'Mrs. America': TV Review

A tremendous balancing act between historical and humanizing.
4/15/2020

Cate Blanchett and Rose Byrne square off as Phyllis Schlafly and Gloria Steinem, respectively, in FX on Hulu's saga of the doomed effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.

A century after female suffrage became the law of the land, there is still no constitutional ban on legalized discrimination against women. The closest that America came to passing the Equal Rights Amendment was, ironically, nearly half a century ago — only a few years after where Mad Men left off.

The new miniseries Mrs. America — debuting on Hulu after being greenlit at FX — might well be the best screen depiction of the long fight for the ERA's ratification, as well as the ultimately successful conservative backlash against the bill. Created by Dahvi Waller and visually shepherded by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (the directing team behind Captain Marvel and Mississippi Grind), the nine-part drama alternates between anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) and boldface-name leaders of the Second Wave like Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) and Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba).

The inaugural cover of Steinem's Ms. magazine in 1972 — seen briefly on the show — depicts a contemporary update on the eight-armed Hindu goddess Kali, juggling work, motherhood and domestic labor, all while trying to appear graceful and effortless, with one high-heeled foot planted into the other leg in a yogic tree pose. With a decade's worth of stories to tell, it's easy to imagine Waller in the same stance while constructing Mrs. America.

That makes the miniseries a tremendously executed balancing act. Taking place at a time when feminist concerns seemed more mainstream than ever and social progress (especially women's advancement) felt all but inevitable, Mrs. America is full of oblique but unmissable parallels to the current political moment. (The show's overt comparisons between Schlafly and Trump — whose playbooks both include lying about crowd size, overselling their familiarity with the Scripture, dividing the world into lovable winners and whiny losers and ignoring facts whenever convenient — might grate were it not for a careful attention to how those strategies come naturally to a woman of her generation and milieu.)

At the same time, the drama is careful to delineate what a special moment the 1970s were for the women's movement — in all its idealism, excess and, eventually, doom. Few would call a decade that began under Nixon and came to an end with Reagan a more enlightened era than today, and yet many of the progressive policies the Second Wave leaders thought they could enact would still seem pie-in-the-sky today. (The many tactical disagreements between the establishment, compromise-ready feminists and their radical, revolution-or-nothing counterparts also find multiple echoes in the current election cycle.)

Brisk and unwilling to handhold, Mrs. America is extraordinarily attuned to the ideological and intersectional schisms within both the Second Wave and the emerging Moral Majority movement that the Catholic Schlafly helped bring to the political mainstream. (Destined for the series' Emmy reel are the many scenes in which Schlafly, in encountering the proud racists, murderous homophobes and anti-papal evangelicals whose numbers she needs but whose stances she can't publicly support or personally abide, tries and fails to twist her face into something resembling polite disagreement. Blanchett lets the contempt show.)

But the miniseries is just as adept at humanizing these historical figures, particularly as vanguards beset with vulnerabilities and doubts. In that sense, Mrs. America might be the rare historical drama more illuminating than a documentary on the same subject.

As destructive as Schlafly the real-life personage was, the fictionalized version here is a godsend for prestige TV — a Walter White-like villain whose cunning, ambition and even troll-ish wit we can't help admiring even as her egomania leads her to wreak mass havoc. In her meatiest role since 2015's Carol, Blanchett laps up every last self-justifying drop of the contradiction that is Schlafly, a mother of six based in suburban Illinois who wheeled and dealed with Congressmen, traveled widely and wrote ceaselessly to spread her cause and eventually grew a grassroots movement that would put her favored presidential candidate in the Oval Office — all while preaching that a woman's place is in the kitchen. Mrs. America is keenly fascinated by how high a woman can rise while constantly cutting herself off at the knees.

