emmys 2020

The Failure of Mrs. America’s Phyllis Schlafly

L-R: Cate Blanchett in Mrs. America, Bette Davis in In This Our Life. Photo-Illustration: Vulture, FX and Warner Bros.

About halfway into the first episode of Mrs. America, the limited series up for multiple Emmy nominations this Sunday, is a scene instructive in its perspective and failures. Phyllis Schlafly, a proud conservative who successfully campaigned against the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s, has just returned home from a trip to Washington. Her husband, Fred (John Slattery), paws at her. She’s tired; he’s subtly insistent. She says she needs to take out her contacts, that she’s been in the same dress all day, as she tries to untangle herself from his embrace. He ignores her physical and verbal signals that make it clear she’s not interested in sex. When he undresses her, the music intervenes to remind us of the gravity of this moment. The camera remains trained on Phyllis’s face as she shifts from appeasing laughter to a look of discomfort and resignation. It tracks every subtle shift in her disposition, revealing the well of emotion beneath the lacquered image.

This brief scene makes legible the concessions women must make in order to smooth over the edges of their daily lives. See, it seems to say, how much better a woman like Phyllis would be if she believed in the very feminism she abhors? Wouldn’t she realize the strictures in her life? The trade-offs she’s made? This isn’t a fluke but emblematic of the series, which treats Blanchett’s face as a crucial focal point. In rooms thick with men who ignore or undermine her, in elevators, in kitchens, behind podiums as she touches the hem of power she desperately desires, her face is used to illuminating the complex emotional life behind Phyllis’s galling politics.

Over nine episodes, Mrs. America seeks to slavishly re-create the breadth of 1970s feminism in order to form a mirror to our own fraught political times, emphasizing its lead as a crucial figure in the birth of the religious right, Fox News, and Donald Trump’s dominance in America. Creator Dahvi Waller and her collaborators tell the stories of various feminist figures involved in making the ERA a hopeful, potential reality, including Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman). These women get single episodes focusing on a chapter in their lives. But the show returns to Phyllis time and again, making her the foremost lens through which notions of feminism, desire, power, and race are considered.

When it was released in April, the show was widely praised by critics, save for, most notably, BuzzFeed’s Alessa Dominguez, who called the show’s depiction of Phyllis sympathetic. Her piece sparked a conversation, especially around whether Phyllis was a villain, protagonist, or both. Those who defended the series’ depiction of Phyllis argued that she was the antagonist of an ensemble piece who was clearly a villain; the writers didn’t need to hang neon signs around to point to her toxicity, some suggested. In an interview with Slate, Waller elaborated on her vision for Phyllis in the face of criticism. “I think I’ve created a human character, but not a sympathetic character,” she said. “You have to understand why someone like Phyllis Schlafly appealed to so many women. And if she’s a mustache twirling villain, you’re not going to understand that. I didn’t want to have my head buried in the sand.”

There is, of course, a dramatic gulf between crafting a complex character whose villainy is foregrounded and creating a one-dimensional “mustache-twirling” villain. When I recently revisited Blanchett’s Emmy-nominated performance alongside Bette Davis’s turn in In This Our Life, it illuminated something about what it takes to create a compelling female villain whose whiteness is fundamental to how she uses her power. Phyllis’s politics are also shaped by a very specific and dangerous kind of white womanhood, but Mrs. America is too timid a show to center that reading. Instead, Blanchett’s performance and the filmmaking work to draw us closer to Phyllis in curious ways, framing her as a failed feminist rather than an architect of hate.

As Blanchett plays her, Phyllis is precise, manicured, and sure of her own worthiness in gaining power. This makes the moments when she fractures — revealing a nervousness and yearning underneath this surface — all the more effective. There is a studiedness to Phyllis that suggests she’s always wearing masks — as a mother, a wife, a political force. When those masks slip, which happens routinely throughout the show, whether she’s overcome by emotion or wounded by a loss, Blanchett infuses her performance with a tender humanity. She may be played as brittle, even bitchy, on the surface, but what’s going on just beneath it is where Mrs. America finds the gristle for its portrayal of her, suggesting the woman behind the decision matters more than the hate she spewed, or that the two can be separated at all.

