THE SHIMMERING CONTRADICTIONS OF MRS. AMERICA

“MRS. AMERICA” Pictured: Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly. Courtesy: Sabrina Lantos/FX

As the closing credits of Mrs. America’s first episode roll, you might find yourself wondering, “Is Phyllis going to switch sides?” In the TV world, it’s a logical prediction: Phyllis leads the movement against the ERA, realizes that she actually has a lot in common with the feminists she’s fighting, abandons her movement, and joins the libbers to fight oppression together in joyful sisterhood. But as those of us who were taught about Women’s Liberation in high school know (not to mention those who lived through it), that isn’t what happened. Phyllis Schlafly double downed on her anti-feminist beliefs until her death in 2016.

Mrs. America, FX’s latest limited series streaming on Hulu, catches Schlafly, masterfully portrayed by Cate Blanchett, at the moment where political brand started to crystallize into what we know today. The series tracks her transformation from pragmatic nuclear policy wonk to charismatic organizer of STOP ERA, a coalition of anti-Woman’s Liberation housewives.

Activist Phyllis Schafly wearing a “Stop ERA” badge, demonstrating with other women against the Equal Rights Amendment in front of the White House, Washington, D.C.. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. 

Schlafly’s career was in many ways a contradiction, and much of her character’s inner turmoil seems to stem from those internal inconsistencies. When first pressed about the ERA, she nonchalantly asserts, “I’ve never been discriminated against as a woman,” but the first episode is full of moments proving that’s she’s either in denial or just delusional. Her husband discourages her run for congress because it would mean too much time away from her duties at home and forces her to have sex with him when she clearly isn’t interested, Senator Phil Crane makes lewd passes at her, and a Republican higher-up asks if she would take notes on their meeting despite her not being a secretary. Though she never verbally expresses the gendered micro-aggressions we see, her anger shows in her face: a toothy smile that barely hides her apparent inner rage. Take away the content of her politics, and she emerges a sort of popular feminist icon: a woman who saw where she was needed, worked tirelessly to mobilize masses in the name of her political agenda, and let no man stand between her and her beliefs.

The show is ambivalent toward Schlafly, though. Her politics make her harder to root for than a traditional anti-hero, but she’s given too many obstacles worth overcoming to be classified as pure villain. What the audience is left with a character that is compelling because of her complexity. The moments of sympathy the show allows Schlafly are a bit harder to swallow given that she was a real woman whose reverberations we’re still feeling today. But to the relief of those who probably couldn’t stomach watching a whole series from Schlafly’s point of view (myself included), the following episodes are dedicated to Women’s Liberation leaders like Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and Bella Abzug, all who the show positions as Phyllis’ vibrant, easy to get behind opposition.

“MRS. AMERICA” Pictured: Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem. Courtesy: Sabrina Lantos/FX

Steinem, played by Rose Byrne, is as dogged as Schlafly, but she is also impossibly glamorous. As she strolls up to a reception for Ms. Magazine at the Guggenheim, she’s just about a movie star: an attractive man on her arm, wearing a super-cool black shag jacket, and a long voluminous ‘do topped by her signature aviators (an article could be written about the symbolic differences between Steinem and Schlafly’s hairdos alone). It’s hard to come away from that scene thinking anything other than “Gosh, I want to be her.” Steinem also gets a romantic sub-plot, a humanizing treatment that Schlafly doesn’t receive. In the third episode, we get a peek into the consciousness of yet another oppositional role model. Uzo Aduba’s Shirley Chisholm is a steadfast and tenacious presidential candidate who is committed to intersectionality before it was even a word. The show works to draw parallels between the three leaders. We see them all struggle with misogyny, both on institutional and personal levels, though two of them actively fight against it and one denies it exists. It almost goes without saying that the key tensions of the Women’s Liberation movement are still painfully relevant today, but the details are sometimes uncanny: a female presidential candidate refrains from dropping out even though her battle is all but lost, Schlafly warns against the coming of gender-neutral bathrooms, Steinem worries about the status of Roe v. Wade. Mrs. America’s contemporary feminist message is partly constructed through these parallels, widening out to indict injustice toward women writ large.

The show glitters with period-appropriate funk, the soundtrack injecting scenes with pops of life and grooving bass-lines. The costumes and art direction add to the show’s colorful political opposites: the pro-ERA leaders are soaked in jewel tones that deliciously contrast with the pastel-hued coalition of housewives. The camerawork heightens these contracts, framing the feminists in chaotic, angular shots while Schlafly’s coalition is symmetrical and meticulously-arranged.  The series is well paced, moving through history without stopping to explain itself. On the liberation side, the writing can sometimes stray toward pandering “yas queen”-isms (“If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament,” Steinem quips), but it never leans too far into self-congratulation– Tracey Ullman’s Betty Friedan is always good for a caustic punchline. The overall effect is a shiny, punchy show that inspires and entertains as it educates.

Even with the weight of historical accuracy on our backs, watching Mrs. America is an exciting and joyful experience. Though it’s not because we hope that the feminists will succeed in passing the ERA, since we know they won’t, but because it’s worth it to watch them try.

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