Mrs. America Episode 2 uses stark contrasts and contradictions to hone in on Gloria Steinem, as Phyllis drums up support for her own campaign.
This recap of Mrs. America Season 1, Episode 2, “Gloria”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
Mrs. America is set during a significant period in women’s history; a period defined by social and political change, by the shattering of stereotypes and misconceptions, by the power of a movement, an idea, a desire. In this case, the desire is simply equality, that women should be treated in the same way as men and offered the same rights and protections, something that no right-minded individual should disagree with. But the show’s first episode centered on Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), who not only disagreed with the Equal Rights Amendment but did so publicly and stridently, so it’s only right that Mrs. America Episode 2 lends the same kind of focus to her opposite, Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne).
Steinem is immediately introduced as a counter to the age-old idea that serious feminists are frumpy fun-sponges – Rose Byrne lends some glamour to a role that needs it. Where the first episode was also about contradictions, mostly those within Phyllis as a conservative woman against the ERA, that same theme expands outwards here to highlight the distinction between how the feminist movement is perceived versus what it actually is, with Steinem herself the quintessential example of a woman valued for stereotypically feminine qualities – in this case, her desirability – and not for what she actually stands for.
To emphasize the point Steinem’s relative prettiness is treated as anomalous; it gives her media-ready novelty within the movement but makes it easier for her opponents to dismiss and discredit her as a pretty face without a brain behind it. Tracey Ullman plays her rival Betty Friedan, who cautions against mistaking Steinem for a leader rather than a celebrity and then later claims to have been misquoted (she wasn’t.) In accepting an obviously fake apology for that slight, Steinem begins a trend of compromises which comes to include Wonder Woman gracing the front cover of Ms. Magazine, where she works as an editor. Her relative soft touch despite her strong convictions makes for a stark contrast with Phyllis, who is running a brazen anti-ERA campaign by leveraging hysterical totalitarian what-ifs that, on some level, she can’t possibly believe in.
But this is the point – Phyllis’s movement, which incorporates a campaign to deliver Illinois legislators baked goods to sway their votes, is more attractive because it’s louder and more outlandish, even though she has to research the legal basis of her arguments (with help from her husband, somewhat ironically) after spouting them publicly. Gloria has a profound personal justification for her convictions, which Mrs. America Episode 2 reveals stems from an illegal abortion she had at 22, but it takes virtually the entire episode for her to really blow up about them. It makes for a great, overdue moment and the beginning of a shift in Gloria’s willingness to force the issue as the spokeswoman of the ERA campaign.
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