A few weeks ago, for no special reason, I decided to watch the “Best of the 1980s” edition Siskel & Ebert. (It is on YouTube.) Each host agreed on just about all of the movies the other had selected, even though those movies weren’t on both lists. But towards the end of the episode, Gene Siskel took Roger Ebert on a (very mild) job for his placement of Alan Parker’s 1988 Best Picture nominee Mississippi Burning on a list of the best movies of the entire decade.
That’s what Siskel suggested, compared to films like Do the right thing and Raging Bull and E.T., Mississippi Burning it was unlikely to stand the test of time. And Siskel turned out to be … right. Mississippi Burning has been largely forgotten, while most other movies on both men’s lists remain popular to this day.
Indeed, Mississippi BurningIn which the investigation of two white FBI agents at the center of a story of black Americans struggling to protect their civil rights is almost a textbook example of the kind of film we routinely criticize today. Rather than focusing on the black Americans actually affected by racism, the film tunes into the experiences of white people – a failure now more widely recognized than it was then.
Ebert turned back against Siskel’s criticism by comparing the film to the nine-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah (one of the most important achievements in using film to keep the historical record). “This is a movie people have to see to know that this time existed and that people had these feelings,” Ebert said of it Mississippi Burning. “It’s part of American history that young children are not aware of today, even if it was only 25 years old, and I think that’s why it’s important.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about Siskel and Ebert’s debate when watching Hulu’s new mini-series Mrs. America (produced by and originally intended for FX), in which Cate Blanchett brilliantly plays conservative culture fighter Phyllis Schlafly, who built a coalition of housewives and kept the Equal Rights Amendment out of the U.S. Constitution. Mrs. America certainly lives up to Ebert’s belief in the importance of stories that teach us more about American history than we might even have wanted to know, but it also subtly pushes back against that idea.
The miniseries takes the cinematic history lesson and turns it inside out. Where stories like this are usually driven by bold voices pushing for change, Mrs. America is powered by a loud voice that insists on stagnation. It takes all the tropics of the story of well-meaning white liberals who create incremental progress and uses them against its supposedly progressive audience. You are not leaving Mrs. America root for Phyllis Schlafly, but the show forces you to see why she passed anyway.
Mrs. America turns Phyllis Schlafly into Norma Rae. The effect is discombobulatory.
When I started looking Mrs. AmericaI was afraid that the presence of Blanchett (one of the few people you could reasonably claim to be the best actor in the world) might make me too willing to forgive Schlafly, who stubbornly worked on the women’s liberation movement on her way by offering a lupine smile and a twinkle in her eye. Even without Blanchett playing her, Schlafly’s glitzy willingness to put up with something and then come up with a snappy one-liner creates an inherently compelling character, as well as a harbinger of incoming President Ronald Reagan himself.
But when I finished watching all nine episodes of Mrs. America, I was enraged at everything – about Schlafly, about the complacency of second-rate feminists who thought they had the equal rights amendment in their pockets, about the many women who claimed they didn’t deserve equal rights because they had bought into human-dominated power structures. (Schlafly was the most important of these women, of course.)
When the series premiered in April, there were a handful of articles imagine that Mrs. America would function as a Schlafly apology. I don’t really think the series is emphatically pro-Schlafly, something the last three episodes make very clear. But if you had only seen the first handful of episodes, you could conclude that it was all the same. We’re just hard coded to read characters like Phyllis Schlafly as active heroes working to change the system, something that Mrs. America and the creative team (led by creator Dahvi Waller, who wrote about Crazy men and Stop and catch fireruthlessly exploit.
An even better point of comparison for Mrs. America than other historical dramas, the 1979 film could be Norma Rae, for which Sally Field won her first Oscar as a union organizer whose femininity meant her opponents were constantly underestimating her. Norma Rae is a feel-good story about an underdog, triumphing against an unjust system with a combination of skill, guts and the ability to hide in plain sight. The bosses never see Norma coming, because they can’t even think of someone like Norma existing until it’s too late.
