Warner Bros. Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

The Cult of Connie Britton

She’s not the biggest star in Hollywood, but by flipping the usual career arc — and career expectancy — for leading women of a certain age, she may be one of the most important.

“It was just your run-of-the-mill orgasm! I didn’t mean to scare you!”

That’s the first thing Connie Britton said on national television, way back in 1996. It was a fitting introduction to her character, Nikki Faber, on the long-running ABC show Spin City, in which she played the sometimes raunchy, oversexed love interest to Michael J. Fox as they attempted to manage the publicity of the bumbling New York City mayor.

The character on Spin City has Britton’s face, but the rest is nearly unrecognizable: Her hair is shorter, browner, and cut in the choppy layers that anyone familiar with the ‘90s will recognize as “The Rachel.” Nikki is a classic man-eater: She alludes to threesomes, she towers her co-stars, she’s coarse and vulgar when the rest of the women in the office come off as sweet or clueless. It’s a choice role (especially for a relative newcomer), but it’s also completely at odds with the way we think of Connie Britton today.

Dreamworks SKG / Courtesy Everett Collection

Because Nikki Faber is no Tami Taylor. Tami Taylor — she of the “y’all” and the hair and the aviators, of the soft exterior and steely drive, of infinite wisdom and ageless beauty. No matter that Friday Night Lights was one of the lowest rated and most beleaguered network shows in recent memory: Through the magic cultural catch-up tool that is Netflix, Taylor has taken on the sort of iconic importance usually reserved for massive Hollywood stars’ roles. If Friday Night Lights and its brand of thoughtful, empathetic, addictive drama has morphed into a quasi-religion, then Tami Taylor is its patron saint, the complicated embodiment of all that made the show feel different and real and smart.

The character of Tami Taylor lived for 76 episodes and five seasons — long enough for her character to subsume the actress who played her. Even in her subsequent starring roles in American Horror Story and Nashville feel like she’s just following a different path on the Tami Taylor Choose Your Adventure novel: In one, her marriage falls apart and she ends up having sex with a man in a rubber suit; in another, she becomes a famous country singer with a complicated love life. But the center — the Tami Taylor-ified charisma, the waterfall of hair, and the “I’m concerned about you, do we need to have a talk” face — remains.

The fortitude and consistency of that center has fostered an adult cult of Connie Britton: a mass of women, mostly between the ages of 20 and 45, who view Britton not just with affection, or awe, but admiration. Every star has fans, but select few have cults. We often associate the word “cult” with mindless, manipulated masses, but the word also connotes a group whose beliefs are in some way deviant or different. If Britton had become a star during those Spin City years, there’d be nothing cultish about loving her: Like so many other sitcom stars, she was somewhere around 30, thin, white, beautiful, straight.

Loving the Britton of today is tantamount to ignoring much of what Hollywood has tried to impute as ideal.

But loving the Britton of today is tantamount to ignoring much of what Hollywood has tried to impute as ideal. She’s still thin, white, beautiful, and straight, but she’s the thing that the vast majority of mainstream media pretends doesn’t exist: a woman over 40. More specifically, a woman over 40 whose image combines the sexual and the maternal, the ambitious and the empathetic. As one fan of the hundreds who, when solicited, offered testimonials about why they loved Britton told me, “She makes getting older seem incredibly appealing — not just because she looks stunning, but it’s the sense of presence and surety she projects.” The combination of confidence and beauty, of wisdom and maturity — that’s what undergirds her fandom.

At this moment, the seeming singularity of Connie Britton, and the magnitude of the affection directed toward her, bespeaks a generalized hunger for a female star that models a nuanced, mature, and periodically imperfect form of femininity. It’s about the hair, of course — which has taken on a near totemic function — but it’s also about much more than that.

Britton is by no means the biggest star in Hollywood: Nashville is limping through its third season, and she was on screen for all of 10 minutes in her most recent film, This Is Where I Leave You. But if you look closely, she might be one of the most important. Hollywood didn’t make Connie Britton a star, cobbling together the most reductive and regressive notions of what it means to be a woman today. We did, forging her in the most hopeful and realistic yet strong versions of our best selves.

