FX on Hulu explores the early days of the feminist movement with a history lesson packed with stunning performances.
What happens when a chameleon plays a lizard? In Hulu’s new show Mrs. America, we get to find out, as star and executive producer Cate Blanchett leads a powerhouse cast of women as Phyllis Schlafly, patron snake of the anti-women’s liberation movement.
Articulately shot and performed, if somewhat dryly told, Mrs. America follows Schlafly as she and her team cross paths with the leaders of the women’s liberation movement in the ‘60s. Using the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) as a case study for the state of gender politics past and present, Mrs. America embraces the flaws of the early feminist movement, which of course we have the benefit of seeing with 20/20 hindsight.
With this series, the FX network (now paired with Hulu) maintains its domination of the Cast Drama, that Post-Ryan Murphy offshoot of the Ensemble Drama where the casting is as dramatic as the story. Shows like Feud, Fosse/Verdon, and American Crime Story go beyond stunt casting. These are dramas with a budget to pay for top talent and provide a space to give surprising performances as people we think we know. Were we all not transported by John Travolta’s eyebrows as Robert Shapiro in The People vs. OJ Simpson?
Mrs. America delivers this in spades (and stars and stripes). And because each episode focuses on Schlafly versus The
Monster Feminist of the Week, this allows the performers to step out briefly before returning to the ensemble. The series is still very much a showcase for Blanchett, but Mrs. America works hard to honor the talent of its entire cast.
Uzo Aduba sets the tone for the show (indeed the feminist movement in general) by the way she masterfully conveys Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s grace and determination even in the face of defeat. And though it would have been easy to tuck a pair of glasses into a long wig and call it a day, Rose Byrne captures the long-nailed tenacity required in a portrayal of feminist firebrand Gloria Steinem.
Legendary character actresses Tracey Ullman and Margo Martindale fill out the Pro-ERA camp as Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan and NY state rep Bella Abzug with masteries that come from years of experience. Ullman’s Friedan not only nails her caustic demeanor but also presents real pathos in Friedan’s fall from favor within the women’s liberation movement. As Abzug, Martindale brings to life the fortitude, forcefulness, and warmth of one of the movement’s most overlooked architects.
The series is still very much a showcase for Blanchett, but Mrs. America works hard to honor the talent of its entire cast.
Can you have an FX original cast drama without Sarah Paulson? Not if you want it to be any good. Paulson joins Melanie Lynskey as convincing conservative composite characters; where Lynskey plays a middle-class woman who becomes emboldened by Schlafly’s cause, Paulson plays an already conservative woman whose conviction in her cause begins to waver as she becomes more entrenched. As we have come to expect, both actresses relish the complexities of their characters, particularly Paulson, whose role seems to be tailor-made to show off her amazing range.
Mrs. America is equally invested in exploring the spirit or tone of the age, rather than just the letter and the law. Sure, there are factual details inserted throughout; it does want to teach you about the ERA. But, the show’s greatest achievement is giving a strong impressionistic depiction of the times.
There’s a Post-Mad Men crispness to the ‘60s aesthetic to remind you that this is still commercial prestige television, but the poetic compositions of directors Amma Asante (Belle) and director duo Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck (Captain Marvel) convey the barely-controlled political upheaval of such turbulent times.
With the camera positioned like a studious fly on the wall, we can watch the pervasiveness of sexual harassment – the way hands linger, how eyes follow, tongues wag. We are powerless as rooms of men shut out the woman at the table. But, most provocatively, the camera can take us close up so we watch the agony on each woman’s face as they are forced to take it all. Even (or especially) Schlafly, a woman ostensibly dedicated to upholding those power structures.
From the marketing, one might be tempted to think Mrs. America was going to present Schlafly as a #GirlBoss similar to The Iron Lady’s act of terrorism. But these long camera holds coupled with Blanchett’s immense talent for conveying interior conflict suggest just how much Schlafly et al. needed truly radical feminism. She is repeatedly undermined or contradicted by her own context, a woman made powerful by her assertion that women don’t need power. Blanchett brings that repressed discomfort to the unnerving fore, carefully controlled power hiding all kinds of brittle resentments.
Were this to be the only angle, the series would be biased and incomplete. Instead, showrunner Dahvi Waller weaves a decently-entertaining prestige period piece with important reminders of the extent to which feminism needed feminism in the early days of the revolution. Mrs. America acknowledges the blind spots of second-wave feminism by including dissenting opinions from black women, lesbians, and unions for example, which are discussed throughout the run of the show, not in just single topical episodes. It’s a comprehensive look at a precarious time in gender politics and the conflicting camps that populated it.
Similar to their work as a former head writer for Desperate Housewives, Waller moves on to politicize the desperation of the American housewife of the 1960s, and does so with richly dynamic aplomb. Through socially conscious storytelling and masterful performances by Blanchett and the entire cast of women, Mrs. America will hopefully reignite the memory of the ERA (which remains unratified). More than that, it can remind us that, while the feminist revolution has come a long way, the fight is far from over.
Mrs. America is currently streaming on FX on Hulu, with new episodes being released weekly.