Mrs. America basically uses the same David vs. Goliath lineup, but turn it upside down. Schlafly is our Norma Rae, who organizes her legion of housewives from the 1970s to sow disinformation about the EWC and terrify the state legislature by refusing to ratify the amendment. (The ERA was short of three states; it has since been ratified by three more states, but well after the 1979 deadline passed.) The motionless forces that never see it coming are represented here by powerful figures like Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) , Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), and Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) – all left-wing women who work for the feminist project and dismiss Schlafly as an insignificant mosquito until it’s too late.
But wait a minute: that list is not entirely correct. What feminism achieved in 1971 (when the series began) was fragile and easily reversible. The powerful forces that longed to push back that feminist project, that is, the forces of the status quo, are represented here by Schlafly. Even if she did not have much cultural capital, she still advocated a deep-seated power system that possessed almost all of the political capital. So what if Steinem was on more magazine covers? Schlafly made sure people listened to her by … supporting the patriarchy.
Even more discombobile is the way Waller and her team use those underdog-against-the-system tropes to exert an almost funhouse mirror-like effect on the surrounding world. In the first episode of the series, Schlafly is constantly spoken during the appearance of a TV show to talk about foreign policy (her actual field of expertise) and then asked to take notes of the men in an important political meeting she attends as an expert, not as a secretary.
We know how storytelling works: we are set up to see Schlafly as someone who has had enough of the system as it exists and is fighting to change it. But Schlafly isn’t fighting to change the world; she is fighting to keep it exactly as it is. She looks at the humiliations she suffers and sees that the easiest way to get the power she wants is to give the men who hold that power she want. It’s a brilliant trick, one that actually locks the viewer into Schlafly’s rationalizations, and I’m not surprised it got a little nauseous.
In the second and third episodes – centered on Steinem and Chisholm, respectively – the series expands its portrayal of the feminist movement, where the show claims to be more than just Schlafly propaganda. Indeed, as the series draws to a close, she claims that her brokering with the devils she knows (including tacit approval for involving the Klan at some point) was no better than becoming the devil herself.
But, the series argues, America is ready to favor a move that does something big and important, especially if it can reinforce pre-existing prejudices. Compared to heady battles, a powerful solidarity-driven movement that advocates strong, clearly articulated principles will almost always win. And if Schlafly understands that, why not her feminist counterparts on the left?
Mrs. AmericaBrilliance lies in how easily it gets you to understand the grudge that drove Schlafly and millions like her
Mrs. America has received few negative reviews, but a consistent criticism in those reviews is that it is much more fun to hang out with Steinem and her friends than when it comes to Schlafly’s organization. And this complaint has something. The camera work in, for example, the offices of Ms. Magazine is much smoother than the still, locked shots that characterize the world of Phyllis. (This is another way the show doesn’t go well together – fluid camerawork is usually tied to the heroic, dynamic forces of change, which is one way the series indicates early on that its sympathy lies with the second wave feminists, too though it may not seem like it.) It’s easy to leave this show as if you don’t know what Schlafly ticked.
But what if the answer here is that what made Schlafly tick is ultimately not that interesting? Maybe she just wanted power. Maybe she just wanted to sit at the table. Perhaps she saw the easiest way to do that by convincing a country full of housewives and housewives that they had been written off by the feminist movement, something that was too easily supported by out-of-context sound bites from Steinem and her allies.
A common trope of left-leaning writing about conservative politics is a desire to better understand the motivations that drive right-leaning America. And Mrs. America puts forward almost every sociological explanation for the rise of Reagan conservatism at the same time. If you want an unwavering commitment to further enrich the wealthy, that’s here. If you just want a touch of racism, that’s here too. And if you want to believe that it’s all about maintaining a traditional way of life, you’d better believe it’s in this too.
