The Binge: Mrs America

part of my Directed by Women series
MaryAnn’s quick take: Apart from the value of its explicatory gloss on anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, there is entertaining, gratifying drama in the clash of so many complex feminist women working against her.
I’m “biast” (pro): massive hairy-legged feminist
I’m “biast” (con): worried this would glorify anti-feminist women
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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I’ve been trying to get my thoughts on the Phyllis Schlafly–centered FX/BBC miniseries miniseries Mrs America to coalesce into something coherent for weeks now. The Amy Coney Barrett fiasco has finally solidified them, and seeing her rushed swearing-in to the US Supreme Court — at night, almost sneakily, the judicial equivalent of a shotgun wedding — has filled me with a clarifying rage.

Coney Barrett is a deeply conservative evangelical “Christian” zealot who belongs to a fundamentalist sect called People of Praise, in which women are referred to as “handmaids” and are subservient to men. Apart from the fact that this will render all of her work on the Court suspect — is she deferring to the male justices? is she taking orders from her husband, and should we consider him the de facto justice? — her extremism, which now tips the balance of the Court far to the right, means that all manner of human rights in America are at stake, from equal pay for women to women’s access to essential health care (including, yes, abortion). Racial and LGBTQ+ equality are also threatened. Because Coney Barrett’s brand of Jesus-shouting thinks women and nonwhite people are lesser, and is terrified of Teh Gay.

Mrs America Margo Martindale Rose Bryne
Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem might have something to say to Phyllis Schlafly.

Fundamentalist Christianity in America is, by default, misogynist, cisheteronormative, and white supremacist, and its rise as a political force in the United States began in the 1970s, with Phyllis Schlafly as one of its most famous faces. I’m too young to remember how, in the 70s, Schlafly scuppered the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have enshrined in the US Constitution legal equality on the basis of gender. (Though more on this below.) But I do recall her presence on the 1980s political scene, and how her antiwoman, antifreedom, anti-American Eagle Forum was an integral part of Ronald Reagan’s fundamentalist conservative movement “Morning in America.”

Coney Barrett is a political child of that movement, and a spiritual child of Schlafly. And so suddenly, Mrs America — which debuted only this spring but before the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and subsequent rush-ushering of Coney Barrett onto the Supreme Court — has become even more essential viewing than I was thinking about endorsing it as, as a way to begin to understand women such as Coney Barrett and Schlafly. What makes a woman turn against her own self-interest, her own humanity? What makes a woman who is clearly intelligent and brimming with professional ambition use her talents to squash other women who have the same?

This is a bit of an ironic turnabout on my part, because I’d held off on watching Mrs America, even with its sprawling awesome cast and feminist themes, because I had anticipated that star Cate Blanchett (How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, The House with a Clock in Its Walls), goddess and cinematic force of nature, would render Schlafly as inappropriately compassionate; I had absolutely no desire whatsoever to see this person humanized or excused or forgiven. These fears were quickly put to rest. This is no sympathetic portrait, except in that very broadest sense for which I heartily recommend it, for demystifying, to a degree, ladies against women. The hypocrisy of Schlafly’s position is never less than wholly front-and-center, as a woman working in a professional capacity to tell other women that it is their God-given duty to stay home, even while she is often away traveling and leaving her children to be raised by hired help. (Her husband, an old-money lawyer played with just the right amount of smarmy charm by the treasure that is John Slattery [Avengers: Endgame, Churchill], is supportive of his wife’s calling, but not enough to, like, actually take on any domestic duties himself, of course.)

Mrs America Sarah Paulson
Another goddess here: Sarah Paulson, as a composite character meant to demonstrate the quiet discord in the Schlafly campaign… and the tribalism that cements it.

Schlafly’s acquiescence to her status as a second-class citizen, from the start here, is irretrievably tied up in her constant stroking and flattery of her husband (and of all the conservative men around her). There’s a scene in the first episode in which she goes to his office to get his signature on *checks notes* a credit-card application. By law, she cannot apply for a credit card without the permission of her husband. And she’s running for Congress! If she considers this financial dependence an indignity, an affront to her as an adult with agency, she shows no sign of it. Instead, brilliant Blanchett silkily makes Schlafly’s beseeching a way to butter up her husband, make him feel better about having a wife who is, just a little bit, challenging his dominance over her — she even brings him baked goods to smooth the path. Her Schlafly is — and, we may confidently presume, the real Schlafly was — a woman who will happily step over other women in order to secure favor with the men who hate women. Maybe they’ll hate her slightly less? Maybe they’ll see her as slightly better than all those Other subhuman women?

