'Mrs. America' Review: Clash of the Feminist Titans - Rolling Stone
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‘Mrs. America’ Review: Clash of the Feminist Titans

Star power and great performances abound in this miniseries about the 1970s battle over the Equal Rights Amendment, but the story gives many of its complex characters short shrift

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly.

Cate Blanchett as conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly in 'Mrs. America.'

Pari Dukovic/FX

In an episode of Mrs. America, a new FX on Hulu miniseries about the Seventies political battle over the Equal Rights Amendment, liberal firebrand Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) suggests her side may have an easier time if they focus their argument on a single issue, like women receiving equal pay for equal work. Quoting her father’s advice, she says, “Make it about everything, it winds up being about nothing.”

That’s a bit of wisdom that Mad Men alum Dahvi Waller might have considered while creating Mrs. America. The sprawl of the story is both impressive and overwhelming. The series features one great performance after another from an all-star cast — including Cate Blanchett as conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly and Rose Byrne and Tracey Ullman as feminist icons Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, respectively — and is as packed with fun moments as it is with thought-provoking political analysis. But it tries to cover so many aspects of a very complicated issue that many of them feel undertold, while the decision to split the story between Schlafly and her opponents winds up leaving the whole thing feeling unbalanced.

Most of the episodes are named for their main character, though the only one to get an hour all to herself is Schlafly, a neocon national defense expert who helped Barry Goldwater get the Republican presidential nomination in 1964. Waller’s take on this story begins in 1971, with Schlafly pondering another run for the congressional seat she lost two decades earlier. We first meet her at a conservative fundraising dinner, where she parades for the crowd in a star-spangled bikini, and is introduced as “Mrs. J. Fred Schlafly” in deference to her lawyer husband (played by John Slattery as a less amused Roger Sterling). Republican politicians, as well as her friend Alice (Sarah Paulson), encourage her to speak out against the ERA, but she insists, “I’m not interested in running on women’s issues.” When she appears on a talk show hosted by Illinois congressman Phil Crane (James Marsden) to discuss her opposition to President Nixon’s foreign policy, he’s impressed to realize that she knows more about the SALT treaty than he does. But when she meets with Goldwater (Peter MacNeill) and his staff to discuss SALT, she’s asked to take notes on the meeting like a glorified secretary, even though her command of the subject dwarfs theirs. She takes up the anti-ERA cause not because she genuinely cares about it, but because it’s her only way to carve out an influential niche for herself in a power structure that otherwise has no respect for her intelligence or tactical savvy.

With her lacquered hair and omnipresent smirk, Schlafly could easily come across as a caricature. But Blanchett, Waller, and lead directors Anna Bolden and Ryan Fleck go to great lengths to help us understand her, even if they clearly don’t empathize with a woman who almost single-handedly wrote the conservative media playbook that’s still in use today, and largely orchestrated the religious fundamentalist takeover of the Republican party. She’s the villain of this story, but she’s a human one, at least at the start. It’s a great, charismatic performance that makes it easy to understand how Schlafly was able to win over so many converts to oppose what had to that point been a broadly bipartisan issue. (Even Nixon supported the ERA!)

The problem is that Waller says all she has to say about Schlafly as a person within that opening hour — really, within that scene in Goldwater’s office. But where all of the women’s liberation leaders — including Abzug, Steinem, Friedan, pioneering congresswoman and presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), Republican feminist activist Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), and attorney Brenda Feigen-Fasteau (Ari Graynor) — get intermittent spotlights, Schlafly is prominent in all the remaining chapters. We get to know members of her burgeoning organization like Alice and Rosemary Thomson (Melanie Lynskey), but until very late in the series, they exist largely as her approving minions.

Strong as Blanchett is, it becomes exhausting spending that much time in her presence, especially when so many of her co-stars feel shortchanged. The third episode, set at the 1972 Democratic National Convention as Chisholm struggles to hold onto whatever influence her flagging presidential campaign has left, is dynamite, and suggests Waller could have very easily written an entire parallel series about her. But then Aduba (in the best performance of her career to date) largely vanishes from this one. The same fate befalls Ullman, Graynor, and Banks after their respective showcase episodes. (And they still do better than Niecy Nash, in a glorified cameo as Flo Kennedy.) Byrne and Martindale are a bit more prominent throughout, but Blanchett’s presence is the only constant of Mrs. America, and there’s ultimately much too much of her, since the character grows more predictable and less complex as the story moves along. There’s briefly an attempt to suggest some inner conflict, as Phyllis realizes that bigots and religious extremists are supporting her cause, but by that point her relentless pursuit of power is so clear that the nuance doesn’t really stick.

