A few weeks ago, for no particular reason, I decided to watch the “Best of the 1980s” edition of Siskel & Ebert. (It’s on YouTube.) Each host agreed on just about all of the movies the other had picked, even if said movies weren’t on both of their lists. But toward the episode’s end, Gene Siskel took Roger Ebert to (very mild) task for his placement of Alan Parker’s 1988 Best Picture nominee Mississippi Burning on a list of the best movies of the entire decade.
Siskel suggested that, compared to movies like Do the Right Thing and Raging Bull and E.T., Mississippi Burning was unlikely to stand the test of time. And Siskel turned out to be ... right. Mississippi Burning has mostly been forgotten, while most of the other movies on both men’s lists remain popular to this day.
Indeed, Mississippi Burning, which places the investigation of two white FBI agents at the center of a story about black Americans struggling to secure their civil rights, is almost a textbook example of the kind of film we routinely criticize today. Instead of focusing on the black Americans actually affected by racism, the film tunes in to the experiences of white people — a failing that has more mainstream recognition now than it did back then.
Ebert pushed back against Siskel’s criticisms by comparing the film to the nine-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah (one of the foremost achievements in using film to preserve the historical record). “This is a movie that people need to see in order to know that this time existed, and that people had these feelings,” Ebert said of Mississippi Burning. “It is a part of American history the young kids today really don’t know about, even though it was only 25 years old, and I think it’s important for that reason.”
I’ve thought about Siskel and Ebert’s debate a lot when watching Hulu’s new miniseries Mrs. America (which was produced by and originally intended for FX), in which Cate Blanchett brilliantly plays conservative culture warrior Phyllis Schlafly, who built a coalition of housewives and kept the Equal Rights Amendment out of the US Constitution. Mrs. America definitely lives up to Ebert’s belief in the the importance of stories that teach us more about American history than we maybe even wanted to know, but it’s also subtly pushing back against that idea.
The miniseries takes the cinematic history lesson and flips it inside out. Where these sorts of stories are usually driven by bold voices pushing for change, Mrs. America is driven by a loud voice pushing for stagnation. It takes all the tropes of the tale of well-meaning white liberals who create incremental progress and uses them against its presumably progressive audience. You don’t leave Mrs. America rooting for Phyllis Schlafly, but the show forces you to see why she succeeded all the same.
Mrs. America turns Phyllis Schlafly into Norma Rae. The effect is discombobulating.
When I started watching Mrs. America, I worried that the presence of Blanchett (one of a handful of people whom one might reasonably claim to be the best actor alive) might make me too ready to forgive Schlafly, who worked tenaciously to halt the women’s liberation movement in its tracks by offering a lupine smile and a twinkle in her eye. Even without Blanchett playing her, Schlafly’s blithe willingness to bear anything and come up with a quippy one-liner afterward makes for an inherently compelling character, as well as a herald of incoming President Ronald Reagan himself.
But when I finished watching all nine episodes of Mrs. America, I was furious about everything — about Schlafly, about the complacency of second-wave feminists who assumed they had the Equal Rights Amendment in the bag, about the many women who argued they didn’t deserve equal rights because they had bought into man-dominated power structures. (Schlafly, of course, was chief among these women.)
When the series premiered in April, there were a handful of articles suggesting that Mrs. America would function as Schlafly apologia. I don’t really think the series is emphatically pro-Schlafly, something the last three episodes make blisteringly clear. But if you had only seen the first handful of episodes, you might conclude that it was all the same. We are simply hard-coded to read characters like Phyllis Schlafly as active heroes, working to change the system, something that Mrs. America and its creative team (headed by creator Dahvi Waller, who wrote on Mad Men and Halt and Catch Fire) exploit ruthlessly.
An even better comparison point for Mrs. America than other historical dramas might be the 1979 film Norma Rae, for which Sally Field won her first Oscar playing a union organizer whose womanhood meant her opponents continually underestimated her. Norma Rae is a feel-good story about an underdog, who triumphs against an unjust system using a combination of skill, pluck, and an ability to hide in plain sight. The bosses never see Norma coming, because they can’t conceive of someone like Norma even existing until it’s too late.
