bad is justified due to the fact that men are worse. The studio boss and his love affair with women is a true source of evil, but abusive and often times erratic women are characterized as complicated and smart. To question it is misogyny. A brand of feminism that is both deranged and dangerous.

The true stories of these women do not center on quirky mothers who tricked their children into eating sauerkraut before school. Nor do they model a tough but loving style. Both Christina Crawford and B.D. Hyman have spoken a lot of painful repercussions. Christina, now 77, literally devoted most of her life to activism against child abuse.

To listen to the victims of these women is moving. B.D. Hyman can see a certain level of absurdity in her mother. However, a wounded Christina speaks of suicide attempts. A desperate coming to peace with the horrible things done to her while she was vulnerable. And later, the David and Goliath battle against the bright public image of a dark woman who committed crimes against children.

Lastly, I find it puzzling that feminism, a movement purportedly so concerned with family violence, would not point this out. Instead, it would use the sisterhood to protect and glorify abusers of children. I’m not a moviemaker, but that is perhaps the saddest ending of any of their careers.

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