Review: Mrs America

Mrs America is another prestige television show. There are a lot of them. Usually they include big name movie stars, serious, usually ‘socially important’ subject matter, are in some sense period pieces and are available through boutique-ish streaming services, like Foxtel Now here in Australia or HBO or Showcase in the USA.

In some ways Mrs America fits neatly into this category. It certainly has the movie stars – Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Elizabeth Banks – and, despite being set in the 1970s, centres around a still relevant social issues. The thing that separates it from other prestige shows is that it is a show starring almost all women, about the women’s liberation movement. Prestige TV is rightly criticised for being overly masculine, often featuring a fetishisation of the male ‘anti-hero’, think Tony Soprano in the most archetypical example.

The other thing that makes Mrs America interesting is the fact that its first episode is told exclusively from the perspective of a person who many ‘Hollywood liberals’ and other progressive (or even centrist) people would consider a female anti-hero – the anti-feminist and social conservative activist Phyllis Schlaffly, played by outspoken feminist Cate Blanchett. Schlaffly was a key leader in the resistance to the women’s liberation movement that advocated an amendment to the US Constitution called the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, which would have enshrined the right not for women not to be discriminated against in the country’s founding document.

The show deftly depicts the way in which Schlaffly and her fellow anti-feminists sought to undermine the leaders of the women’s liberation movement – Gloria Steinem and the first woman to run for president Shirley Chisholm, among others – as women only interested in seeking revenge on men for their own inability to secure a husband or have children. These ‘accomplishments’ are the epitome of female success to Schlaffly and her fellow social conservatives, who weaponise what would later become routine accusations against the feminists that they are an elite group of women who look down their noses at ordinary women who perform dignified work in the home.

The show presents a nuanced portrayal of an extraordinary time. Schlaffly and her side were ultimately successful in thwarting passage of the ERA, and she continued her socially conservative crusade right up until her death, just months after she endorsed Donald Trump in the 2016 election. But the fact that such a show, made largely by and driven by the star power of so many successful women can find an audience, suggests that the feminists may have had the ultimate cultural victory.

Tagged in TV, what messes with your head