The previous episode of Mrs. America ended with the Hal David/Burt Bacharach-composed “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” If we were watching this series in one long binge, that song would serve as the perfect segue into this week’s episode, “Phyllis & Fred & Brenda & Marc,” a title that pays homage to the 1969 film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which also closes as “What the World Needs Now is Love” is heard on its soundtrack.
That movie, about one couple pursuing an open marriage and another, more conservative pair reticent to follow in their friends’ footsteps, dovetails with the themes of this episode, which places Phyllis and Fred Schlafly in opposition to Brenda Feigen and Marc Fasteau, who wind up enmeshed in a couples’ debate of the ERA on Tomorrow With Tom Snyder. (One of the great delights in this episode: Seeing Bobby Cannavale cast as Snyder, complete with monstrous sideburns.)
Obviously Phyllis and Fred are the conservatives in this scenario, while Brenda (Ari Graynor of I’m Dying Up Here) and her husband Marc (a practically unrecognizable Adam Brody) are the more progressive ones, not only ideologically but sexually. When Brenda confesses to having a D.C. dalliance with another woman, a Ms. photographer named Jules and played by Roberta Colindrez of Fun Home and Vida, Marc is fine with it. He chalks it up to Brenda “experimenting,” which is similar to the way Bob and Carol Sanders handle things in that Paul Mazurky film. But by the end of the episode, it’s clear that in any marriage, even the most open one, it’s almost inevitable to feel somewhat boxed-in. “Isn’t marriage, by definition, a prison?” asks Gloria Steinem early in the episode after attending, along with Brenda, Marc, and Gloria’s boyfriend Franklin Thomas (Jay Ellis), an extremely terrible black-box play that doubles as a screed against wedlock.
Even though Phyllis (and by extension, Fred) get fileted in that televised debate, this episode functions, in a way, as the first hint at an eventual Schlafly win. “Phyllis & Fred & Brenda & Marc” demonstrates how entrenched traditional gender and relationship roles are in America and how hard it will be to transform them, even in the midst of a sexual revolution responsible for producing the ERA movement, Ms. magazine, and really lousy theater in which actors run around wearing oversized muppet penises. That challenge is especially great for members of the LGBTQ community, who play a central role in this episode. In the early 1970s, same sex-marriages are nowhere near becoming reality, and gays and lesbians seem destined to remain on the fringes, even when they are (in theory) welcomes in more liberal circles.
While last week’s episode hinted that Phyllis’s oldest son John (Ben Rosenfield) is gay, this week’s episode confirms that, and also that Phyllis is well aware of it, so much that she’s willing to pay off a possible paramour when he comes to the house to drop off John’s wallet. Phyllis doesn’t reject John or force him to move out, but she does inform him that homosexuality is just a habit he can kick, the same way she once stopped smoking. (I love how Phyllis talks about smoking being “unladylike” right after a scene in which Gloria puffs away on her ever-present cigarettes.) “You just have to exercise willpower,” she tells her first born, as if she has any qualifications or knowledge to advise him on his gayness. Telling people what to do despite a lack of qualifications or knowledge is basically Phyllis’s jam.
Then the two sit side-by-side at the piano playing “The Entertainer,” most famous in the early ’70s as the theme from The Sting, a movie in which Robert Redford and Paul Newman play a pair of con artists. Who are John and Phyllis Schlafly at this point if not a pair of con artists, the son who is forced to pull off a straight-guy long con and the mom trying to persuade the American public that she can speak credibly about constitutional law when all she can actually do is pull made-up cases out of her rear end. (Sorry. That wasn’t very ladylike.)
John Schlafly isn’t the only gay character treated disrespectfully in this episode. When Margaret Sloan (Bria Simoné Henderson), one of the few if not only black editors at Ms., gives her notice to Gloria, she says she is moving to Oakland because there are better schools for her son. But we know the real reason: as both a lesbian and a woman of color, she believes she’ll finally find real acceptance on the West Coast. Gloria takes her at her word, though, that the move is because of her son’s education. As progressive and compassionate as Gloria may be, she’s also a white woman who cannot fathom that Margaret might not feel fully part of the Ms. family.
Even the way that Brenda and Marc initially talk about Jules, like she’s the equivalent of a fun trip to a sexual amusement park, is dehumanizing. As soon as Marc realizes Brenda’s affair was with a woman, he seems immediately unthreatened. Which is… condescending as well as naive? Brenda continues seeing Jules and begins to feel confused by her feelings, but the discovery of her pregnancy more or less seals the deal that the marriage will continue. “I guess I’m more conventional than I thought,” Brenda tells Gloria. But she also admits that she’s afraid of the impact that dating women could have on her work.