But it isn't just hypocrisy that makes Schlafly such a compelling character. The personification of an iron fist in a velvet glove, Schlafly has difficulty living up to her own ideals and convictions, occasionally directing that clenched hand against herself. The marriage between the Schlaflys (with John Slattery playing her older husband, Fred) is full of meaningless duty and profound disappointment, and she reveals a genuinely loving side as she accepts one of her sons' homosexuality, only asking that he exercise more discretion with his flings. Of course, those who bear the brunt of her demands are the women around her, housewives (Sarah Paulson, Melanie Lynskey and Kayli Carter) who don't realize they've become what they hate — "working girls" — by joining Schlafly's army. 

Given her high collars and ever-present bun, it's easy to forget that Schlafly — looking like a bust from a Victorian cameo — was less than a decade older than Steinem. No other historical personage comes across better — and more relatable — than the legendary feminist writer, who is recast, and likely correctly revised, as a relative lightweight struggling to be taken seriously by both the experienced activists around her and the male political world at large. (Byrne, in her best role since 2015's Spy, lets Steinem's insecurities and frustrations truly sing.)

Set in an era that solidified stereotypes about feminists as fat and ugly (if not blaming men for their inability to find a husband because of their looks), Mrs. America is realistic about the role that Steinem's beauty and glamour played in attracting press and opportunities. But that spokesmodel role also fueled anxieties within Steinem, who, in this retelling, cared more about writing a book as influential as Friedan's The Feminine Mystique than taking up the spotlight.

Having already written the tome that sparked the Second Wave — at least in her mind — Friedan bristles at Steinem's youth and idealism. Blanchett, Byrne and Ullman make up the trio of perfectly cast actresses at Mrs. America's center, but in my mind, Ullman, in a skunk-streaked wig, slightly edges out the others, with her character illustrating more than any other the often blurred lines between self-promotion and righteous crusading. Even in a fight by and on behalf of women, older women and difficult women — Friedan is both — are conspicuously unwelcome. Add to that Friedan's reluctance to battle on behalf of queer women — especially when heteronormativity is an undoubtable asset in the attempt to make feminism palatable to the rest of the country, as the miniseries makes clear — and you've got a tragic figure in the making.

There are so many other storylines in Mrs. America, including the tension between the work-within-the-system Abzug and the burn-it-all-down Chisholm; the increasing schisms within the Second Wave by race; the rightward drift of the GOP to the horror of moderate Republicans like insider-activist Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks); and, among the professional feminists, the inability to fully grasp the threat that Schlafly poses to the ERA. But Waller's rotating storytelling approach, in which different characters take the center stage in different episodes, feels judicious in its choices, while mimicking the lateral decision-making that Steinem and her peers employed at Ms. to ensure inclusivity.

Since we know going into the miniseries that the amendment won't pass, Mrs. America often plays like a horror story, with dread suffusing many a scene. While the Schlafly-ites vastly overestimate the power and influence of the "libbers," the D.C.-based Second Wavers, in a bubble of their own, are clueless about how alienating, even threatening, their rhetoric (like Friedan calling marriage "a comfortable concentration camp") can be. Their slow-dawning realization that the conservative backlash is much bigger and more vicious than they could have imagined can't help feeling overwhelming because many of us experienced the very same shock and horror in 2016.

Unless you're a Schlafly-ite, it's impossible not to get infuriated by the conservatives' baseless scaremongering — the draft of women into the military, nongendered bathrooms, the elimination of the Girl Scouts — that led to the political inviability of the ERA. But Schlafly does land one inadvertent point in Mrs. America: How would its ratification change the daily lives of ordinary women? Expect this handsome production and its superb A-list cast to inspire you to call your Congressperson, or at least sign an online petition, on behalf of the ERA, which remains comatose, but not entirely dead. That said, without examples of what the ERA might change, the accusations of its largely symbolic status — lodged by some of the characters in the series — continue to niggle. Still, there's no denying that Mrs. America makes history come alive, in thoughtful and achingly real detail.

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Margo Martindale, Elizabeth Banks, Sarah Paulson, Uzo Aduba, Tracey Ullman

Creator: Dahvi Waller

Showrunner: Dahvi Waller

Premieres Wednesday, April 15 (Hulu)