Mrs. America basically uses this same David-versus-Goliath setup, but turns it upside down. Schlafly is our Norma Rae, organizing her legion of 1970s housewives to sow disinformation about the ERA and terrify state legislatures into refusing to ratify the amendment. (The ERA fell three states short; it has since been ratified by three more states, but well after the 1979 deadline passed.) The unmovable forces that never see her coming are represented here by powerful figures like Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), and Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) — all of whom are left-leaning women working for the feminist project who dismiss Schlafly as an insignificant gnat until it’s too late.
But wait a second: That framing isn’t quite accurate. Whatever gains feminism had made by 1971 (when the series begins) were fragile and easily reversible. The powerful forces that longed to push back that feminist project, which is to say the forces of the status quo, are the ones being represented by Schlafly here. Even if she didn’t possess a ton of cultural capital, she was nevertheless arguing for an entrenched power system that held almost all of the political capital. So what if Steinem was on more magazine covers? Schlafly got people to listen to her by ... propping up the patriarchy.
Even more discombobulating is the way Waller and her team use those underdog-against-the-system tropes to cast an almost funhouse mirror-like effect on the surrounding world. In the series’ first episode, Schlafly is constantly spoken over when making a TV appearance to talk about foreign policy (her actual area of expertise), then is asked to take notes by the men in an important political meeting she is attending as an expert, not as a secretary.
We know how storytelling works: We are being set up to see Schlafly as someone who’s had enough of the system as it exists and fights to change it. But Schlafly doesn’t fight to change the world; she fights to preserve it exactly as it is. She looks at the indignities she suffers and sees that the easiest way to attain the power she wants is to give the men who hold on to that power what they want. It’s a brilliant trick, one that essentially traps the viewer inside of Schlafly’s rationalizations, and I’m not surprised it left some nauseated.
In its second and third episodes — centered on Steinem and Chisholm, respectively — the series broadens its portrayal of the feminist movement, which is where the show stakes its claim for being more than just Schlafly propaganda. Indeed, as the series draws to its close, it argues that her deal-brokering with the devils she knows (including tacit approval for involving the Klan at one point) was no better than becoming the devil herself.
But, the series also argues, America is primed to prefer a movement that is doing something seemingly big and important, especially if it can reinforce preexisting prejudices. Compared to fractious infighting, a powerful, solidarity-driven movement that argues forthrightly for strong, clearly articulated principles will almost always win. And if Schlafly understands that, why don’t her feminist counterparts on the left?
Mrs. America’s brilliance lies in how readily it gets you to understand the resentment that drove Schlafly and millions like her
Mrs. America has received few negative reviews, but a consistent criticism in those reviews has been that it has much more fun hanging out with Steinem and her pals than it does when it drops in on Schlafly’s organization. And there’s something to this complaint. The camerawork in, say, the offices of Ms. Magazine is far more fluid than the staid, locked-down shots that typify Phyllis’s world. (This is another way the show discombobulates — fluid camerawork is usually tied to the heroic, dynamic forces of change, which is one way the series indicates, early on, that its sympathies lie with the second-wave feminists, even if it might not seem so.) It’s easy to leave this show feeling like you don’t know what made Schlafly tick.
But what if the answer here is that what made Schlafly tick isn’t, ultimately, all that interesting? Maybe she just wanted power. Maybe she just wanted a seat at the table. Maybe she just saw the easiest way to do that was to convince a nation full of housewives and homemakers that they had been written off by the feminist movement, something too easily propped up by out-of-context sound bites from Steinem and her allies.
A frequent trope of left-leaning writing about conservative politics is a desire to better understand the motivations that drive right-leaning America. And Mrs. America advances almost every single sociological explanation for the rise of Reagan conservatism at once. If you want a relentless commitment to further enriching the rich, that’s in here. If you want just a hint of racism, that’s here. And if you want to believe it’s all about upholding some traditional way of life, you’d better believe that’s in here too.
But the central idea of Mrs. America is that what drives right-wing culture warriors like Schlafly is often just a desire to be heard. Schlafly ends up having a far more significant effect on American political society than Steinem, but Steinem still ended up on way more magazine covers, even to this day. Part of the conservative revolution (going right on back to Goldwater and Nixon) was the almost complete decoupling of cultural power — sometimes called soft power — from actual power.
