Plenty of films have been made about Texas football, but so few from a woman’s perspective. I’m being deliberately obtuse. Women in Texas football movies barely exist at all, other than as girlfriends, wives, worried moms, or occasionally whipped-cream-covered cheerleaders. There are exceptions, like 1991’s Necessary Roughness, where supermodel Kathy Ireland joins a desperate Texas college team, a premise the film treats as slightly less outlandish than if she were a trained mule. And in what is probably the first Texas football movie ever made, 1936’s Pigskin Parade, Patsy Kelly plays a coach’s wife who knows the game better than her husband and who eventually steps up to lead the team to a national championship. But these films are comedies. The joke is that these women are meddling in a man’s game, which—because they are in Texas—upsets the balance of the world.
In 2004’s Friday Night Lights, arguably the greatest film ever made about Texas’s existential obsession with football, the women are similarly sidelined. Forget passing the Bechdel test: the female characters of Peter Berg’s film hardly speak. It’s twenty-five minutes before Connie Britton, playing the coach’s wife, utters a single line of dialogue. (“God bless,” she says.) The movie’s almost over by the time Britton gets more than two words to string together. “When I was watching it, I thought they had made my character mute,” Britton would later recall. It’s little wonder that when Berg approached Britton about reteaming for a TV adaptation of Friday Night Lights in 2006, she balked.
But Berg promised Britton that his small-screen version would be different—that Friday Night Lights the show would provide “a great opportunity to give the women of that community a voice,” as Britton would put it, wryly adding, “which, of course, they have.” Britton’s character, Tami Taylor, would still be the coach’s wife. She would, in fact, often be referred to as “the coach’s wife” by the other characters, to Tami’s evident exasperation. But her refusal to stay within the confines of that role, to sit adoringly in the stands while the men ran the field, arguably made Tami the show’s strongest character. Tami Taylor didn’t just have a voice. Across five seasons, she was the voice: of reason, of compassion, of moral certainty, all delivered with her (usually) calm authority and the mitigating sweetener of a well-placed y’all.
Dillon, Texas, is a fictional town, and Friday Night Lights gets a bit vague when it comes to the details of the Taylors’ past. So I can’t say for certain where Tami hails from, or whether she is Texan by birth or by grace of the screenwriters. For her part, Britton said that she based Tami on an amalgam of the Southern women she’d grown up around in Virginia, “watching how creative they were with empowering themselves, using sense of humor and gracefulness—and at the same time, learning that this is how, as a woman, I hold on to power.”
Those aspects definitely describe Tami Taylor, particularly in Friday Night Lights’ early episodes, when she and her husband, Eric (Kyle Chandler), are still learning to navigate their newly adopted West Texas town, meeting unctuous boosters like Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland, more or less reprising his role from the film) and their big-haired, small-minded wives. Tami quickly finds herself lassoed into hosting pregame barbecues and pressured into joining the wives’ gossipy book clubs, and she masks her discontent behind a practiced smile and sing-songy voice. (The way Britton gaily pronounces Buddy’s name alone is a masterful pirouette of comic subtext.) Tami keeps up this Miss Congeniality act until she can let it all out in a strained “whisper-yell” at her husband.
But if Tami’s graciousness marks her as Southern, she seems most like a Texan in how confidently she seizes her own power—and in just how unapologetically she wields it. We’ve seen other depictions of strong, self-possessed Texas women who find their dreams thwarted and their souls crushed, and when some attempt to wrest control over their lives, it often ends in violence. But Friday Night Lights (that one wacky murder subplot aside) just isn’t that kind of show, and Tami isn’t that kind of character. She’s a more modern, more aspirational ideal of Texas womanhood—and one of pop culture’s most inspiring depictions of womanhood in general.
By Friday Night Lights’ second episode, Tami has staked out her own territory as Dillon High’s new guidance counselor, a perfect role for a person whose superpower is listening. If Eric’s stock sound bite is “Lemme tell you something,” usually offered as a prelude to some rousing, extemporaneous speech, Tami’s catchphrase would be “Is there something you’d like to tell me?” followed by a patient silence. And throughout the series, Tami lends her sympathetic ear to just about everyone, mixed-up teen and hopeless adult alike, becoming a surrogate mother to the entire town.
This is especially true for all the young women Tami takes under her wing, beginning with her own daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden), and extending to Julie’s bad-influence friend Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) and Buddy Garrity’s daughter, the cheerleader-in-perpetual-crisis Lyla (Minka Kelly). While Eric dispenses his own bellicose brand of tough love, molding his charges into men through carefully considered shouting, Tami works similar wonders for the girls, providing them with compassionate counsel that’s only slightly tinged with shame. Tami is “not mad, just disappointed” incarnate. She is driven by the belief that these kids can do so much more than their tiny world expects of them.
