TV TATTLE

Mrs. America is a historical drama that's more illuminating than a documentary on feminism, with a Walter White-like villain

  • "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," Inkoo Kang says of the nine-episode FX on Hulu limited series. "...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 (Phyllis) Schlafly helped bring to the political mainstream...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."

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    • Mrs. America struggles to encapsulate women's liberation with its overabundance of stars: "There’s a lot of talent involved in Mrs. America, FX on Hulu’s limited series about the fight to ratify — and block — the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s," says Kristen Baldwin. "The star-packed cast (Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Sarah Paulson, Margo Martindale, Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Tracey Ullman, and John Slattery) has 32 Emmy nominations (and 9 wins) between them, and no doubt this prestige-y production from creator Dahvi Waller (Mad Men, Halt and Catch Fire) will rack up more. (The wig work alone is award-worthy.) But as pedigreed as Mrs. America is, the show lacks a sense of cohesion, as it labors to give equal time to the ERA era’s many, many key players. The result is more admirable and educational than truly entertaining."
    • It’s remarkable that each episode packs in so much history in a way that never feels superfluous: "Each episode is titled after the woman who is the primary focus, with the first being conservative gadfly and face of the conservative women’s movement Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett)," says Kristen Lopez. "With her pearl necklaces and toothy grin, Blanchett is the picture perfect embodiment of the happy housewife that Schlafly spoke for, raising six children with her husband, Frank (John Slattery) by her side. It’d be easy for the script to turn Schlafly into a one-dimensional, fire-breathing harridan — and with Blanchett simultaneously inhabiting the role of elegant villainess so many times before, her casting implies a lean in that direction — but, like womanhood in general, that’s too simplistic and easy...Over the span of nine episodes Schlafly is presented as a complicated woman whose mean-spirited personality and hypocrisy is built into her as a means of being accepted by men. Introduced prancing around in a bathing suit at a political rally, Schlafly sells herself as the good woman — the perfect wife and mother — that men will support. Sure, it might mean a hand on the shoulder or a dirty joke said in her presence, but Schlafly believes it’ll lead to bigger things. In fact, the Equal Rights Amendment isn’t something she considers worth noticing, being more interested in foreign policy than anything else. But, as is proven throughout the series, Schlafly realizes the only way to be taken seriously is to stay in her lane and bring that fire towards a cause men fear: that one day their wives will turn against them."
    • Mrs. America pulls its punches when it comes to Phyllis Schlafly's racism: The limited series, says Pier Dominguez, "glosses over some unpleasant realities when it implies that racism was not a fundamental element of Schlafly’s politics, but rather a tactical position that emerged over time. She’s depicted as reluctant to mobilize white racism, and her courting of racist white Southern evangelical women is presented as strategic. 'We can’t have anything to do with the Klan,' she tells one supporter. 'But I am tolerant and I let everyone be against women's lib for the reasons of their choice.' Her friend Alice tells a Schlafly true believer that she felt comfortable with the movement 'when it was about protecting our place in the home,' she says, 'but somewhere along the way it’s become about something else.' In real life, Schlafly was against the Republican Party’s civil rights platform before the ERA, and even right before her 2016 death she was railing against 'illegal aliens' on her radio show. The show dramatizes the difference between strategic versus 'real' racists, and chooses to portray Schlafly as an incidental one. But ultimately all we can know are the results of the real-world policies she supported. (Not to mention the racially coded language of states’ rights that she was intent on mobilizing.)"