Tommaso Boddi / Getty

The narrative of Britton’s early career has been recited in the various profiles of her post-Friday Night Lights fame. She grew up fairly WASP-y in Maryland and Virginia, went to Dartmouth, majored in Asian Studies, studied abroad with (now Sen.) Kirsten Gillibrand. She’d been involved in theater in high school and, after graduating from college, moved to New York and married her college boyfriend, and while he became a finance banker, she dabbled in off-off-Broadway productions while taking part-time jobs to help pay the bills, including one as an aerobics instructor, leg warmers and all. (Britton declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Britton and the finance husband divorced in 1995, but at that point she had spent eight months shooting the film that would put her, however briefly, on the map as the frustrated wife of an adulterous man in Ed Burns’ debut feature, The Brothers McMullen, a small character study with a tiny budget that went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

McMullen didn’t make Britton a household name, but it did put her on casting directors’ radar, which is how she nearly won the Jerry Maguire role that eventually went to Renee Zellweger.

Two paths diverged in a Hollywood casting room: One star (Zellweger) became a household name, while the other went on to a string of sitcoms. The Maguire role would have made Britton into a late-‘90s It Girl, but one look at the current state of Zellweger’s career — and the current uproar over daring to age and/or her resistance to it — and you can see why Britton should be thankful to have missed the chance to make out with Tom Cruise.

Instead of Maguire, Britton found herself cast in a slew of doomed pilots and in a multi-episode stint on the original Ellen as the overbearing, clueless sister of one of Ellen’s best friends, and eventually landed the role of Nikki on Spin City, where she would win the sort of quiet following that often follows supporting sitcom characters.

But when Fox’s Parkinson’s disease forced him to leave Spin City in 2000, Britton’s character was written off the show. For the next six years, she jumped from one small role to the next, sometimes picking up a recurring gig, as she did in The West Wing, other times ending up a piece of ‘80s-costumed window dressing, as she did in the film adaptation of Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights in 2004. It was an exhausting, frustrating schlep between sets and roles and disappointments.

In 2006, Peter Berg, who had produced the film version of Friday Night Lights, was working on a television adaptation for NBC that would be far more loosely based on the real-life events collected in Bissinger’s book. He asked Britton to reprise the same role she had played in the film, promising that this time, her role would be more fleshed out. “I was really, really hesitant,” Britton told Variety. “In fact, I said, ‘No. I love you and adore you, but I don’t want to.’”

Yet Berg reiterated his promise for something bigger and meatier than a meekly supportive coach’s wife — and it was that role, as guidance counselor, mother, wife, and eventually principal, that would, over the course of five seasons, turn Connie Britton into the household name that she nearly became more than a decade before. She wasn’t a buxom young starlet or the hottest new thing; she was just, quite simply and clearly, one of television’s best actresses in one of its most complicated roles.

The details of Britton’s struggle ultimately matter less than the sheer fact of a woman breaking through in Hollywood at the age of 39. But that’s just one of the qualities of Britton’s image that have made it so pervasively popular over the last eight years. For men and women alike, she exudes what feels like an amorphous, complex feminine aura. But ask any woman to tease that apart and you’ll see it’s an amalgamation of several interlocking areas: softness, maturity, progressiveness, and a particular take on “having it all.”

Michael Loccisano / Getty

The “softness” isn’t to do with Britton’s body — which is pilates-toned, but by no means a size zero — so much as her demeanor. And the way we understand Britton’s demeanor is as an extension of Tami Taylor, who spent five seasons negotiating her way to power from the stereotypically subservient position of “coach’s wife” in a football-obsessed town.

Instead of forcefully critiquing the cultural infrastructure from the outside, she works within its existing boundaries to change it. Her beauty, her smile, that nice-lady voice, all of it is a way of getting what she/the high school students she counsels want or need, especially when dealing with apparatuses of power (the boosters, the school board, Joe McCoy). She kills not with kindness, but with y’alls.

Tami’s power is negotiated, but it’s also a realistic rendering of how women in much of America are able to fight and win battles on a daily basis. Instead of busting balls, attempting to engage in conversation. Instead of insulting another’s way of life, trying to inhabit it. Tami’s mix of the soft Southern exterior with steely drive emulates a form of activism wholly recognizable to anyone who’s attempted to effect change in an environment wholly resistant to it.

That Tami Taylor brand of softness is replicated in Britton’s off-screen persona. No matter that Britton isn’t exactly a native Southerner: Her Twitter account is littered with y’alls. Which isn’t to suggest that Britton is performing “softness”; rather, it’s become a naturally accentuated component of her public persona. It’s amplified every time an interviewer asks her to recreate the “magic” of Tami Taylor — getting her to don Taylor’s signature aviators, for example — and underlined in her leading role in Nashville, in which she might say fewer “y’alls” but still embraces the same model of conciliatory power and strength, this time with more glitter and halter tops. The softness — and its power to persuade — endures. And of course, on screen and off, with its soft waves, its welcoming caramel color, there’s the hair.