“Are you going to call a press conference and sit beside me and declare we are all lesbians?” she asks Gloria, referring to the press conference called back in 1970, after Time magazine noted that feminist Kate Millett publicly said she was a lesbian. Steinem was among the feminists who attended that presser, where feminists declared women’s and homosexual liberation a common goal, a shared objective that later crumbled when Betty Friedan got involved. “Where’s Kate Millett now?” Brenda pointedly asks Gloria. As rah-rah feminist as Brenda is, she believes society is only willing to accept so much change at once. Trying to advocate for gay rights and women’s rights simultaneously may be, sadly, too much. (In real life, after Brenda Feigen gave birth to a daughter, her marriage to Marc fell apart. She eventually came out as a lesbian and has continued to work as a lawyer focused, among other things, on anti-discrimination law.)
Clearly the Feigen-Fasteaus are not as conventional as the Schlaflys, but this episode signals that there are constraints placed on women in both scenarios. Phyllis isn’t out hitting lesbian bars — if she was, I am certain everyone would assume she was doing some form of Amelia Bedelia performance art — but she is out taking the LSATs when her husband clearly does not approve. Phyllis may be on a crusade to keep “family values” intact, but she’s also desperate to have the freedom to pursue her ambitions. But she doesn’t have a husband like Marc. Instead she has Fred, who calls her submissive on national television, who asks what time dinner is just to passive-aggressively assert his place within the household, and who tells her she’s too old to become a lawyer.
Phyllis ultimately navigates all this by doing what a good, traditional wife would do: make it up to her husband by giving him a nice gift, in the form of a brand new briefcase. But she also can’t help herself from announcing that she’ll take his old briefcase, which she plans to use if she gets into the law school at Washington University in St. Louis. That’s when John Slattery, as Fred, delivers the most loaded line in this episode: “You really don’t have to work this hard. Lots of people don’t want the ERA to go through. They won’t let you fail.”
On the surface, that’s supposed to sound reassuring, I guess. But every sentence in that statement has a subtext. The first: “You’re a housewife, you don’t need to study law.” The second: “You’re not so important to the anti-ERA movement. It will probably flourish without you.” The third: “You won’t fail at stopping the ERA, because so many men like me don’t want women to succeed in other endeavors.” In other words, he’s telling Phyllis the same thing Phyllis told John: to swallow her identity and do what society expects of her. Of course, Phyllis doesn’t see the correlation between her plight and her son’s, or even her situation and the women’s liberation movement. Phyllis refuses to flip on the light switch that would illuminate everything, even though it’s right there, in arm’s reach.
This episode closes on a note that, at first glance, rings as deeply ironic. After scenes that reveal just how unliberated Phyllis and Brenda are, the broadcast of Free to Be You and Me, the children’s TV special born out of the children’s book and album overseen by Marlo Thomas, airs on television. As the New Seekers sing about a land where “you and me are free to be you and me,” the implication is that clearly not everyone in 1974 was close to achieving that kind of freedom.
But I took away another message. Free to be You and Me had a major impact on every kid who grew up in the 1970s, and beyond that, too. I remember reading the book and either watching the special or listening to the album over and over again at my elementary school. Free to be You and Me, which benefited the Ms. Foundation, as Gloria notes in the episode, taught us that girls and boys were equal and that the norms attached to each were just a construct. In the special and on the record, NFL player Rosey Grier told us it was okay for boys and girls to cry. We learned that boys, as well as girls, play with dolls. Free to Be You and Me even featured a story about a hyper-gender-normative girl who gets eaten by a tiger, okay? It blew our little minds.
While Phyllis & Fred & Brenda & Marc (& Gloria & Bella & Shirley, etc. etc.) worried about the passage of the ERA, Free to be You and Me was doing work that was almost as important. It was conditioning the next generation to see the world, and gender, in a healthier way.
“Fuck Yeah, Feminism” “Fuck Yeah, Mad Men” Moment in This Episode: I’m taking a break from feminist highlights this week to talk about Mad Men, because Mrs. America is the closest I’ve come to finding another Mad Men since, well, Mad Men went off the air. That’s not surprising since Mrs. America’s creator, Dahvi Waller, worked on Mad Men. In case you somehow missed it, there’s a moment in this week’s episode, which Waller wrote, that specifically references the AMC drama. It’s when Fred, aka John Slattery, aka the actor formerly known as Roger Sterling, advises Phyllis to reframe the terms of her debate with Brenda so that she can be aided by her legally savvy husband. “If you don’t like the terms of the debate,” he says, “change the shape of the table.” Which is another way of saying that famous Don Draper phrase, which Peggy Olson happily stole: “If you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation.”