Daring, politically complex and blessed with stellar performances, Mrs. America Episode 1 introduces Phyllis Schlafly as a welcome complicated figure.
This recap of Mrs. America Season 1, Episode 1, “Phyllis”, contains spoilers.
Mrs. America, the new FX on Hulu series from creator and showrunner Dahvi Waller, stars a who’s who of talented actresses playing feminist icons, but its central figure, the namesake of this premiere episode, is conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. Phyllis opposed, among other things, abortion, feminism, and the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – in other words, she’s the kind of figure for whom you need a respected, versatile actress like Cate Blanchett.
Blanchett and the show’s even-handed temperament are its secret weapons; the means by which it can take a self-obsessed, ambitious figure with no knowledge of or interest in a worldview beyond her own, and position her at the centre of an unashamedly feminist story. It’s an intriguing and quite daring balancing act that requires a depth of writing and performance that some viewers won’t want to meet halfway. Schlafly is deeply flawed and often says egregiously ignorant things, but what’s compelling about her is that she’s clearly a victim of the same prejudicial attitudes she claims aren’t a problem for her.
We see this in lots of ways throughout Mrs. America Episode 1. During a meeting on Capitol Hill, Phyllis takes offense to being referred to as “Ms.” by an aide, haughtily announcing she’s married, but later we see her husband, Fred (John Slattery), essentially rape her. That same meeting, to which she’s invited by lecherous Illinois congressman Phil Crane (James Marsden), is where Phyllis is asked by Senator Barry Goldwater (Peter MacNeill) about her opinion on the Equal Rights Amendment – she thinks it’s unnecessary, since she has never been discriminated against. Shortly afterwards, she’s asked to take minutes.
Several things are obvious about Phyllis. She can’t imagine that her opinions aren’t reflective of every woman’s on Earth; she has no consideration or curiosity for experiences beyond her own, can’t see beyond the end of her own turned-up nose. It takes her friend Alice (Sarah Paulson) expressing concerns about the ERA, and the realization that discussing it is the only way she’s going to be heard despite her expertise, to convince Phyllis to come out strongly against the amendment. But she lacks the self-awareness necessary to realize that her own justification for talking about the ERA proves its value.
Mrs. America doesn’t shy away from these contradictions. They’re integral to Phyllis Schlafly as a character and to staunch political ideology in general; after all, nobody lives a perfectly fair and unbiased life. What’s especially interesting about Phyllis is how she cannily navigates the avenues of power where she is accepted – in the home, despite Fred’s imposing old-school masculinity, she runs things. He doesn’t want her to run for office again, and he can stymie her attempts to do so, but he can’t stop her from moving her mother in with them. Through knowing glances – Blanchett is an expert-level shade-thrower – we know that this is a power grab, a way to score points, and we can admire it on that level. But when she does the same thing to her single, childless sister-in-law Eleanor (Jeanne Tripplehorn) by criticising Gloria Steinem for being single and childless, the expressions we pay attention to are Eleanor’s. Phyllis can’t see that, in her disparaging of the ERA movement and its leaders, she’s inadvertently insulting the woman she earlier assured shouldn’t worry about her marital status. Her ambition is blind.
So much of Mrs. America Episode 1 is recognisable as rhetoric in the contemporary culture wars that it can be a bit jarring how little things seem to have changed. The idea of checking one’s privilege has never been as apt as it is here, since Phyllis constantly speaks for other women, refuses to consider opposing perspectives, and accuses her adversaries of elitism without identifying her own. What’s crucial about the show, and perhaps its strongest element, is how it allows Phyllis to be right about some things and wrong about others, and encourages the audience to realize it’s all couched in her narrow perspective and not a deliberate effort to propagate a viewpoint she understands to be incorrect or harmful. She’s ignorant of her biases, of her advantages, and of the societal framework that keeps women, including her, in check. She believes that what she has experienced is what every other woman must also have experienced, and because she believes it earnestly, she isn’t vilified as much as she might be. Mrs. America encourages its audience to do what Phyllis Schlafly doesn’t do, and consider both sides.
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