When people talk about Britton, the first thing they talk about is the hair. Even in professional interviews, journalists ask her about it. Seth Meyers pegged an entire segment to it. The Britton cover story in More magazine begins with, “The hair is tawny, thick, and tousled to casual perfection. And it’s all her own.” American Horror Story showrunner Ryan Murphy says, “She has the best hair in Hollywood.” And then there’s the hair-supported Tumblr and the Twitter and the endless tutorials.

The hair connotes softness, but it also suggests a sort of unfettered, unabashed womanliness. It’s not just the volume — although that’s part of it — or the beautiful color. It’s not even the hair itself so much as what it’s not: namely, the stereotypical haircut of a fortysomething mother, doomed to the next four decades of practical mom-cuts.

As cultural critics Sarah Blackwood and Sarah Mesle put it, “The Hair asks us to think about a heavy ponytail at 40. Let’s not dismiss this as a joke, or as the same question as Botox or artificially plumped lips. If Botox is always about youth obsession, Connie Britton’s Hair is not always — or even ever — an attempt to look like Lyla Garrity or Hayden Panettiere. It might actually be about the specific pleasure of forty-ness.”

The utter fullness of the hair is like a testament to a life well-lived. The strawberry blonde highlights suggest a life spent in the sun; its ability to swing in a ponytail, to rope up in a French twist, tousle around the shoulders, even to look just this side of J.B.F., is like an extension of all the modes of femininity occupied by today’s accomplished woman.

Britton’s hair refuses to hew the line of what a woman’s hair (or life) should resemble. It’s not unruly the way that, say, Helena Bonham Carter’s hair is — but it declares, through its sheer existence, a different self-conception for a woman over 40 than those proffered by the media. The hair, in other words, feels like a revelation.

But if we’re talking about Connie Britton’s hair, we’re also talking about the way it complements her face. Usually people say that a face “betrays” one’s age, but Britton’s face functions as the opposite of betrayal: Each smile line and crow’s-foot makes her somehow more, not less, beautiful. She’s not old; she’s mature. And with that maturity comes a certain wisdom: the ability, for example, to discuss big, often alienating issues with grace and empathy, whether it’s talking to her teenage daughter about losing her virginity (Friday Night Lights) or figuring out how to admit that her marriage is over (Nashville).

Usually male stars are the ones who grow into their looks — see George Clooney, Jon Hamm, even Cary Grant.

It’s no coincidence that Britton worked in Hollywood for decades before breaking through. She was always beautiful, but it wasn’t until she looked the way she does now that beauty became one of her defining adjectives. Usually male stars are the ones who grow into their looks — see George Clooney, Jon Hamm, even Cary Grant — but most female stars peak and often became hyperreal versions of their former selves, an amalgam of precise surgery and injections.

In this way, Britton’s refusal to transform her face becomes an act of rebellion against a system of norms that would rather she freeze all movement above her eyebrows than have a visible wrinkle. But Britton has also consciously refused to bend her narrative into that of a woman obsessed with her own aging. As she told Esquire, “I haven’t really focused on myself as a quote-unquote ‘woman maturing.’ I try to avoid that at all costs. … Some of the press that happened around Nashville really was an eye-opener for me, because there were a lot of initial stories describing my character as ‘aging’ and ‘over the hill,’ and I was like, ‘What the fuck?’”

Originally, Britton’s Nashville character was framed as the aging has-been to Hayden Panettiere’s Taylor Swift-esque ingenue, but Britton hated the dichotomy. She fought the writers to cut scenes, like one planned for the premiere, in which she did the stereotypical pull-at-your-face-and-look-sad routine. She was “furious” about the trajectory of her character, especially, as Britton explained, given what had recently happened in her own career: “That’s not even who I represent as an actor,” she told the New York Times. “My life started being awesome five years ago.”

To admit that life can, indeed, start to be awesome at 40 — that’s a great quote. But it also exemplifies the sort of ideological rebellion that crystallizes the cult around her.

Jonathan Leibson / Getty

In Friday Night Lights, we never know how Eric and Tami Taylor vote. We can safely assume that the rest of their small Texas town almost certainly votes Republican, but the narrative never hinges on questions of political affinity. Rather, it divides on lines of haves and have-nots, of who advocates for which side and with what motivation. Tami Taylor might not label herself a liberal, but she’s an unequivocal progressive, working on the micro scale to rectify macro-level divisions of class, race, and gender.

