Up to this point in Mrs. America, Betty Friedan and her overbearing personality have mostly served as a source of comic relief, aided and abetted by the fact that Tracey Ullman is playing her. But in episode four, “Betty,” the Friedan character emerges as a fuller, far more complex woman than the narcissistic loudmouth she has been portrayed as, and Ullman’s performance deepens as a result.
If it’s true that there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women, then a number of the ladies in this episode, including several feminists, may be directed straight to the VIP section if and when they get there. The degree to which women eat their own, even when they’re on the same side in the fight for gender equality, is the common thread that runs through this episode, and it figures prominently in the battle royale at its center: the debate between Phyllis Schlafly and Betty.
Betty is initially advised by her fellow ERA crusaders, particularly Gloria Steinem, not to waste time digging up dirt on Phyllis, whom Betty believes is a member of the radical right John Birch Society and, perhaps, even a clandestine KKK supporter. By the way, though Schlafly denied it publicly, Betty’s assertion about her being a Bircher — and yes, that rhymes with birther, and while that may be a coincidence, it feels very non-coincidental — was revealed, years later, to be completely correct. You know, in case that wasn’t obvious from the hollow sound Cate Blanchett makes when she, as Phyllis, calls such assertions “ludicrous.”
“That is exactly what the men with money want us to do,” Gloria advises Betty about her plans to take on Phyllis. “Use women as a cover and orchestrate a catfight to distract everyone so they can sit in dark rooms and smoke cigars and count their money.”
When pressed not to give Phyllis the time of day, Betty relents: “Fine, I agree.”
Cut to the next scene and there’s Betty, making a speech in which she publicly alleges that Phyllis and her STOP ERA group are being funded by the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan, bearing the first claws in what will, indeed, turn out to be a catfight. The fact that Betty continues to mispronounce Schlafly, as she has since episode one of Mrs. America, is a tremendous, hilarious touch.
The mystique around the author of The Feminine Mystique gets punctured a bit in this episode. While Betty is every bit the dogged, outspoken feminist she is famous for being, she still harbors some retrograde ideas about womanhood, perhaps instilled in her as a young girl growing up in the same Midwest that gave birth to Schlafly. (“Bloomington is a shithole. I can say that because I’m from Peoria,” she says, in one of the many great lines that Ullman drops casually off her tongue.) When Betty’s daughter tries to go out in a shirt that she deems inappropriate, she makes her change. She is insecure about her own appearance, too, which explains why it drives her so insane that Gloria gets so much attention for her beauty. The moment in the opener when a fan shouts, “Thank you, Gloria Steinem!” at her is a chef’s kiss. So is Betty’s response when a man she’s having dinner with implies that Gloria is so popular because she’s “very pretty.” “Eh,” Betty says, once again papering over her wounds with a thick coat of bluster.
It also explains why she is hit so hard by the personal comments Phyllis lobs at Betty during the debate. Phyllis, who is losing the debate completely on the merits of her arguments, primarily because her arguments have no merits, attacks Betty personally, alluding to the fact that her husband left her and married a much younger woman. (The way Blanchett pauses just a half-second longer on the word “beauty” when she talks about women losing their beauty, as if to imply that Betty never had beauty to lose, is absolutely wicked.) It’s a total Trump move, and also a move that Phyllis learned from debate prepping with her husband, Fred. (Have you noticed how practically every idea that Phyllis has is something she co-opted from someone else? Because I have.)
Betty snaps publicly — “You are a witch! God, I’d like to burn you at the stake,” she shouts, which is a thing Friedan actually said — and unleashes her fury. Privately, she practically collapses, pumping air into her lungs with an inhaler. Betty may have no fear, but that doesn’t mean she can’t be fragile. Her breakdown is a reminder that empathy and compassion can be afforded to all, even those who might not appear vulnerable from your point of view.
That’s the subtext of every story line in this episode. Sure, Gloria may be famous and pretty, but she’s also getting creepy phone calls and disgusting photos of herself printed in Screw magazine. Margaret, the only black writer at Ms., wants to pursue a piece on tokenism, a pitch that is immediately met with defensiveness by her white colleagues. Gloria encourages Margaret that if she ever feels like she’s not being heard or valued because of her race, she should say something. Hey, Gloria: I think she just did.
Within the black feminist group that gathers at Flo Kennedy’s house, a couple of women express discomfort with having lesbians in their midst, specifically Margaret. Even though they are on opposite sides of the political and racial spectrum, their feelings are pointedly shared by Phyllis, who looks less than thrilled when it dawns on her that her oldest son, John, might be gay. (He actually was.)
It is astonishing how easy it is for even the marginalized to fail to recognize their own capacity to marginalize others, but that affliction still hasn’t been cured. What this episode of Mrs. America ultimately imparts, in its hopeful — perhaps too hopeful? — conclusion is that what everyone wants, whether they’re gay, black, female, or a difficult feminist like Betty Friedan, is to be appreciated for what they have to offer. It’s our responsibility as human beings to not just show kindness but to constantly pause and ask ourselves what part of every story haven’t we taken enough time to read yet.
When Gloria calls Betty at the end of the episode to offer support after the horrific debate, Gloria finally thanks her for paving the way for the feminist movement. They may not be the best of friends, but in that moment, Betty has gotten what she needs: to be seen and valued for who she is in all her messy magnificence.
Favorite “Fuck Yeah, Feminism” Moment in This Episode: As much as I love Ullman’s fiery debate rhetoric — you know this episode is going to be her Emmy submission, as it should be — I appreciated the subtlety of the exchange between Gloria and Betty’s friend Natalie, an editor at Harper’s played by Miriam Shor in a dark shag wig that makes her look a lot like Suzanne Pleshette. Natalie is the one who prompts Gloria to thank Betty by acknowledging that Betty is a complete pain in the ass, but also, “We get to do what we do because she risked everything.” Her comments are a reminder that the reasons why Gloria and others can’t stand Betty — she’s too loud, she does whatever she wants, she’s too bossy — are the same reasons that misogynistic men find powerful women hard to handle.