Take the final close-up of episode six. Phyllis is ushered into a room of Washington power brokers that Republican congressman Phil Crane (James Marsden) introduces her to. Sitting on a small couch next to Phil, surrounded by men as they chatter about the best ways to keep a secretary quiet and other such misogynist nonsense, Phyllis is courted by Ronald Reagan’s people, who are after her 40,000-strong mailing list of women. “You haven’t touched your Scotch,” Phil says to Phyllis, who is left in stunned silence by the proposition that she give up her floor fight over the ERA, given that it’s too controversial. The filmmaking works in tandem with Blanchett’s performance. The camera, already trained on her face, moves closer and closer to Phyllis, tracking each shift in her expression as “You Don’t Own Me,” by Lesley Gore, ramps up. Phyllis’s eyes cast over the room as she laughs at some unheard joke. There’s a twinge of sadness to her visage, an undercurrent of regret and anger and yearning. The kind any woman who has been in a room of men undermining her has felt before. It’s a cunning performance, ripping through Phyllis’s façade to reveal just how piercingly human she is.

It’s understandable. Blanchett is a lucid performer able to render minute gestures with great meaning. But in doing so, the show visually makes an argument that Phyllis’s emotional life, that her feelings of oppression on the basis of sex, are meaningful to the story its telling. Throughout Mrs. America, it’s hard to get a full understanding of what informs Phyllis’s belief system, leaving us with the emotional portrait to understand who the “real” Phyllis is.

Watching the series, I was unable to ignore one central question: Why should we give a damn about the emotional life of a racist, sexist white woman?

L-R: Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis in In This Our Life. Photo: Warner Bros.

What does it take to create a dynamic, potent, and worthwhile villain, one that explores the ways white women use their identity as a shield? Is it possible for audiences to understand such a character while, at the same time, the filmmaking and performance remind us not to sympathize with her?

One need only look at the early work of Bette Davis to understand this is possible. In the 1930s and 1940s, in particular, Davis became a star at Warner Bros. primarily for playing thoroughly contemptible, dynamic, and unrelenting female villains and anti-heroines. At her best, Davis illuminated the ways white womanhood works — the pattern of tears and anger, the willingness to use state violence as a cudgel, the precise privileged notions — creating layered, incendiary portraits that never let audiences rest at the layer of sympathy. An actress has to be willing to let the audience despise a character such as this to get at the core of understanding her. The filmmaking has to believe in this project as well, eschewing tender reconciliations or swelling music meant to pull our heartstrings closer to the villain propelling the story forward.

In the summer of 1942, John Huston’s second feature film, In This Our Life, was released. At first blush, the film seems to be a familial drama detailing the lives of two very different Timberlake sisters: the upstanding and kind Roy (Olivia de Havilland) and the proudly selfish hell-raiser Stanley (Davis). But through Stanley, it slowly becomes a striking interrogation and condemnation of the racism inherent to white women’s lives. In the back half of the film, Stanley runs over a mother and child, killing the latter and driving away without looking back. She pins the crime on a young Black man in her family’s employ as a chauffeur, Parry Clay (Ernest Anderson), whose mother, played by Hattie McDaniel, proclaims his innocence. In a pivotal scene later in the film, Stanley visits Parry in jail and subtly tries to get him to confess to the crime she committed. She’s sly and cunning, those famous searchlight eyes communicating both amoral selfishness, a virulent racism that is unable to acknowledge Parry’s humanity, and a desperate hunger for him to confess to the crime — which means valuing the freedom of her own white femininity over his Black life. The close-ups of Davis are never full-on. Instead, her eyes are always focused away from the camera. She’s rooted in the corner of the frame. These choices have a cumulative effect of making Stanley’s public actions feel conspiratorial, practiced, always a reminder of her duplicitous nature. Seeing her through the bars of the cell acts as a reminder that Stanley herself is imprisoned by the lie spun from her racism. In this brief scene, Davis is willing to do something Blanchett isn’t in the entirety of Mrs. America: let the audience hate her.

In his tremendous book-length essay of film criticism, The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin praises Davis’s performance. “Davis appeared to have read, and grasped, the script — which must have made her rather lonely — and she certainly understood the role. Her performance had the effect, rather, of exposing and shattering the film, so that she played in a kind of vacuum … Blacks are often confronted, in American life, with such devastating examples of the white descent from dignity; devastating not only because of the enormity of the white pretentious, but because this swifty and graceless descent would seem to indicate that white people have no principles whatsoever.” Davis’s performance reflects the physicality and verbiage of the videos of white women that filled social-media timelines this summer with flagrant displays of racism. The arcs are similar: gentle tears, loud anger, and a willingness to use state violence as a personal weapon against any Black person who disrupts the smooth ignorance of their journey through life.

