During lockdown, I have enjoyed feeling genderless. I’ve barely worn makeup or high heels. I haven’t been outside enough to be cat called. It’s been freeing to feel not just like a woman, but like a person. I was surprised therefore to so suddenly be filled with feminist pride after watching FX’s 'Mrs America'.
The show follows the fight between feminist icons like Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and their misogynistic rivals, recounting their attempts to pass the Equal Right’s Amendment in America in the 1970s. At the height of second wave feminism, 'Mrs America' begins with Phyllis Schlafly, played superbly by Cate Blanchett, the conservative activist running an anti-ERA movement. The political struggle is painful, the costuming beautiful, and I found a new love in Byrne’s charismatic, stylish and powerful Steinem.
It pained me though to discover that Steinem, now aged 86, criticised the show, labelling it “ridiculous” and “not very good”. In an article co-written with Eleanor Smeal, the Feminist Majority Foundation president, Steinem explained that she was sent the script two years prior but refused to take part in the production after reading it.
Considering she is the heroine of the series, it seems crucial to further delve into why it is she hated it. The first reason is that it greatly underrepresents the number of black women involved in the movement. Although black feminists are included – a whole episode is dedicated to Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), the first black woman to run for the Democratic Party Presidential nomination – such figures are always cast aside afterwards. Chisholm barely features in the rest of the series, and other black characters are secondary, implying that the black women’s movement was either separate or a subsection of the women’s movement. In truth however, 67% of black women supported the ERA compared to 35% of white women by 1972.
Steinem’s other qualm is that the show presents Schlafly as the ERA’s main opponent, when in truth the insurance companies were the real enemy. “I don’t believe she changed a single vote”, Steinem said, stating that Schlafly was just “window dressing” for the opposition. She argues that the show went for the “Catfight Theory”, pitting women against each other when in fact, no woman had enough power to meaningfully oppose anyone. This is a trend that is now becoming more and more evident in female political dramas. I was similarly bothered by Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2018 period drama 'The Favourite', in which the three female characters fight against each other for political power, only for the only male character to end up on top. The trope implies that if women are going to play politics, it can only be with each other. The real table is still only reserved for the big boys.
However, I’m not sure if the battle in 'Mrs. America' is a catfight. We’re so used to seeing women only fight in a sexy or hair-pulling kind of way that it is difficult to register when women are being rightfully portrayed. If two men were arch-rivals in a film for instance, we wouldn’t question it. But because we so rarely see more than one woman on screen, alarm bells immediately ring. It is common for shows to feature only one female character who represents the entire gender, but the writers of 'Mrs America' have chosen to bend history to showcase another type of woman. Schlafly was a real woman, manipulative and homophobic and cruel, but she was also smart and determined and independent. Sadly, most of the time women aren’t that integral to history because as Steinem says “we don’t have the power to be our worse adversaries”. The show has to be inaccurate, in order to up the number of women on screen.
This however does not excuse the removal of the insurance companies out of the narrative. They are mentioned once in passing, but their role is hugely understated. Smeal says this “doesn’t prepare women or men to battle the economic forces that are still opposed to the ERA”. I agree that capitalism’s role in female oppression is still massively underplayed. We complain about having to shave our legs, yet forget this image was created by shaving companies so they could sell to a whole new consumer group. This is also why equal pay is so important, because it means corporate business will have to give up the $400 billion it makes out of paying women less. The unpaid labour of women is vital to the debate, but this is missing from many feminist narratives. As Smeal says, “women’s equality is not just words. It means real things, especially in the area of money”. If anything, 'Mrs America' has helped fund big business, as Smeal and Steinem complain that FX and Hulu have made money out of a story about female oppression. Though I agree some of the profit should be donated to the ERA coalition, we cannot forget that the female creator, actresses, writers and directors will also be getting a large pay check for once.
Gloria Steinem and Eleanor Smeal are right. The show should be more racially diverse. It should emphasise big corporations as antagonists, and it should dial down Schlafly’s role in history. However, it’s impossible to ignore how it made me feel. I didn’t grow up seeing many smart, beautiful, brave and outspoken women on screen, and though this shouldn’t give the show a free pass, it still counts for something. I learnt about a movement foreign to me (at university, feminism mostly stays in the academic realm rather than on the streets) and gained new heroes. A long time ago, I wrote an essay comparing the protagonists of Shakespeare’s 'Much Ado about Nothing' and Jane Austen’s 'Pride and Prejudice' as feminist icons. I had several complaints, but I concluded that if just one girl was inspired by Elizabeth Bennet to stand up for herself then the rest was of no importance. I feel similarly about 'Mrs America'. I ended the series feeling emotional, strong, motivated and proud to be a woman. In the long run, I think that’s what matters.
'Mrs America' is also available on BBC Iplayer.
Edited by Juliette Howard, Film Editor