In many ways, nuance versus power is the whole point of the story. Phyllis Schlafly will align with anyone who makes her basic goal attainable, where the women’s libbers keep embodying the maxim of the perfect being the enemy of the good. Schlafly’s coalition largely speaks with one voice, while her opponents are constantly fighting among themselves about intersectionality: Friedan doesn’t want gay rights being part of their platform; Chisholm is accused of favoring women’s issues over black ones (and vice versa); Ruckelshaus strongly disagrees with her colleagues on many issues, and so on. At different points of the decade, the libbers wind up with seemingly influential positions in the White House, but an inability to agree on priorities, or even a spokesperson, keeps hamstringing them, even as Schlafly is championing a minority point of view while painting them as the lunatic fringe. They’re a circular firing squad, while Schlafly and her followers are shooting at them in unison.

MRS. AMERICA -- Pictured: Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan. CR: Sabrina Lantos/FX

Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem and Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan. Sabrina Lantos/FX

The infighting proved the Achilles heel of the movement, but it’s where Mrs. America tends to be strongest. There’s a great deal of generational tension, for instance, between Friedan and Steinem, even as Steinem is reluctant to assume all the burdens her celebrity places on her. When Abzug argues that they need a pretty face out front, Steinem replies, “Is that my only value to the movement?” Looking supremely cool behind Steinem’s trademark tinted aviator glasses, Byrne gets to channel both the dramatic and comic halves of her career; one of the best things the miniseries does is to illustrate just how funny these allegedly humorless feminists could be. And Ullman is superb as a trailblazer powerless to stall her own obsolescence in favor of a more glamorous new model. (At one point, she and a friend watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show; Betty identifies with earthy sidekick Rhoda, and ruefully laughs while pointing out that Rhoda is always visiting Mary’s apartment, and never the other way around.) And anytime the larger cause comes into conflict with matters of race or sexuality, the series moves to a higher emotional level.

But then we inevitably go back to what Schlafly is up to, and Mrs. America begins to feel like the same note being struck repeatedly. Throughout the series, Steinem refuses to share a stage with Schlafly to debate her on the issues, because she fears elevating her opponent by association. Mrs. America can’t similarly dismiss her, if for no other reason than that she won, and more convincingly than even she could have imagined at the start. But Schlafly isn’t made just the narrative equal of the other characters, but their superior, and this dramatized version of her is ultimately not up to such a heavy burden.

The penultimate episode, set at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, is told from the point of view of Alice. It’s intended to illustrate how Schlafly’s force of will could blind her followers to the true implications of the anti-ERA movement, which had repercussions far beyond this one issue, and played a huge role in creating the deeply stratified state of modern American politics. The problem is that Alice is a composite character invented for the miniseries, and feels like one, despite the usual genius of FX MVP Sarah Paulson. Where there’s a specificity to all the historical characters — even the ones who get far less screen time — Alice largely comes across as a rhetorical device, which undercuts the points she’s being used to make.

On the whole, Mrs. America seems either much too long or much too brief. Schlafly would hold up better as a character in a feature film-length telling of the story, where too many of the other players and issues get short shrift even in this nine-hour treatment.

The links and parallels to the rise of our current administration become harder to ignore the longer you watch. Schlafly displays an uncanny knack for rewriting reality to suit her own needs, or ego. And many of the rhetorical tools she and her cadre of allies deploy against the libbers are still in use today. As a result, Mrs. America plays like a slow-motion tragedy, and is perhaps more depressing than is ideal for the very fragile moment in our history in which it will debut. The performances are so uniformly terrific, and many individual moments and episodes so resonant, that I kept with it long after Schlafly’s very presence stared to make me cringe. But like the movement whose high ideals and unfortunate failures it chronicles, the miniseries can’t help feeling like a missed opportunity. 

The first three episodes of Mrs. America premiere April 15th on Hulu, with installments releasing weekly after. I’ve seen all nine episodes.

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