In an interview with the Daily Beast, Waller discussed the Mrs. America writers’ room’s approach to the racism Phyllis would become known for more toward the end of her life: “There did seem to be a lot of racists surrounding her organization. And the feminists certainly believed that she was a John Birch Society member, and that she had ties to the Klan, and that the Klan were involved in planning a rally in Houston in 1977. So we always wanted to portray those accusations.” She implies that there were rumors of Schlafly’s racism at the time rather than hard facts, concluding, “We could only use what we could find actual evidence for and really justify.”

This argument sits uncomfortably next to the fact that the writers had no problem fictionalizing other aspects of her character in ways that rouse sympathy. But it’s instructive to look at the ways in which the show depicts Phyllis’s relationship to race. Consider episode three: Along with focusing on Shirley Chisholm, this chapter of the series seeks to illuminate what concessions Phyllis is willing to make to grab further power. She takes her anti-ERA campaign national, working with women throughout the country to collectively fight against the potential amendment. One of the women now a part of this collective movement is Mary Frances (Melinda Page Hamilton), a southern woman who in front of Phyllis’s group extols, “The Lord made men and women different, just like he did white people and the coloreds.” Phyllis and Alice Macray look uncomfortable with her statements. It’s only when she mentions “uppity Negroes” that Phyllis cuts Mary off, steering the conversation at the podium in another direction. In this moment, it is made clear that Phyllis is, at the very least, uneasy with such language being associated with her movement. In doing so, the show draws a line between Phyllis and white women like Mary. (Is it any surprise she’s from the South? That the show has such a limited imagination it can only make the villainy of a white southern woman legible?)

Phyllis encourages Alice to gently critique Mary’s language, who describes it as “crude,” as if the problem isn’t necessarily the racism but the impropriety it represents. Mary doesn’t take well to the criticism, and begins to usher her fellow southern women to leave the group, until Phyllis decides to name her the leader of the Mississippi and Louisiana chapters of the anti-ERA committee. What this scene tells us once again hinges on Blanchett’s face — her eyes glide over the women leaving the room, demonstrating her minute calculation that she needs these southern women by her side or the group could lose momentum. Such creative choices underscore the idea that Phyllis’s own beliefs are rooted in strategy, rather than foundational and entrenched. Never mind how chilling the idea of racism for personal gain is and that “strategy” is how white women have stolen from, abused, and, in some cases, led to the death of Black people for their own gain throughout history.

Mrs. America ends on a curious image that reinforces its worst instincts. Phyllis isn’t able to secure the power she has been clawing toward throughout the series. Despite helping Reagan win the presidency through the use of her considerable Rolodex of ERA-fighting conservative women, she is passed over for a Cabinet position. The scene during which she finds this out from Reagan is somber and reflective, framing this fall as a tragedy for a woman yearning for greater power and unable to get it because she’s just too much for the Establishment she seeks to be a part of. Even more instructive is the final scene, meant to echo the feminist classic Jeanne Dielman (1975), a film by Chantal Akerman that studies the regimented life, sex work, and habits of a single mother over three days: Phyllis, with a worn expression, peels an apple in real time before reaching for another. Through homage, shot composition, and performance, the final moments of Mrs. America suggest that Phyllis is trapped in a domestic hell of her own making. The show’s fundamental characterization of Phyllis as a complicated woman working against her own interest ignores how, as a white woman, like those who voted for Trump, she is actually acting in the interest of her very whiteness.

Maybe at another time, in a different world, I wouldn’t be so riled by the failures of Mrs. America. But when white womanhood remains a weapon used to undermine and crush the lives of Black folks, art that is unable or unwilling to understand the rhythms of such whiteness is not only dishonest but empty of true value. Whiteness works by masking itself, and instead of ripping off the mask with Phyllis, Mrs. America obscures it. It opts for the softer tragedy of a woman who fails to be the feminist force she could be, if only she could change her perspective.

The Failure of Mrs. America’s Phyllis Schlafly