This becomes obvious only in retrospect: we begin to grasp Schlafly’s driving motivation gradually, across Mrs America’s nine episodes. It comes as her work and philosophy contrast with the slew of high-profile women who are working for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. (Quick primer: For an amendment to the US Constitution to pass and become part of the document, at least 38 of the 50 states have to ratify it. So the attempt pass the ERA was a years-long, state-by-state battle.) Opposing Schlafly is the rather ramshackle coalition of activist, journalist, Ms. magazine founder, and unwilling glamour girl Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne: Like a Boss, Peter Rabbit); pioneering (as a Black woman) Presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba); Republican operative Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks: Brightburn, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part); pugnacious lawyer and politician Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale: Blow the Man Down, Downsizing); and Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman: The Tale of Despereaux, Corpse Bride). (In addition to the deities among the cast, the show’s divine directors include Amma Asante [A United Kingdom, Belle] and the team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck [Captain Marvel, Mississippi Grind.])

What makes a woman turn against her own self-interest, her own humanity?

Apart from the value of Mrs America’s gloss on WTF-Schlafly, I adore how we see so many different, complex women all working together in the same cause while also having disagreements on how to achieve it. There is such wonderful and entertaining and gratifying drama in the clashing of these wildly diverse personalities. I can’t recall when, if ever, we last saw so many distinct intriguing women all in one story. (This has always been women’s reality — we are all individuals. It’s just so rarely depicted as reality.) Even better, Mrs America gets at how white women, even the really well-meaning ones, have absolutely missed infinity opportunities to bring Black women, and other women of color, along on our feminist journeys. (I cringe to think that this applies to me too. I am trying to be better.)

I stand by all of this even though I also take onboard the Los Angeles Times essay by the actual Gloria Steinem and Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, about how misleading Mrs America is about the reality of the ERA battle. (I did not read this until after I had seen the series and settled on my opinion about it, so take that as you will.) Steinem and Smeal dislike how the show depicts the ERA issue as a catfight among women — conservative Schlafy versus all those progressive feminists — when, in fact, the (male-dominated) corporate fix was already in, because equal rights for women would be too costly to Big Insurance and other big-money entities. I did not know this! But I’m not even surprised. Of course men and money were behind pushing Schlafly as the villain; of course, as Steinem and Smeal write, “the obvious truth is that we [women] don’t have the power to be our own worst enemies.”

Mrs America Rose Byrne Niecy Nash Elizabeth Banks
Gloria Steinem and Jill Ruckelshaus are joined in deploying side-eye by lawyer Flo Kennedy (Niecy Nash).

But I do still think there’s real value in Mrs America, for its portrait of Schlafly as — though it’s never explicitly stated — a woman who knows she is working toward cementing a subordinate role for women in American society… but who thinks that work will earn her a special place in the eyes of the men in her circle should she succeed. She does discover that this never fucking works. Men, especially conservative men, will fuck over their female allies whenever they can. I would like to say that it gives me pleasure to see that Mrs America ends on such a bitter note for Schlafly. I mean, it does end on such a bitter note, but it doesn’t give me pleasure. Schafly, as we see here, is working for her own benefit in the realm she knows best, the conservative evangelical one, ensuring her own status as, at least, slightly higher than other women who aren’t part of her tribe. Like Coney Barrett, she will here be rewarded for pushing other women down, and will gain some favor among the men who see women as lesser. But it will never get Schlafly as far as she wants to go. And even given Coney Barrett’s ascension to the highest court in the land, I remain confident that she will be thwarted, will never achieve the status we may presume she desires in her circle. The men she strives to please will never see her as their equal.

None of this constitutes an original insight on my part: it’s long been part of feminist understanding that some women — smart, self-aware women in conservative circles — will work against the interests of all women if it serves to elevate them, however slightly, in their anti-woman circles. But I’m not sure that that’s an idea that is understood in the mainstream, and it needs to be.

I wish I had something deeper to say. I wish I could dismiss with some pithy snark the trajectory America is on. I can’t. Mrs America shows us how the nation has been on this path for the past 40 years. I wish I knew how to divert that path. But I do at least know that we have to understand the path before we can alter it. Mrs America can help with that.

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