Photo: Mrs. America/Hulu
Disappointment is a striking theme to tackle in a television series. We so often look at professional, ambitious female roles and want to root for the character. The starting point of Mrs. America sits us on the cushions of our couches, beds, yoga mats, or giant bean bag chairs, and reminds us of these female roles from other series. Cate Blanchett’s Phyllis Schlafly seems like the many other women in media who are shoved aside for a male point of view. She has the origin story of a hero we want to prevail.
Then, she finds her voice. When she does, we kiss our comfortable sitting positions goodbye.
Blanchett delivers Schlafly’s lines with a tasteful balance of malice and sweetness, and we can see the subtle glimmer that says, “I feel dead inside,” behind her pupils. In the first episode, Schlafly sounds Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope in our heads muttering, “My God, [Phyllis], will you stop it with the letter writing campaign,” only with about a thousand percent more hatred.
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Mrs America is a layered onion of conflict
Cate Blanchett’s performance accurately brings not only a total disdain for Schlafly, but a level of understanding too. Inner conflict drives us mad as we giggle at her witticisms as she schemes a new way to thwart liberal ideas like women’s equality. It is truly heartbreaking. Underneath the willful harm, we can see another Schlafly, who is desperate and relatable. One let down after another, she finds herself uniquely powerful by navigating a man’s world. While we understand Schlafly’s motivations, knowing her method makes us even less warm on her. This is not a villain of ignorance, but someone who knows exactly what the sacrifice to feel important is. Blanchett swallows the conflict, barreling like an evil trolly with the Equal Rights Amendment tied up Penelope Pitstop-style on the tracks.
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The parallels on screen bring a stern eye to modern politics
In Gloria Steinem’s “What It Would Be Like If Women Win,” she speaks briefly about the idea of a family being more than just parents and children. We see this idea developing on-screen as a start to Steinem’s vision. Family is not only Schlafly’s to have, but it is also for Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and her daughter. Family is for Steinem and her sisters at the Ms. magazine. Family is everyone who supported Shirley Chisholm in the most important presidential campaign we might ever see. Family is also pain, argument, and challenge.
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Seeing a 1972 Democratic Party make demands of each other, bargain, and turn on each other is a true grounding experience. We wonder how people with common beliefs can be so divided when the stakes are at an all-time high. The democratic party tends to shoot itself in the foot when it comes to unity. If there is an image of unity for democrats, it should come through strong passion like we get to see with Uzo Aduba’s Chisholm. Mrs. America warns us against step aside-politics with Aduba’s unconceding will.
The wonderful cast highlights the movers and shakers of the period
More than a history of who Gloria Steinem is, we see more about how she is. Steinem faces a weight she carries as a symbol for abortion rights and women’s equality. Many in the world are thanking her every day on the street, and the problems of each woman become very real to her. Masses of individual, hurt faces turn to her and depend on her. Rose Byrne’s performance shows us how that weight bears on her. Steinem is far from the only major player in this story. The female forces behind the Equal Rights Amendment each hold a lonely burden of responsibility when things go south. Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), and Brenda Feigen (Ari Graynor) all take on devotion to this cause and spend every waking moment thinking about it.
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The cast performs beautifully, reminding us that the women behind these characters understand the fight. While watching, we find it hard to ignore that Steinem and Chisholm live in a world not so different from the one Byrne and Aduba experience. The magic of a piece written, directed, and acted by women (and in the case of the episode “Shirley,” with Tanya Barfield writing and Amma Asante directing, women of color at the helm) is its coherent attitude toward women’s issues. The tragedy and disappointment of this profound mini-series is seeing Ms. in 2020, still actively fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment. Mrs. America breaks our heart immediately, and then it makes us cheer for the heroes anyway.
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