This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
There’s been plenty of good, or at least addicting, content to consume this past month, but what this quarantine has been sorely missing is an event. You know, give the couch a little something fancy to perk up for. Turn that six feet of walking space from the kitchen to the living room into a premiere red carpet. The 18 hours of TV watching per day needs a modicum of gravity!
Trolls World Tour was a salve for families. The new season of Westworld has broken records when it comes to the amount of times “what the hell?” has been screamed at my television over the course of an hour. Run has broken records when it comes to the amount of times “kiss!!!” has been screamed at my television over the course of a (half) hour. Quibi made me sad.
But Mrs. America is it. If Cate Blanchett in a sensible cardigan delivering a forced smile that barely disguises boiling rage isn’t an event then, frankly, I don’t know what is.
The series, which premiered this week on FX on Hulu (in other words, you can watch it now on Hulu), is both a television capital-‘E’ Event in the grand, traditional sense, but also one that, by nature of its subject matter (women!!!), we could only imagine existing now that Hollywood has started coming around to the reality that people do actually want to hear stories about and which impact half of the human population.
The ambition of Mrs. America makes it an event. The pedigree makes it an event. The time in history that it dramatizes makes it an event. The Cate Blanchett of it all... that makes it an Event.
That Mrs. America feels important is because it is. The series chronicles a pivotal decade in the women’s rights movement, when second-wave feminists and activists in the '70s fought to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified in 38 states—something that only happened this last year—while a vocal contingent of conservative women lobbied to stop it in its tracks.
The songbird leading that call is Phyllis Schlafly, played by Cate Blanchett in all her unplaceable Mid-Atlantic accented glory. Schlafly was an aspiring politician, an activist, and a proud homemaker—though, as the series takes glee in exposing, she was not really a homemaker at all.
She was a captivating figure and an irresistible leader, the flame for a particular kind of conservative moth to flock to. She was anti-abortion, anti-ERA, and, it turns out, anti-facts. Schlafly used conjecture, insinuation, and leaps of logic to fear-monger political favor and gaslight potential groupies. I can’t imagine why any of that would feel resonant or provoking today...
Some of the most interesting parts of Mrs. America come when the show takes care to separate Phyllis Schlafly, the human, and Phyllis Schlafly, the politician—in effect revealing the ways in which that extrication isn’t really possible—which makes her, as entertainment, a rather tantalizing TV character: the antagonist as the lead. Hollywood loves to humanize the villain. But what if that villain is Phyllis Schlafly? It’s a tall order. That’s why you hire Cate Blanchett.
But Mrs. America isn’t just about Phyllis Schlafly, even if, through its narrative structure, it kind of mostly is.
The series cuts between Schlafly’s efforts and the efforts of her minions (played by Sarah Paulson and Melanie Lynskey) to block the ERA and the revolutionaries working to get it passed. There’s Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), Brenda Feigen-Fasteau (Ari Graynor), and Flo Kennedy (Niecy Nash).
It’s a parade of “Oh! I love her!!!” actresses, each getting spotlight episodes centered on their work in the crusade. It’s all directed in a zippy, witty, chaotically invigorating style that captures the sociopolitical zeal of the time, centering the stakes in a way that is profound. Especially now, watching people be politically engaged with such passion is actually quite moving.
The only issue is one of balance. On the one side, there is this Avengers-esque group of women fighting for the ERA, powerhouses like Steinem, Chisholm, and Friedan among them. On the other, there’s Schlafly. That her presence looms threateningly large in Mrs. America is the point, but it also knocks things off-kilter. Grouping her opponents together like this prevents some needed depth, while also suggesting an inequity of impact.
There’s a Phyllis Schlafly biopic starring Cate Blanchett to be made, which would be amazing. And there’s the story of Bella, Gloria, Shirley, Betty, and the effort to legally and constitutionally enshrine gender equality, which would be amazing. Combining the two into a series is less amazing, but clever enough to still work.
It’s a movement that is rich for exploration but has been sorely absent from film or TV treatments in pop culture—bafflingly so, at least until you remember, you know, patriarchy and purse strings.