This review originally posted on April 2nd
In the fifth episode of FX’s miniseries Mrs. America (airing on Hulu as part of a new, somewhat confusing partnership), conservative activist Phyllis Schlafley (Cate Blanchett) and her lawyer husband Fred (John Slattery) go on TV to debate a young liberal couple—Ms. magazine co-founder Brenda Feigen (Ari Graynor) and her husband Mark (Adam Brody), both lawyers. The couples each come to the stage with relational baggage; Phyllis has taken the LSAT in her son’s place “as a lark,” a move her husband does not approve of. Brenda has just revealed to Mark that she has slept with a woman, twice, and can’t say she won’t do it again. But in the debate, Mark supports his wife and calls them equals, while Fred describes Phyllis pointedly as “submissive,” something that makes her force a smile and twitch as she suppresses exceptional rage.
Equality is at the heart of the issue here, and in Mrs. America as a whole (five episodes were reviewed out of a total of nine). The series, which starts in 1971, examines the national debate taking place over the Equal Rights Amendment, meant to put women on the same legal footing as men. For some housewives across America, though, the amendment was concerning because it was ushered in by second-wave feminists who (they believed) threatened to dismantle traditional family values. And at the head of that anti-ERA movement was Illinois housewife and mother of six, Phyllis Schlafley.
Phyllis is the nexus of everything happening in Mrs. America, but each episode also spends time with one or two other important women on the opposite side of the movement, from Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) to Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) to the first black woman to run for President, Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba). Where the limited series, created by Dahvi Waller, really excels (and manages to eschew the issues of other series dealing with similar topics) is that it’s not overly reverential to these real-life characters. It also, crucially, doesn’t treat them as caricatures—there is a deep, recognizable, and very true humanity to each of these women that is immediately authentic, as they move in and out of each other’s lives.
Mrs. America also acknowledges, through the complexity of its narrative, that this is not just a politically complicated story but a personal one. Phyllis may look perfect and put on the polished veneer of a doting wife and mother (Blanchett is absolutely the peak of luminous elegance in the role), but in early episodes she’s rarely at home. She yearns for the spotlight and to enact real change, and she has the smarts to achieve it. The problem is, while she is shrewd about using this anti-ERA stance to bolster her position, she leans too heavily into, shall we say, “alternative facts.” Really, downright lies and fabrication meant to stir up her already frightened base. Its effective, even if its easily dismantled. (And sounds very familiar, no?)
While Phyllis works hard to be the paragon of a conservative Everywoman, her husband calling her submissive rattles her. She’s meant for more than what he believes she can do, and she knows it. Meanwhile, the accomplished Brenda—whose husband is completely supportive in making her sexual exploration exist alongside their marriage—feels called in certain ways to create a more traditional family and stable environment for her eventual children. The point for both sides is choice, and yet, Mrs. America makes clear that there’s no winning here: women will always be judged for any decision or circumstance regarding marriage, children, and a career.
In addition to its stellar cast (and everyone is, truly, outstanding), the series boasts a killer soundtrack that manages to be familiar without being just a “Greatest Hits of the ‘70s” compilation. So many series chronicling important historical moments, especially in this particular era, become so rote and cheesy in their use of archival footage and needle drops that we’ve seen and heard a hundred times before. Mrs. America, somehow, manages to make it all seem fresh, and perhaps that’s down to its perspective. While these are women who are integral to several important movements, the script doesn’t shy away from showing the in-fighting, dislike, mistrust, and uncertainty within each group. It’s not catty, it’s just real. Every episode includes scenes that deal with messaging—who’s in, who’s out, who do you support, how do you express it, who is allowed to talk to the press—because the stakes are all so high. On both the left and right, issues of race crackle around the edges of the movement. Is feminism too white-centric? Is its opposition movement too soft on racists?
Mrs. America is juggling a lot, but it never feels like too much. Like the ever-present (worthless) question of “can a woman have it all?” Mrs. America does have it all, and more. It illuminates an essential part of the women’s liberation movement and the real women behind it (and against it) in ways that are engrossing, enlightening, and sometimes enraging.
The first three episodes will premiere all at once on Hulu—an easy binge. After that, viewers will have to wait weekly for new installments, but it will be worth it. Mrs. America is dense, worth savoring and discussing throughout. It manages to walk an almost impossible line between reverence and satire, and it also gives clear historical context for the rise of the Moral Majority and the women who have come to rule Fox News, and all who align narrow “traditional values” with being American. But regardless of politics, it’s clear in the series that women on the right and the left—the sniping Betty, the sighing Gloria, the gliding Phyllis, the adamant Shirley—just want the ability to live their lives freely, without judgements, and on their own terms. The struggle continues.
Mrs. America premieres Wednesday, April 15th on Hulu.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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