    • Mrs. America is a truly über FX drama: "Watching even a minute of Mrs. America makes it obvious which network it belongs to," says Caroline Framke. "It follows, to the letter, in the grand tradition of FX dramas that have long cultivated a brand of meticulous precision and prestige. From its stacked cast, to its impressive production design and array of wigs, to casting Sarah Paulson in a part seemingly tailored to her, Mrs. America is truly the über FX drama — a slightly ironic designation now that it’s one of the network’s first productions to instead premiere on Hulu. What sets Mrs. America apart, then, is its didactic mission and unabashedly bleeding heart. Each of its nine episodes feature several moments that try, with palpable urgency, to make its audience feel some pang of recognition, resentment, regret at how history hasn’t just shaken out, but repeated."
    • Cate Blanchett delivers a masterwork performance as Phyllis Schafly: "As the first episode, titled 'Phyllis,' shows, there’s something both compelling and creepy about following this woman," says Sulagna Misra. "Only Cate Blanchett could sell the little faces Phyllis makes when no one’s looking—what she won’t say and can’t say. Her performance isn’t exactly eliciting sympathy; it’s just a masterwork in letting you read her mind without missing a beat. She has one of those moments in the beginning of the episode, during a fundraiser for Congressman Phil Crane. She walks on stage wearing a two-piece in honor of her husband, a major donor, to the cheering and jeering of the fellow donors. She walks on with a brilliant smile, but her face turns haunted as she walks back out."
    • Mrs. America is like if all nine episodes of Star Wars revolved around Darth Vader: "There’s no mistaking that Mrs. America is Schlafly’s show, giving her everything she lacked as a media caricature: shape, complexity and even some empathy for her personal struggles and her own experiences (whether she acknowledges them or not) of being discriminated against as a woman," says Hank Stuever. "Blanchett turns someone many people would like to forget into someone who is wickedly unforgettable. Yuck, is one understandable reaction, but you also have to admit: It’s much more interesting to figure out what made Phyllis tick than watch nine episodes of veneration for the women’s rights movement. Mrs. America brings plenty of that, especially in the second half of the series, but who can resist such a consistent malevolence? It’s as if all nine Star Wars movies really had been about Darth Vader, instead of just being ostensibly so."
    • Mrs. America can be viewed as a feminist reclamation project: "Like FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson and Fosse/Verdon, there’s an extent to which Mrs. America acts as a kind of feminist reclamation project, recontextualizing a women who, like O.J.’s Marcia Clark and Gwen Verdon, has been neglected or mistreated by history," says Willa Paskin. "That Schlafly would hate to be recontextualized as a stealth feminist by a feminist project—'Phyllis is a goddamn feminist. She may be the most liberated woman in America,' (Bella) Abzug puts it—is a dry irony she surely deserves, a diss best served cold. Mrs. America’s implicit argument is that Schlafly does not get enough credit for being one of the best grassroots organizers and political visionaries of the 20th century; that her organization and vision were so toxic doesn’t mean they weren’t also powerful and prescient."
    • Mrs. America is like a spiritual successor to Mad Men: "FX on Hulu’s breathtaking Mrs. America, from the Mad Men writer Dahvi Waller, picks up in 1971, raising a throaty howl just as Don is teaching the world to sing," says James Poniewozik. "The story of the fight for and against the Equal Rights Amendment, it’s not a sequel, either literally or in format: It’s a nine-part series following real historical figures. But it is a kind of spiritual successor, a meticulously created and observed mural that finds the germ of contemporary America in the striving of righteously mad women. Like Mad Men, Mrs. America finds a fresh angle on a much-observed age of revolution by focusing, first, on a counterrevolutionary: Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), the cold warrior who, in Waller’s telling, seized on the culture war over women’s rights to raise her political profile and advance a broader conservative agenda."
    • Is even the most A-list of casts enough to keep the average viewer engaged in what amounts to nine hours of political inside baseball?: "The women’s studies minor in me wants to raise a fist and chant 'Hell yes! ERA now!," says Kimberly Roots. "The TV journalist in me isn’t so sure. I’m thinking specifically about Episode 3, which centers on the 1972 Democratic National Convention: If the audience doesn’t have a healthy grasp on how the delegate system works, the conflict in the episode — which concerns Chisholm’s tenuous grip on candidacy and whether or not abortion rights should be a plank in the party’s platform — likely won’t carry the dramatic weight it should. That said, Mrs. America‘s very existence serves as a reflecting pool for many of the political and cultural debates that continue to this day."