The most prominent example manifests in the form of Taylor’s counsel to Becky, a 16-year-old who becomes pregnant the first time she has sex. When Becky asks Tami how she’d advise her own daughter in the same situation, Tami’s response is a master class in ethical counsel: “I would tell her to think about her life, think about what’s important to her and what she wants, and I would tell her that she’s in a real tough spot, and then I would support whatever decision she made.”

The episode received a significant amount of attention, in part because it was the first to directly address abortion on broadcast television since, well, Maude, nearly three decades before. But it’s but one of dozens of ways in which Taylor’s character models a progressive social view: the way she advocates for, and achieves, an equal partnership with her husband; her handling of the revelation of the mayor’s lesbianism; the best sex talk in television history; her overarching and persistent advocacy for Tyra in all parts of her life. You could say that Tami’s just doing her job as a guidance counselor, but she’s doing her job in a deeply humanistic way that’s implicitly, if not explicitly, in line with the aims of social justice.

Tami is outspoken and candid, never didactic or preachy. It’s the way, really, so many of us imagine our best activist selves: not as actors in some hyperpoliticized arena, but as good people helping and doing and advising not because of some overarching ideology, but because it seems right.

If Tami Taylor is the primary narrative agent of social justice in Friday Night Lights, then it makes sense that the aura of progressivism clings to Britton’s image outside of Friday Night Lights. But Britton’s own actions have only strengthened the conflation of Taylor’s work with her “real-life” beliefs. When the Mitt Romney campaign started using the Friday Night Lights catchphrase “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose,” Britton shot back, penning an editorial for USA Today arguing that Romney’s stance on birth control was counter to the central tenets of Friday Night Lights. During Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis’ filibuster to block a restrictive antiabortion bill, Britton not only proclaimed her support, but released a limited-edition T-shirt inscribed with “What Would Tami Taylor Do?” (standwithtexaswomen.org on the back) with all proceeds directed to Planned Parenthood.

Britton, like Taylor — and like the stated doctrine of Planned Parenthood — is not advocating for abortion, but for choice. But even that sort of advocacy would be too much of a polarizing issue for most celebrities to touch. It’s OK to support a political candidate, but a divisive issue like abortion, that’s something else entirely.

But if Britton’s willingness to attach herself to the issue of reproductive rights might have alienated a minority of fans, it served to fortify the support of the majority and solidify the cult. Even as it’s become increasingly accepted for celebrities to identify as feminists, few speak specifically about what that means, in action — in part, of course, to avoid losing fans or potential projects. Britton’s vocal support of feminist candidates and causes makes her advocacy seem less strategic, performative, or planned and more of an extension of a “true” self and belief system.

Rick Diamond / Getty

For a woman to “have it all,” she must, in some vague, unspecific terms, manage to simultaneously satisfy her boss, her children, and her partner; then, and only then, can she can be satisfied herself. And beautiful, and adhering to generalized body norms, and emotionally and spiritually fulfilled. As many have argued, “having it all” is just the ideal set forth by a postfeminist ideology in which all women should be all things to all people, with little mind to how it negates and evacuates the self.

Britton’s image, with its resounding echoes of Tami Taylor, offers a different take on the “have it all” scenario. As one half of what has been called “the greatest TV couple of all time” and “the best marriage on television,” Britton — along with co-star Kyle Chandler — models a relationship that’s an actual partnership. It’s imperfect, it’s filled with strife, but unlike most television dramas, which pivot on the question of when and how a couple will end up cheating on each other, Britton and Chandler decided that potential infidelity would never be the guiding question of their on-screen relationship.

Rather, the narrative focuses on how two ambitious, focused individuals do their best to keep loving each other — and their daughters — and still do the things that make them feel like worthwhile, accomplished humans. It’s never perfect: The house is never clean, Baby Gracie is often lugged around in confusion, teenage Julie is pissed a lot, and there is a modicum of white wine in every episode, but it feels like a lived-in, loving partnership, something to which a couple can aspire, rather than a way of judging their deficiencies. And the message of the series finale — in which Tami tells Eric that it’s her turn to let her career guide the trajectory of their lives — is also the most radical way for a show about a football team to wrap up, ever, the end.

The “having it all” of FNL is having some of all the things that matter to you, and finding value and validation in doing the best you’re able at those chosen things. You see the same philosophy modeled in Nashville, in which Britton’s character manages to juggle a career, two daughters, a collapsing marriage, an alcoholic love-of-her-life, and multiple new suitors, while also serving as a mentor to younger artists and starting her own record label. Rayna James doesn’t do any of those things perfectly, but she does them — and refuses to apologize for that seeming lack of perfection.

