The first time I heard about the Equal Rights Amendment and the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 70s was in a documentary called The Seventies. Produced by Tom Hanks, it’s a decade-based documentary, that gives a brief snapshot of history. Fast forward to 2020, and we get a historical dramatization of the events, in Dahvi Waller’s Mrs America, a cross between Mad Men (with the gaze strictly on the women) and The Handmaid’s Tale, as it cycles through the active years of the movement in the attempt to ratify the bill.
Now when I say The Handmaid’s Tale, I’m not drawing upon the Dystopian nightmare at the heart of Margaret Atwood’s book turned TV show (although it is rife throughout with the patriarchy’s male double standards and its sleazy clutches of power). It’s more about the character dynamics. In the series, you had Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) and June (Elisabeth Moss), with their conservatism and liberalism put under the microscope to formulate a powerful juxtaposition of feminist beliefs and the balance of power.
Mrs America adopts the same attitude, but this time around, that snapshot exploration is between the conservatism of Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) and the liberalism of Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) and other prominent leaders of the movement such as Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) and Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba). The show takes creative liberties with its material, but the dramatised depictions of their real-life portrayals are spot-on.
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The series makes bold stylistic choices, using archival footage and a mixture of camera techniques (handheld for the liberals, traditional for the conservatives) that means the series can often feel like a ‘fly on the wall’ documentary. As a viewer, you’re invited to sit in on their meetings, witnessing the energised mobilisation of a feminist revolution (or if you’re the opposite – gleefully watching how feminist agendas were set back by fifty years).
The show looks intently at Cate Blanchett’s Phyllis Schlafly with fascination. Not only because of her opposition to the freedoms and independence as suggested by the “Libbers” (as she likes to call them), but how the show is always able to highlight the contradictions and hypocrisy within her character.
She is the perfect character you love to hate. Blanchett pushes all the right buttons on how backwards, stubborn and fear-mongering her controversial statements are (and boy, they are aplenty – both vicious and terrifying). Credit to the show, that’s why it works. It humanises her just enough to draw out some empathy but goes far enough to query the root of those insecurities and hysteria – even when the beliefs are to the detriment of her gender.
Because how else do you explain her insistence on preserving the traditional family when she employs help to manage the household? (And the Schlaflys never acknowledge her opinions or are curious enough to know what goes on in her life beyond her job of servitude.) How else do you explain the repeated blindness where sisterhood is called into question, when she can’t see her fellow Eagle Pamela (Kayli Carter) is abused by her husband? How else do you explain a mentality where she believes women are “inviting” being accosted by male advances, yet can’t reconcile with her own experiences of being a victim of those same pressures? The same pressures where she fights the same battles of recognition, to be seen and heard, to be ‘in the room where it happens’ so her voice is taken seriously.
There’s something pathological about her ego, power and privilege wrapped behind the media-savvy smiles, the regal attires and a Margaret Thatcher-like steeliness. There’s also a drive to be the centre of attention (helped by the strategic framing of the camera whenever it is focused on her). And cleverly enough, Mrs America is constantly measuring up the cost of those divides. For it to do that shows the enormity behind Blanchett’s performance.
It’s easy to pit this simply as a ‘for and against’ movement show. But the beauty behind each episode is a deep-dive conversation about feminism and its status of progression. And because the episodes are character-centric, those questions are personalised and forged to their identities. Nothing is off the table; at times, it’s complicated, it’s ugly and messy, broken down into microscopic battles – all the hallmarks for an absorbing watch.
And those differences play an active part in the changing attitudes of the decade, tapping into one of my favourite aspect of the series. When broken down by intersectionality of race, gender, religion, and sexuality, the series holds its own. By its own admission, are these characters practising what they believe in?
The depiction of Shirley Chisholm, for example, resonates because it thoughtfully asks questions about the inclusivity of movements as she runs for the highest office in the land – the President of the United States. In episode 3 (aptly named ‘Shirley’), she is constantly told to drop out, in favour of the politicking and chessboard manoeuvres to get George McGovern into the White House.
Uzo Aduba’s performance defiantly demonstrates how Shirley was ahead of the game by pushing that question to the forefront. Because how are women supposed to be unified in the battle of equality if the movement can’t fully recognise how their actions can silence Black voices? And that is a stark contrast to the predominantly white Stop ERA movement where Phyllis doesn’t want to see the movement hijacked by racists, but excuses are made either because they are good at organising or have an extensive mailing list that benefits her own cause. When Chisholm says, “power concedes nothing”, that becomes a symbolic message that’s played throughout the series.
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While there is a concerted effort to ensure everyone gets their spotlight moment (‘Houston’ proving to be another stand out episode for the series and Sarah Paulson’s Alice), it does, however, mean that some characters (whether fictional or real) lose momentum. The snapshot element I mentioned previously ends up with characters playing bit-part roles (in comparison to Blanchett as the constant thread woven throughout). And some are never given a resolution, disappearing for the episode to land at a new point in the Women’s Movement. It comes as no surprise that there’s a greedy wish for an extra episode instead of the allocated nine. But in covering the basics, thankfully, it is not enough to diminish the power behind the series.
Even with its stark conclusion, Mrs America is a solid and consistent summary of the Women’s movement, boosted by great performances by the ensemble cast. Revolutions are messy; lines are crossed, and personal sacrifices are made supposedly for the ‘greater good’ of the cause. And in doing so, the show makes dutiful parallels to the culture war battles seen today in modern politics. Waller’s show challenges enough to discuss the myriad of issues and relationships it highlights – and that alone is worth the watch.
Mrs America is currently available to watch on BBC iPlayer.