Put another way: It’s all but impossible to imagine a version of Mrs. America that is actual Schlafly apologia getting made, and Hollywood is only too happy to proclaim itself feminist and add women superheroes to its release slate. And all of that is fine! But doing so is not real power. Real power creates a Supreme Court that seems likely to reverse Roe v. Wade. Real power creates an environment so hostile to materially improving the lives of women that something as basic as a national standard for maternity leave has never been passed. Real power demonizes women like me in the name of keeping children safe, simply because I make a convenient scapegoat.
I grew up in Schlafly country. I used to read her columns and feel a thrill at the thought of a conservative woman having such a powerful voice. (Child me had yet to convince herself to give up political conservatism or embrace her womanhood. We were all confused in the ’80s.) And I recognize in Blanchett’s performance a hunger for something more that united so many of the conservative women I knew. But the targets of their disdain were always the people who possessed an ever-shrinking modicum of cultural power, because to take aim at anybody who held actual power might involve embracing some uncomfortable contradictions.
One thing Mrs. America makes abundantly clear is how many of those uncomfortable contradictions reside within Phyllis Schlafly herself. Despite heading up an organization purportedly made up of housewives and claiming to be a homemaker, Schlafly turned political organizing into her full-time job. She claims to not have power, even when she increasingly does. She has achieved some small degree of success, so she works hard to make sure other women won’t.
The series reflects this even in the way it subtly codes women’s stories as the only important ones, on both sides of its political ledger. The only major male character is John Slattery’s Fred Schlafly, who is mostly the barely there spouse a woman would play in most historical stories. And when men enter the story, they’re almost always alien, barely understandable forces haunting the edges of the frame. A mob of them descends on the floor of a political convention. Chisholm, the first woman to run for the Democratic nomination for president (though by no means the first woman to lose the presidency), is surrounded by older white men onstage at said convention. A small group of men belittles Schlafly in a smoke-filled room. A male talk show host tries to steer a so-called “couples debate” to the two husbands present, even though their wives are much better equipped to argue.
All the women in Mrs. America, meanwhile, are understandable and human and sometimes deeply, deeply horrible. They have goals and hopes and desires, but they always have to cede the screen to the men when they show up. Why?
My favorite scene in the series is a small one. Sarah Paulson’s Alice (a fictional composite of many of the housewives who joined Schlafly’s cause) is comforting another woman in Schlafly’s group in a bathroom stall at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston. The conservative women are struggling to get a word in edgewise at the conference, and Alice finds herself shrinking from the spotlight thrust upon her. Her friend, meanwhile, is tearfully confessing that her husband doesn’t know she’s gone to Houston. She’s scared. No, she’s terrified. It’s not hard to read a fear of abuse into this confession.
Alice embraces her friend, and someone hammers at the stall door. “Occupied!” Alice calls out, but the woman who knocked at the door just wants to know if everything’s okay. She heard crying. There are tiny moments of solidarity like this throughout Mrs. America, in nearly every episode. Characters reach out to each other and care for each other. Women find ways to comfort each other, because we are so often the only ones who even see another woman’s pain acutely enough to begin to soothe her.
Mrs. America holds a mirror up to America, and I mean that quite literally. Just as a mirror reverses every feature in our face, Mrs. America reverses the way historical dramas usually proceed. But I think it’s necessary all the same. This is a series that people need to see in order to know that this time existed, that people had these feelings, that women once believed they might see abortion rights protected instead of whittled away, that the Constitution almost had a hard-won guarantee of equality among genders entrenched within it, that a woman could run for president and open a door America is still waiting to walk through. It’s a part of American history the young kids today don’t really know about, even though it’s only 50 years old, and I think it’s important for that reason.
Mrs. America airs new episodes every Wednesday on Hulu. The series finale airs on Wednesday, May 27.
Correction: The original version of this piece said Shirley Chisholm was the first woman to run for the presidency. She was merely the first woman to run for the Democratic nomination for the presidency.