tv review

Mrs. America Isn’t Just a History Lesson

Cate Blanchett in Mrs. America.
Cate Blanchett in Mrs. America. Photo: Sabrina Lantos/FX

Mrs. America’s smartest move was deciding to be a TV show first and a history lesson second, although it takes a while for that distinction to take hold. Created and mostly written by Mad Men screenwriter-producer Dahvi Waller, and co-produced and frequently co-directed by Anna Bowden and Ryan Fleck (Captain Marvel), the FX on Hulu limited series brings many leaders of mid-century American feminism into one storyline, and rarely passes up a chance to pack four or five of them into the same room, the better to showcase how different they all were.

The inevitable flood of factcheck pieces will determine whether particular conversations are historically “realistic” in terms of what was said and where. What matters more is the complexity and generosity of the show’s vision of American life, and the crackling ensemble of its famous heroines — including Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), and Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks) — jammed into Azbug’s Washington, D.C. office to envision the future. Over the course of nine briskly paced hours, the first three of which premiere Wednesday, the group strategizes about how to empower the newly founded National Women’s Political Caucus, lobby mostly male Democratic and Republican leaders to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, make abortion legal, and neutralize pushback from charismatic reactionaries like Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett). At its best, the series gives you the contact high of a heist picture. The vault is patriarchy, the locked-up fortune is equal rights and equal wages, and the recurring strategic question is whether to keep gently turning the lock back and forth until the right combination reveals itself, or just blow the bloody doors off.

During the first couple of hours, you can feel the burden of obligation weighing the production down. There has never been a high-profile drama series on this subject, made with a high budget and an all-star cast, and there are times when the result feels like one of those history miniseries that used to air on broadcast networks in the ’90s. Some of the dialogue suffers from “I’m so happy that I can finally spend time with my only sister in her beautiful home” syndrome. Mad Men — a series to which this project invites comparison for the creator’s résumé, the mid-century accoutrements, and the casting of John Slattery as Schlafly’s adoring husband, John — mostly avoided such traps. But the more Mrs. America commits to being a TV show whose characters just happen to be real people with famous names, the less of a drag its obligations become. By the time you hit hour three, the actors have settled into their characters and internalized their co-stars’ rhythms and the story is on rails. The addictive energy of the ensemble infuses every scene, and you laugh when characters say the sorts of things you would expect them to say based on the time you’ve spent with them, as when Schlafly drily corrects the mispronunciation of her last name for the zillionth time, or when Steinem, walking home with her boyfriend after suffering through a boringly didactic satirical play about marriage and heterosexuality, mutters, “This is why they hate us.”

In the end, Mrs. America is a show about both a certain time and place and the political currents that have driven progressive and reactionary tendencies in American life for decades. When Schlafly rails against “the libbers” and gripes about “a small elitist group of northeastern establishment liberals putting down the homemakers,” her language echoes not just Richard Nixon’s White House pre-Watergate tapes, but press speeches and press briefings by Reagan, both Bushes, Trump, and the entirety of Rush Limbaugh, Fox News Channel, and Breitbart. The outward-facing unity of the Ms. gang — a Justice League of liberal feminists, each with her own fabulous look — contrasts with internal disagreement based largely on life experience. The series doesn’t flinch from showing how the entitled or simply oblivious behavior of white feminists alienates their African-American sisters, whether it’s Margaret Sloan (Bria Henderson), an openly lesbian editor at Ms., enduring Steinem’s rejection of her proposed article on racial discrimination in the workplace, or Chisholm digging in her heels when Abzug pressures her to end her trailblazing but numerically doomed presidential candidacy.

Byrne’s assured physicality as Steinem is complicated by the character’s knowledge that she ascended so fast thanks partly to her youthful good looks. Abzug — portrayed by Martindale as a bawdy, fearless truth-teller, reminiscent of Thelma Ritter’s hard-case sidekick characters — frankly tells Steinem that she’s feminism’s ideal spokesperson because of her “pretty face.” “Is that my only value to the movement?” “No,” Abzug replies, “we need your tits and ass, too.” This state of affairs justifiably annoys Friedan. She respects Steinem but has been a star much longer and struggles to repress her irritation at Steinem’s comparatively frictionless rise. At certain moments, we also gather that Friedan wouldn’t have minded having a long-term boyfriend — she got divorced two years before the start of the storyline, escaping an abusive marriage — but can’t say that publicly for fear of being branded a hypocrite or sellout. She also worries that her pioneering efforts were taken for granted by younger women, a concern that Steinem addresses in a gut-punch conversation that occurs just when Friedan needs to hear it most.

Mrs. America’s animating power source is the intersection of psychology and activism. It lets us watch eccentric, fascinating characters bounce off each other as they try to figure out what populist buttons to push to inspire voters and legislators to produce the results they and their supporters desire. Schlafly occupies roughly the same role here that Thanos did in the last two Avengers films: She’s the antagonist whose motives you understand and appreciate intellectually, even as a band of heroes on the other side of the political fence fights tooth and nail to defeat her. The series is set in the 1970s, when the flame of leftist idealism dimmed to embers and Me Decade narcissism erupted into ’80s-style scorched-earth selfishness. The boldest storytelling choice is zeroing in on Schlafly in the pilot, making it seem as if she’ll be the star of the whole thing.

But this gambit makes dramatic as well as political sense when you realize that, through the ’80s and ’90s, Schlafly’s allies found ways to undermine abortion rights, grind the ERA’s progress to a halt, and — in concert with Evangelical Christians, sexist male legislators, and conservative homemakers — grind progressive momentum to a halt. Unafraid to put hard truths in the mouth of a “bad guy,” the series has Schlafly predict that if progressive women succeed in making it socially acceptable for wives and mothers to work, most adult women will have two full-time jobs: whatever they do for a paycheck, and the domestic duties that their lazy husbands refuse to perform. At one point, Schlafly and her allies — including Banks’ Ruckelshaus, often the lone conservative at ERA strategy meetings, and Schlafly’s pal Alice, a fictionalized composite character played by Sarah Paulson — figure out that the best way to appeal to the status quo, including centrist and conservative women, is by pampering and flattering them, rather than, in Friedan’s cautionary words, “telling them marriage is prostitution and alimony is war reparations.” Thus is the Illinois state legislature enticed to reject the ERA, based in part on conservative women delivering loaves of fresh bread to politicians, embracing the “happy homemaker” stereotype that Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique suggested was a cover for dissatisfaction. Ronald Reagan, whose presidency rolled back gains that women, racial minorities, LGBTQ activists, and unions had made in preceding decades, is a looming though unseen presence throughout the first few episodes — the human equivalent of that place described by Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where the “wave” of the counterculture “finally broke and rolled back.”

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Mrs. America Isn’t Just a History Lesson