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There's Never Been a Better Time (Unfortunately) to Watch Mrs. America

It's important to sit with FX's historical drama, even with its downer of an ending.
  • Cate Blanchett in Mrs. America (Photo: FX)
    Cate Blanchett in Mrs. America (Photo: FX)

    Created by Dahvi Waller, Mrs. America premiered on FX on Hulu (now separate entities once again) in 2020. The limited series wove together stories of different types of women, with different types of power, working together in support of the Equal Rights Amendment — and against it. So it’s not surprising that people were wary of watching it in 2020, a year in which, thanks to the Trump administration and COVID-19 pandemic, the many fissures in our society only deepened. Watching the show feels like being witness to the kind of historical progressive failure we felt like we were already living through in 2020, and it was understandably too hard to bear for some viewers.

    But for many people during the period, the Equal Rights Amendment seemed a natural progression of shifting cultural mores. While the show’s wide-ranging narrative begins in 1972, before the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade in 1973, significant human rights gains were made at the national and state level in the surrounding years. 1972 saw the Supreme Court decision of Eisenstadt v. Baird, which allowed unmarried people the same right to possess contraception as married people. The first no-fault divorce law was passed in California in 1969 (and signed into law by then-Governor Ronald Reagan), while the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA), wherein women were able to get credit cards in their own name, was passed in Congress in 1974. (The ECOA was originally introduced in 1973 by Representative Bella Abzug, who is played by Margo Martindale in the show.)

    Mrs. America depicts a watershed moment in American politics that might be widely known, but is not so well understood. If you’ve always lived in a world where the Equal Rights Amendment failed to be ratified, then you may feel the story has already been “spoiled” for you, since you know the outcome, which crushed the hopes of many women, while the one woman who came to embody its defeat, Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett in the series), went on to approve of Trump’s presidency.

    But to take this stance is to miss out on a keenly written chapter of American history that is imperative for viewers to understand — not just to sit with the amount of work these people put in to try and get the amendment passed, but also to comprehend the many factors required to make true political progress. Consider how movies like And the Band Played On and Milk helped audiences in the ’90s and mid-aughts, respectively, better understand the AIDS crisis and gay rights movement, even while depicting heartbreaking realities like Reagan’s total lack of sympathy for the victims of AIDS and Harvey Milk’s assassination. The ’70s marked a time in American history in which many laws were passed that greatly changed gender politics, but Mrs. America presents that time period through the lens of failure to help audiences learn from the setbacks.

    The show moves swiftly through the decade, stopping at Ronald Reagan’s victory in the 1980 presidential election. The series starts by decentralizing the history, which has often been filtered through the life of a single figure, like Gloria Steinem or author Betty Friedan. Interestingly, that’s the same misstep Steinem believes Waller’s series made; she felt Schlafly’s role in the ERA’s defeat was overstated: “[Mrs. America] makes it seem as if women are our own worst enemies, which keeps us from recogni[z]ing who our worst enemies are. Not that we aren’t in conflict, yes we are in conflict, but by and large we don’t have the power to be our own worst enemies.”

    Mrs. America doesn’t pit women — including Steinem (Rose Byrne), Betty Friedan (Tracy Ullman), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Uduba), Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), and Brenda Feigen (Ari Graynor) — against each other so much as let their stories run parallel, demonstrating the various ways that these women fought for, held, or struggled with power. By highlighting several different characters throughout its run, the show strives for veracity, throwing off any kind of narrative shell while trying to depict sequences of events accurately. This approach also depicts the grunt work that’s needed in political movements, where so many little actions and stories can coalesce into one overarching one. And it’s only through the depiction of those stories as facets of a larger whole that we can fully acknowledge the historical significance of an event.

    The show follows three conventions: the 1972 Democratic National Convention, the 1976 Republican National Convention, and the National Women’s Convention of 1977. While these were all key points in the movement to ratify the ERA, Mrs. America renders them as studiously unglamorous affairs that were personally and politically unsatisfying in some ways, and painfully necessary in others. Similarly, HBO’s And The Band Played On captured the nitty-gritty of how the U.S. government eventually stepped up and tracked information in the face of a huge crisis. As anyone who was checking CDC updates on the coronavirus can now understand, the ways and wherefores of a virus require extensive work to track and understand. Roger Spottiswoode and Arnold Schulman's adaptation of Randy Shilts' best-selling 1987 non-fiction book And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic made all the math and health statistics accessible, intelligible to viewers. 2015’s Spotlight tells a similar story of doing extensive research to uncover numerous dreadful stories that cohered into a horrible, extensive scandal.

    The series ends on a depressing note: Reagan wins his election and the ERA is set aside. In April 2020, when the show premiered, pandemic lockdowns were underway and the fear inspired by the Trump administration crescendoed — it looked like things would only get worse from here, which again, made it difficult to engage with Mrs. America's subject matter. But we seek out these dramatizations to comprehend their stories within the broader context of history. To watch Mrs. America is to see the world fail to live up to a vision, and understand the fierceness of the fight for that vision.

    Mrs. America may elicit the feeling that we’re watching progress be made and then quickly thwarted — even now, three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, though there is the occasional heartening development. Republicans overturned Roe v. Wade (a notoriously unpopular decision) but failed to create a Red Wave in the midterms; Chicago has its first (truly) progressive mayor in Brandon Johnson, who now faces an uphill battle; and government agencies have begun making headlines for potential progressive changes. Pharmaceutical executives, of all people, have warned that overturning the approval of mifepristone is a threat to the FDA’s authority. The National Labor Relations Board — and Bernie Sanders — are calling out union busters like former CEO Howard Schultz for their misdeeds. And the Department of Education is changing Title IX to protect transgender athletes.

    It's important to sit with Waller’s historical drama, even with its downer of an ending, because just like the ERA’s success wasn’t guaranteed, neither is any future defeat. What we can take away from the show is the knowledge of how much power those of us who are fighting for human rights actually possess, which is more than we’ve had in years — and will be important knowledge to carry into another heavy election year. Mrs. America captures the pervading sense of uncertainty in even the most righteous fight for change, and how, even with the threat of failure, the fight is always worth it.

    Mrs. America is in its entirety streaming on Hulu. 

    Sulagna Misra is a culture writer who has written about TV, personality quizzes, politics, social media, and solar eclipses. She has a newsletter called Dream State, where she writes about all that and more. 

    TOPICS: Mrs. America, FX, Ari Graynor, Cate Blanchett , Dahvi Waller, Elizabeth Banks, Gloria Steinem, Margo Martindale, Niecy Nash-Betts, Phyllis Schlafly, Rose Byrne, Sarah Paulson, Uzo Aduba, Roe v. Wade