    • Mrs. America positions the two camps as mirror movements with more in common than either side would like to admit: Creator Dahvi Waller and her writers "do far more with these parallels than point out the hypocrisy, and cognitive dissonance, of Schlafly’s campaign, though they make room for that as well," says Alison Herman. ('She might be the most liberated woman in America!' scoffs Bella Abzug.) Instead, Mrs. America is a shrewd, clear-eyed exploration of power and politics, with a level of insight and detail that place it among the finest TV series to debut this year. This isn’t a hagiography of second-wave feminism any more than it is a hagiography of Schlafly. It’s a loving, tragic dissection of that movement’s failures—some inevitable, some not."
    • Mrs America mines the past for conflicts and contradictions with contemporary relevance: "It’s a tricky move to base a show around the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment, a piece of legislation first introduced in 1923 to enshrine protection from discrimination by sex in the constitution," says Adrian Horton. "Trickier still to make the linchpin Schlafly, the anti-feminist, anti-gay “family values” crusader whose coalition of conservatives tanked the ERA, once a bipartisan surefire, in the course of a decade. But Mrs America, created by Mad Men writer Dahvi Waller, mines the past for conflicts and contradictions with contemporary relevance, splicing warm-hued archival footage with deeply researched scripts with a roving structure. Each episode focuses on one woman (as go the titles – Gloria, Shirley, Betty etc) as she navigates the public fight for equal rights amid the personal struggles for opportunity, unity and political coherence in one’s private life."
    • Mrs. America tells the villain's story: "Villains don’t grow, or change, or come to their senses," says Sonia Saraiya. "They remain trouble until they die. Such is the case with the real-life Schlafly—who, as the series informs us, managed to publish The Conservative Case for Trump the day after her death. All the humanity Blanchett breathes into her is beside the point: She made herself into a monster."
    • Mrs. America protects itself from sexist cliché by avoiding pitting women against each other and by emphasizing coalition building
    • Mrs. America costume designer Bina Daigeler outfits are so spot on they've won the approval of Phyllis Schlafly’s daughter
    • Shirley Chisholm had a monumental legacy that Mrs. America doesn't do justice
    • What's fact and what's fiction in Mrs. America
    • A guide to who's who in Mrs. America
    • Creator Dahvi Waller on Mrs. America's wide focus: “I felt to really give a full picture of what happened in this moment in time, we couldn’t just go with one character’s point of view,” says Waller. “We really had to bring in multiple points of view, and at the same time it was very much an ensemble piece, so we wanted to carry all of the characters’ stories throughout. But I liked the idea of picking the moment in time we were going to focus on and say, ‘Whose story is most interesting to look at this part of the story through?’ It’s almost like that episode is their aria of the series.”
    • Cate Blanchett on playing a "polarizing" and "quite contradictory" character: "It’s undeniable that she is a contemporary woman who’s really changed the course of the American political landscape, and, I think, she did that by shifting the language," Blanchett says of Schlafly. "She really did move the notion of anti-abortion, which then became her life as a central plank into the Republican party, and conflated that with being pro-American and pro-family and characterized the feminist movement as being anti-family.”
    • Even Blanchett's mom wondered why she was playing Schlafly: “We are all women of contradictions,” says Blanchett. “My mother was saying to me, ‘How can you play someone like this?’ And I said, ‘Because you just asked me that question. I want to find out who she is.’”
    • Blanchett says Mrs. America had to feel relevant to the present day: “There’s no point in delving into this period unless it’s going to reveal something about where we are now,” says the Oscar-winning actress, who is making her first appearance in an American television series with Mrs. America. “The reason for me to want to do this was to reverse-engineer how we got to a place where equality was such a political hot button and also reverse-engineer how we got to the backlash that we’re living in right now. And living through, I hope.”

    TOPICS: Mrs. America, FX, FX on Hulu, Bina Daigeler, Cate Blanchett , Dahvi Waller, Phyllis Schlafly, Shirley Chisholm, Costume Design




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