But the central idea of Mrs. America is that what drives right-wing culture fighters like Schlafly is often just a desire to be heard. Schlafly ultimately has a much greater effect on American political society than Steinem, but Steinem still got a lot more magazine covers, even to this day. Part of the conservative revolution (going all the way back to Goldwater and Nixon) was the almost complete decoupling of cultural power – also known as soft power – from Topical power.
In other words, it is almost impossible to imagine a version of it Mrs. America that’s true Schlafly apology being made, and Hollywood is only too happy to call herself feminist and add female superheroes to the release slate. And that’s all fine! But that is not real power. Real power creates a Supreme Court that seems likely to roll back Roe v. Wade. Real power creates an environment so hostile to the fundamental improvement of women’s lives that nothing as basic as the national standard for maternity leave has ever passed. Real power demonizes women like me in the name of protecting children simply because I make a handy scapegoat.
I grew up in the country of Schlafly. I read her columns and sensed the thought of a conservative woman with such a powerful voice. (Child, I had yet to convince myself to give up political conservatism or embrace her femininity. We were all confused in the ’80s.) And I recognize in Blanchett’s performance a hunger for something more that united so many conservative women I knew. . But the target of their disdain has always been the people who have had an ever-shrinking portion of cultural power, because in order to target anyone who had real power, you might have to embrace some awkward contradictions.
A thing Mrs. America makes it abundantly clear how many of those uncomfortable contradictions occur within Phyllis Schlafly itself. Despite leading an organization reportedly made up of housewives and claiming to be a housewife herself, Schlafly changed from organizing politics to her full-time job. She claims to have no power, although she does so increasingly. She’s had a little bit of success, so she works hard to make sure other women don’t.
The series even reflects this in the way that it subtly encodes women’s stories as the only important one on both sides of the political ledger. The only male lead character is John Slattery’s Fred Schlafly, who is usually the barely present husband who would play a woman in most historical stories. And when men enter the story, they are almost always alien, barely comprehensible forces that haunt the edges of the frame. A crowd of them descends to the floor of a political convention. Chisholm, the first woman to run for the president and the first woman to lose the presidency, is surrounded by older white men at the conference. A small group of men belittle Schlafly in a smoke-filled room. A male talk show host tries to send the two husbands in attendance a so-called ‘couple debate’, even though their wives are much better equipped to argue.
All women inside Mrs. Americameanwhile are understandable and human and sometimes deep, deeply terrible. They have goals and hopes and desires, but they always have to give the screen to the men when they show up. Why?
My favorite scene in the series is a small one. Sarah Paulson’s Alice (a fictional composition by many of the housewives who joined Schlafly’s case) comforts another woman in Schlafly’s group in a bathroom stall at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston. The conservative women struggle to speak at the conference, and Alice finds herself shrinking from the limelight that is being forced on her. Her friend, meanwhile, confesses with tears that her husband doesn’t know she went to Houston. She is afraid. No, she is terrified. It is not difficult to read fear of abuse in this confession.
Alice hugs her friend and someone hammers the barn door. “Busy!” Alice calls, but the woman who knocked on the door just wants to know if everything is fine. She heard crying. There are little moments of solidarity like this everywhere Mrs. America, in almost every episode. Characters reach out and take care of each other. Women find ways to comfort each other because so often we are the only ones who even see another woman’s pain acutely enough to calm her down.
Mrs. America America holds up a mirror, and I mean that quite literally. Just as a mirror reverses every function in our face, Mrs. America reverses the way those historical dramas usually proceed. But I think it is necessary anyway. This is a series that people need to see to know that this time around, that people had these feelings, that women once thought they would see abortion rights protected rather than wipe out, that the constitution had almost a hard-won guarantee of equality between genders anchored in that a woman can run for president and open a door that America is still waiting for. It’s part of American history that the young kids don’t really know about today, even if it’s only 50 years old, and I think that’s why it’s important.
Mrs. America airs new episodes every Wednesday on Hulu. The series finale will air on Wednesday, May 27.