At the heart of both characters is a complexity, and an eagerness to balance a multiplicity of identities, that Britton herself has pushed for. On Friday Nights Lights, her attention to her character’s trajectory was described as “rabid”; for her turn in This Is Where I Leave You, she refused to allow the role of a woman dating a man two decades her junior to degenerate into that of a “cougar.” When Fast Company named her as No. 13 of the “100 Most Creative People In Business,” she outlined the strategy she’s adopted for “owning” a character: With each script, she goes through the dialogue line by line, working with Nashville showrunner Callie Khouri to identify “lines that don’t feel right” for the character of Rayna.

It’s not difficult to understand, then, why so many ambitious women find themselves drawn to Britton and the women she’s played on screen: As one fan explained to me, “Tami and Rayna totally captivate me because they’re each deeply OK with themselves, and that’s the source of their power.”

That sort of deep “OK-ness” extends to Britton’s personal life, in which she’s balanced a career with the duties of single motherhood (she adopted a son, Yobi, from Ethiopia in 2011), advocacy, and even sex. Friend and producer Sarah Aubrey told the New York Times magazine that “in my experience of watching Connie Britton’s dating life, it has not been Connie getting beaten out by 25-year-old girls, let’s leave it at that.” Or, in Britton’s words, “Let’s put it this way: The older you get, the easier it is to date younger men. There are more of them.” Britton’s been linked with comedian Jason Mantzoukas, but unlike contemporaries Jennifer Aniston or Cameron Diaz, whose love lives play out in the headlines, framed as fruitless searches for domestic bliss, Britton has kept her love life (and, presumably, really hot younger boyfriends) out of the limelight.

At the same time, Britton acknowledges how difficult single parenthood is — but also how privileged she is to have assistance. “Our hours [as actors] are long,” Britton told Redbook, “but I would never compare what I do with what anyone else does. Everybody’s working hard and doing the best they can — if you’re a mom, there’s that pressure, we all face it. I’m constantly being pulled in different directions. But that’s the thing: Moms are pulled and distracted. I would never say it’s worse for me because I’m an actor.”

That frankness — about the challenges of being a mother, but also the privileges and the desire and how to make it work with her life — is what not only distinguishes Britton’s image, but makes it meaningful to so many women.

Britton isn’t a movie star — and it seems very unlikely she will become one. There’s a reason her most memorable roles are on television; why the most indelible vision of her isn’t on the front of a magazine, but in the Friday Night Lights opening credits, with her hair pulled haphazardly up, in a cotton T-shirt, raising her hands in the air in a dance-like victory. She could be your own mom, or sister, or best friend, proclaiming some small life victory in your own little kitchen after a glass of wine at the end of the day.

With a liberal arts education and a thoroughly middle-class upbringing, Britton’s image resonates most with women whose trajectories are similar: On and off Friday Night Lights, she may be advocating for those who don’t enjoy the same privilege as she does, but the cult of Britton does skew toward those who are educated, middle class, and white. Which isn’t to suggest that this is Britton’s “fault” — her race, class, and educational background were in place long before she became a star — so much as to underline that Britton resonates with a particular demographic that, uncoincidentally, makes up a significant percentage of people who are sharing things on social media.

This sort of highly specific popularity is the new normal: Instead of a common group of Hollywood stars and prominent public figures who function as de facto models for everyone, the fragmentation of the American entertainment industry has birthed more, not fewer, idols. The internet has facilitated the elevation of the weird, the unique, and those who speak specifically to groups of people who feel that no other mainstream idol could.

Stardom scholar Richard Dyer claimed that “stars matter because they act out aspects of life that matter to us; and performers get to be stars when what they act out matters to enough people.” Connie Britton can’t be a star, then, because what she acts out — the possibility of beauty and vibrancy and sexuality over 40, unabashed advocacy and engaged feminist action — doesn’t yet matter to enough people.

The adult cult of Connie Britton is vocal and visible, but it’s still a fringe fandom. But the history of stardom is littered with actors whose importance didn’t become clear until years after their tenure, especially unruly, feminist ones like Katharine Hepburn, who was famously labeled “box office poison” in 1939, only to the next four decades slowly turning herself into an icon. But along with stars like Angelina Jolie, who has made it her mission to offer a different blueprint for how to wield power and influence in Hollywood, Britton is fundamentally challenging the polished, safe, postfeminist vision of female stardom that currently dominates so much of the Hollywood landscape. And that’s something like progress, y’all.

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Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News. Petersen has a Ph.D. from the University Of Texas and wrote her dissertation on the gossip industry.
Contact Anne Helen Petersen at anne.helen.petersen@buzzfeed.com.
 
 

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