Above all, Tami warns these young women about hitching their wagons to men who will surely only love them and leave them—or worse, trap them in lives that are destined to peak at eighteen. Her worry reads a tad ironic, considering that high-school sweethearts Tami and Eric Taylor have one of the most maddeningly perfect marriages ever committed to the screen, a relationship that is built on fervent affirmations (“I love you, I respect you, I’m proud of you, I’m in love with you completely,” Eric rattles off to Tami in one typical episode), as well as a mutually frisky physical attraction.
But as Tami tells Julie, she almost didn’t get that perfect life. In high school, Tami was just another pretty girl—a prom queen and self-described “wild child” who wasn’t all that great at studying, who loved to party, and who might have dropped out entirely were it not for her meeting Eric, whose love saved her from complete moral turpitude. Tami explains that she’s so determined to ensure that Julie, along with every other young woman she invests herself in, learns to be independent—to not depend on fate and the good fortune of a decent Coach Taylor–type dropping into their lives to rescue them. Her story surely resonates with plenty of other Texan women who narrowly escaped similar traps, with or without a man. And besides, although Texas may be a righteous and God-fearing state, we tend not to trust any saint who hasn’t raised a little hell.
In our most prideful moments, Texans would surely also claim Tami’s compassion and individualism among our most defining traits—although these are also the qualities that regularly pit Tami against the rest of Dillon, which remains regressively mired in its traditions. In a town where football is religion, Tami is an agnostic, if not an outright heretic. She is aghast at the system of privilege that coddles the football players, which in turn creates a community of frustrated has-beens and hangers-on. And as soon as she’s inside the walls of Dillon High, Tami makes it her mission to dismantle it, beginning with pushing star full back Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) to do his own homework and stop foisting it off on pliant rally girls, even if it means getting a bad grade—even if it means that Riggins won’t be able to play for her husband’s team..It’s part of my job to make sure that you don’t grow up stupid,” Tami tells him. “It’s bad for the world.”
By Friday Night Lights’ third season, Tami has worked her way up to the principal’s office, where she is advised, like so many Southern women before her, to kill the patriarchy with kindness—to take on Dillon’s network of well-heeled bubbas by using her feminine wiles. But Tami can only play nice and wear plunging necklines for so long before she has to speak her mind. Then she does what she believes is right, no matter the consequences. Tami’s convictions lead her into some major defeats; she seems to spend the bulk of her tenure as principal being lustily booed at pep rallies, or getting chewed out by the omnipresent Greek chorus that is Dillon’s sports radio. Yet while these setbacks certainly take their toll, Tami also seems to take some satisfaction in putting up a fight: “Being able to stand up to those good ol’ boys for a second, I got that going for me,” she tells Eric, nursing her wounds from one such battle. “And wine.”
Eventually, inevitably, Tami faces the fight of her career. Her compassion, individualism, and stubbornness coalesce behind one of Friday Night Lights’ most controversial arcs as Tami finds herself counseling the fifteen-year-old Becky (Madison Burge) after a one-night stand leads to an unwanted pregnancy. As with her own daughter, or with any other young woman who seeks her advice, Tami doesn’t push Becky into anything. She tells Becky that she should think about her life and what she wants, and that she’ll support whatever decision she makes. And when Becky makes the tough decision to seek an abortion, the town turns on Tami again. When she refuses to apologize, this time they drum her out of her job.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Friday Night Lights ends with Tami accepting a newer, better job, one far away from Texas, with Eric agreeing to sacrifice being a godhead in the hallowed church of Texas football to follow her. Were she a real person, Tami could at least take solace that the show took place when it did, and that Becky didn’t come to her after the passage of SB 8—or for that matter, that her tenure didn’t overlap with the myriad campaigns of intimidation and disruption that are currently being carried out across Texas public schools. But as the series went on, it became increasingly clear that Tami’s situation was simply not tenable—that her world would either have to change with her, or it would have to lose her. “[Friday Night Lights] had started as a story of a football coach and a town obsessed with football,” Britton said a few years after the show had wrapped. “And we ended up telling, really, a very feminist story.”
As little interest as some of its viewers probably had in a feminist football story, the magic of Friday Night Lights was in the way it encouraged you to embrace its optimism, even if you didn’t always share its specific vision. It was a show about a town, not unlike those we know and love, learning to embrace the future—tentatively yet together. That charge was led by women like Tami Taylor, one grueling yard at a time, and it still can be. All we have to do is listen.