From its onset, the events that make up Mrs. America, Hotstar’s new political miniseries, seem very familiar. A woman is taken out of the U.S.’ presidential race and offered the running mate position by the Democrats. A battle for abortion rights is raging on the streets. Casual sexism is rampant, and bell bottom jeans are in vogue. Wait… what year is it again?
It is the 1970s, and Richard Nixon is the President of the United States of America. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), designed to provide equal rights for all Americans regardless of sex, is all set to be ratified by all 50 states. Until it crosses Phyllis Schlafly’s radar.
“Who the hell is Phyllis Schafly?” asks feminist writer Betty Friedan at one point, and that remark captures the flippancy with which the “libbers” (read liberals or Democrats) initially treats the conservative activist’s “STOP ERA” movement. Across nine episodes, Mrs. America explores this tug-of-war between the feminists and the anti-feminists, and its lasting impact on American politics. Each episode focuses on a different character of the ensemble cast; the series is kicked off by an introduction to what makes Phyllis tick.
Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett as Schlafly is sublime, and uncomfortably convincing. Blanchett potrays Schlafly with a veneer of calcuated calmness and persistance that makes you squirm in your seats as her blatant hypocrisy is revealed. Schalfly espouses that men and women aren’t meant to be equal, but yearns (and works) for the same status personally. She is ambitious with a thirst for success, the kind that is traditionally reserved for men. She is driven and hardworking — when an opponent points out that she doesn’t know constitutional law, she sits with her attorney husband to work on that. But her political acumen, for the most part, goes underappreciated, and that is her cross to bear.
- Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Kayli Carter, Ari Graynor, Melanie Lynskey, Margo Martindale
- No. of episodes: 9
- Storyline: Feminists and anti-feminists clash over the Equal Rights Amendment in 1970s America, paving way for Phyllis Schlafly’s emergence as a conservative icon
Gloria Steinem’s, meanwhile, is her fear that she is the spokesperson of the feminist movement just because she has “a pretty face.” Rose Byrne brings Steinem to life, complete with her signature ‘long, middle-parted hair tucked into aviator glasses’ look. She comes across as vulnerable, forever trying to juggle the demands of being the face of a movement that is home to numerous strong personalities, each with individual ideas and motives that often tower over that of the collective. In one instance, a male colleague at her liberal feminist Ms. magazine remarks that she got her first assignment because he thought she had “great legs,” and she shrugs it off with a uncomfortable smile. “He is the money guy,” she explains.
There is much that is thought-provoking in Mrs. America: the evolution of family-value politics, manipulation of facts, fake news, and conversations around intersectional feminism. The depth of these ideas are heightened in the hands of a talented cast which includes Margo Martindale (tailor-made to play Women’s Movement leader Bella Abzug), Uzo Aduba (as Shirley Chisholm, the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination), John Slattery (quietly compelling as Phyllis’ husband Fred Schlafly), and Tracey Ullman (as the has-been feminist icon and writer of The Feminist Mystique Betty Friedan).
But at its core, Mrs. America is a scrutiny of the ever-widening chasm between the Democrats and Republicans through the tenacious struggle for ERA (which, incidentally, is ongoing). With the effective use of colours — pastels for the right, and earthy-hues for the left — and lighting, the series lays bare the contrasting moral and political beliefs, and the possibilities of change.
Mrs. America comes at a time of great churning in U.S. politics, and with it, a renewed interest in the conservative icon. Schlafly was one of the early endorsers of Donald Trump during the 2016 election campaign, referring to him as “the last hope for America.” Speaking at her funeral in November 2016, Trump said that in her demise, the movement has “lost its hero.” The “hero” is maybe lost, but her legacy is clearly alive and thriving.
Mrs. America is now streaming on Disney+ Hotstar