By Linda Holmes
“With everything else going on in the world, now I gotta spend almost nine hours of my life thinking about Phyllis Schlafly?”
It only seems honest to admit to this reaction to the approach of Mrs. America, a nine-part miniseries created by Dahvi Waller. It was made under the FX Networks umbrella, but it’s available only on Hulu, which drops the first three episodes on April 15. The series is not exclusively interested in Schlafly, but she is its point of greatest fascination, as it tells the story of the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.
What has set Mrs. America apart since it was announced is its large and impressive cast: Cate Blanchett as Schlafly, the conservative woman who railed against feminists as immoral opponents of decent housewives everywhere and successfully generated a large backlash against the ERA. Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, the creator of Ms. magazine and a representative of the movement whose prominence would remain controversial both inside and outside it. Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, the presidential candidate who found much of second-wave feminism to be, at best, condescending to her candidacy. Margo Martindale as New York congresswoman Bella Abzug, Tracey Ullman as influential author Betty Friedan, and on and on and on.
At the center is Blanchett’s deployment of her most patrician affect (which is saying something) to portray Schlafly as an ambitious woman eager to gather power, who originally tries to obtain it as a foreign policy commentator. Finding that door largely closed to her — in part because of sexism — she realizes that while they don’t want her opinions on foreign policy, she is very much welcomed by the male politicians in her circle when she is fighting and deriding other women. Feminists, specifically. Blanchett’s version of Schlafly adopts her antifeminist positions more because they are her path to power than because they are her greatest passion, although there’s plenty to indicate she believes in them at least enough to support their imposition on other women. (As other characters repeatedly point out, Schlafly herself is hardly living the life she advocates as the one most noble for women: Far from a housewife, she is essentially a professional full-time lobbyist.)
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It’s curious. The performances in Mrs. America are, as you’d expect, uniformly excellent. But there is something that feels not quite complete about it. Perhaps it’s that the series’ reach exceeded its grasp. Because about half of the narrative energy is spent on Schlafly and about half on all the women in the feminist movement put together, they all, despite the marvelous and nuanced portrayals, struggle to be fully realized. Martindale has a couple of very moving scenes as Abzug, whose moment is passing between the beginning of the 1970s and the end, and whose carefully crafted political skill becomes disappointing for the women who want her to stand firmer on matters like gay rights and racism. Byrne shines in the moments when Steinem proves young enough and progressive enough to be more aware than some of her colleagues of the racism inherent in the movement she’s helping to lead, but not quite able — or is it willing? — to make eradicating it a priority.
Still, it’s almost inevitable in a historical sweep like this that some stories will seem to get short shrift. Chisholm’s presidential campaign is a big part of a single episode and Aduba drives it brilliantly, creating a Chisholm who’s wise in general as well as wisely skeptical of figures like Steinem and Abzug. But she’s absent from long stretches of the story. Similarly, it would have been great to see more of Niecy Nash as Flo Kennedy, a character who shoots off sparks in every scene in which she appears. It’s refreshing, and it’s essential, that Mrs. America is transparently cognizant of the lack of commitment the women’s movement has often shown to black women, poor women, lesbians, and other constituencies not well-represented in its leadership. But it perhaps needed more of this part of the story, told through the lens of these characters — more, more. More of Aduba and Nash and of Bria Henderson as the editor and activist Margaret Sloan-Hunter. More of Annie Parisse and Anna Douglas, who play Midge Costanza and Jean O’Leary, who want nothing to do with a movement that still welcomes Friedan, whose opposition to embracing lesbians as part of the women’s movement lasted years.
Moreover, because there are so many of them and there’s so much stage-setting to do and so much updating about what’s actually going on in the decade or so that’s covered here, the women on the ERA YES side spend a lot of their time explicitly explaining and expositing on matters of feminism, feminist strategy, and internal movement politics. Where Schlafly gets at least some scenes with her children and husband that don’t revolve around her explaining her beliefs about the ERA, the women working with Abzug and Steinem rarely do anything except tell you what they’re going to do next and why, and who’s fighting with whom. Rifts like the long-standing (and well-known) one between Steinem and Friedan are more documented than illuminated, simply because of the limitations of time. Nevertheless, the time spent with these characters is never boring, simply because the acting is so good.
What doesn’t work as well is a composite character named Alice, played by Sarah Paulson — also a tremendous actress, here given a disappointing role. One of Schafly’s early acolytes and a close friend, Alice’s growing doubts are the least satisfying subplot on offer in all nine episodes.That’s partly because Alice seems like precisely what she is: a made-up person among icons, cooked up to make a specific point. But it’s also because by the time we spend most of an episode watching Alice contemplate whether she wants to remain on Team Schlafly, the question of whether this comfortable, well-off woman will finally push back after ignoring years of clear signals that Schlafly’s movement contains elements that trouble her morally, her plight seems exceedingly low-stakes, compared to everything else that’s happening. Cognitive dissonance is a distraction when it’s framed against, say, civil rights.
But back to Schlafly, where we began.
If it is meant to be inherently perplexing, and thus fascinating, that a woman who has experienced sexism herself would take up the cause of antifeminism, or that anyone from any other group would assume a position of hostility against what seem to be their own interests, we are surely past that now. If the central question of the series is what made Schlafly choose this cause, the answer it provides is simple: because it was there. Because this was the place in which powerful men found her most useful, and therefore it was the place in which she was able to gain a toehold to eventually accumulate power of her own, which she could flex independently.
The Schlafly you see here is as much an opportunist as a believer, although she is surely both. There are suggestions that she bristles at the arrogance of her lawyer husband Fred (John Slattery) and privately enjoys the moments in which her stardom eclipses him. But the answer that the series provides about Schlafly’s fundamental (so to speak) qualities goes like this: she wants power, she lacks empathy, and she’s very effective at creating baseless fears in people that she can then exploit. It’s profoundly depressing to watch, and it’s very plausible. But does it enlighten? Is this something different from what you might expect to learn?
Mrs. America doesn’t ask you to sympathize with Phyllis Schlafly, exactly; it is unsparing in drawing her as a tremendously unkind and destructive person — and, increasingly as it goes on, a dishonest one. But it does seek to explain something about her. It seeks to use the story of her as a way to explain how power works and how politics works, as well as how the ERA came to fail after looking like it was on a clear path to ratification. But perhaps we are past needing all of this explained. Perhaps that is why the story of Schlafly feels wearying.
To be clear, Mrs. America is made well; in particular, it’s directed and edited well and acted very well. There are some playful and clever juxtapositions in the editing, as when you jump from a very sexy scene to one in which Schlafly is dutifully rubbing her husband’s tired calves. The re-creation of the aesthetic of the period is gorgeous and feels truthful, looking like the 1970s rather than a send-up of the 1970s. Across nine episodes, it never feels dull, even though it does sometimes feel a bit speechy. It doesn’t give in to too many of those moments in historical pieces in which names are dropped in a wink-wink kind of way, as when Schlafly meets two young men late in the series who seem unimportant and then introduce themselves as Roger Stone and Paul Manafort. Or when a young woman helping with the legal work is told, at the close of her one significant scene that perhaps she should assume a higher-profile role — and then she is addressed as “Mrs. Ginsburg.” Winkety-wink.
But something seems amiss, separate from the filmmaking, separate from the artistry. Maybe it’s just that it can be hard to separate Mrs. America‘s utter bleakness from its quality. Its conviction that determined public figures can persuade people to turn on their neighbors in response to invented threats is hard to argue with, but hardly a proposition for which one needs to turn to fiction — even historical fiction. As the old Palmolive ad of this era would have said: we’re soaking in it.