Mrs America: Stories of a Feminist E.R.A. (Review)
Mrs. America is the series that has the nerve of telling the story of the Second Wave Feminism in America from the side of the villain. A limited FX series, its 9 episodes will be released every Wednesday from April 15 on Hulu.
Playing around the impossibility of a clear-cut and unbiased definition of villain, Mrs. America refers to Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), known as the woman that blocked the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. In a bipartisan perspective, the narration equally follows the centrifugal forces that shaped American politics in the 70s: feminist activists of the National Organization for Women, and Schlafly’s conservative STOP ERA. Mostly written by Mad Men screenwriter Dahvi Waller, and co-directed and co-produced by Anna Bowden and Ryan Fleck of Captain Marvel, the FX limited series consists of 9 episodes, released weekly on Hulu starting from April 15.
Mrs. America echoes Mad Men in as far as it’s a historically elaborated narrative that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the time as a driving force independent from its characters – and both their protagonists assert, directly or not, the masculine privilege. On the other side of the coin, the one depicting the feminist struggle, one can recognize the reverberances of Captain Marvel’s inclusive gaze on ‘military’ tactics, which is to embrace anyone as an ally despite their diversities. The women represented run the gamut in a manner of addressing the feminist issue in the ERA: there’s Gloria Steinem, founder of magazine Ms. and who won’t compromise on the right for abortion; there’s Jill Ruckelshaus, pro-life feminist and Republican; and there’s leader Bella Abzug, who’d vote for a male over a female candidate. Every episode is dedicated to a woman and adopts her perspective on the struggle, stressing on the necessity to feature a plural narrative to recount such an overarching story as that of the ERA. The whole show is an ode to intersectionality, and an invite to reconsider the contributions of those who didn’t make it to history’s final cut.
The narrative begins on March 22, 1972, the day the ERA was approved by Congress. Parallelly, Phyllis Schlafly’s story unfolds as she begins preparing for her very own crusade, calling to action conservative housewives of America. The story arc spans through the 70s following Schlafly’s rise to power, bisecting each and every one of her victories, in an attempt to explain how she managed to block the ratification of the Amendment in many States starting from baking some baskets of bread for Congresspeople. Blanchett’s portrayal of Schlafly is scary for how faithful it is – Please type “Phyllis Schlafly ERA” on Youtube to make the comparison. Her Schlafly is so extremely magnetically appalling to be able to bury Blanchett under her frigid attitude. The character seems to exist per se, without anyone mediating for it. Among the all-star cast, it’s only right to remember American Horror Story actress Sarah Paulson’s memorable performance as not yet another housewife; and Orange Is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba’s passionate portrayal of Shirley Chisholm, the first black candidate for the Presidential elections. Every character is complexly portrayed and doesn’t appear single-dimensioned.
The history of Second Wave feminism hasn’t been much represented in cinema and television, so it should be no surprise if none of these names does actually sound familiar. There’s one popular member of the feminist movement, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, portrayed in so many different media (also featured on SNL). And it’s about time to broaden the list. Mrs. America has been rightfully described as a history lesson, but it achieves its greatness by eliminating the affectedness that belongs to most historic biopics. Honest but also engaging, the series is simply well written. It addresses the viewers every time it suspends any form of judgment and leaves it up to them to interpret the intricate conundrum that’s history.
It couldn’t and at the same time it could have come out at a better time. In the famously democratic Burbank (where most of the industry’s TV shows sets are)’s attempt to explain why so many women voted for Trump–who reportedly supports chauvinist ethics– and what’s all the fuss about legalizing abortion in the U.S.A., Mrs. America dwells in the spirit of our time while we’re all looking for guidance for the upcoming American presidential elections. So many of the topics placed in the front line of the battle are still, 50 years after, bones of contention for politics worldwide. At the same time, however, the fact that it’s come out while we’re all quarantining in our homes, away from political rallies and not really thinking about politics, penalizes it and makes its impact sordid.
Mrs. America is a superb TV product, unapologetically bold enough to voice a female antihero when no one even dared to. There’s a risk, however, that the lines that separate the two narratives either blur out or sharpen too much. It’s complex to keep telling a story from two opposite sides of history without elevating one over the other or without creating confusion in the viewer. We can only wait to see how Mrs. America is going to evolve. Or rather, how Misses America are going to evolve.
Mrs America is available to watch on Hulu.
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