Mrs America

Cate Blanchett in Mrs America.
Cate Blanchett in Mrs America.
Photo: M-Net

OUR RATING

4/5 Stars

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

Mrs America is based on the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the US in the 1970s and the fierce opposition by a conservative activist, Phyllis Schlafly. 

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

We knew we were in the golden age of television when the icon herself, Meryl Streep, joined the second season of Big Little Lies, and now we can't help but feel privileged that two-time Oscar winner, Cate Blanchett has decided to make an appearance on the small screen as well.

But the role that brought her to television is so distinct and iconic that I cannot imagine anyone other than Cate Blanchett playing it. Blanchett plays Phyllis Schlafly, a real-life conservative author and activist, who works against the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the US.

Phyllis Schlafly, in many ways, seems like the perfect anti-hero. She is smart, she is manipulative, and she does anything to seize power.

When we meet the character at the beginning of the 1970s, she has already had a failed campaign to become a member of congress; she has six children, a supportive, yet condescending husband and vast knowledge of nuclear ammunition.

However, this does not prevent men from discriminating against her. We see in the first episode that when she is invited to a meeting about nuclear arms, she is asked to take notes (as a sort of stand-in secretary). The actions in the very first episode disprove Schlafly's statement that women are not discriminated against.

Blanchett portrays Schlafly with so much charisma and alluring confidence that you don't even wonder how she mobilised a group of housewives to create a movement against the ERA. It's easy to see why Blanchett is one of the greatest actors of her generation; she can mould herself to whatever role she is playing.

The ERA, which was originally proposed in 1923, is an addition to the US constitution which would have outlawed discrimination on the basis of sex. It was approved by the Senate in 1972, but in order to be added to the constitution, it needed to be ratified by 38 states. The 1982 deadline was not met which means the rights of women are still not protected under the US constitution.

On the opposite side of the debate, was the group of second-wave feminists who worked to get the ERA passed and ratified. There is the legendary Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne); the leader of the group, Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale); the first black woman to run for president in the US, Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba); the author of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman); the lawyer who keeps Schlafly on her feet, Brenda Feigen-Fasteau (Ari Graynor); and the token Republican feminist in the group, Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks). With this powerhouse group of actors playing these iconic feminists, they really seem like a force to be reckoned with. However, it will take Cate Blanchett to knock over this house of cards.

The conservative side or STOP-ERA, as it is known, has a team of well-known and respected actors – Sarah Paulson as housewife Alice; Melanie Lynskey as Rosemary Thomson, a conservative activist; and Jeanne Tripplehorn as Eleanor Schlafly, a conservative activist and Phyllis' sister-in-law who takes care of her children while Phyllis is "working".

Each episode of the series focuses on a different character while still moving the story along. But the show does not make it a cut-and-dry good versus evil story. While we might not be on the side of Phyllis, the writing still makes us sympathetic to her and her own personal struggles. Created by Dahvi Waller, who previously wrote for Mad Men, it is easy to understand that Waller knows how to create a compelling anti-hero. Even when it comes to the feminists, they are not these innocent, perfect humans. The show does well to show how alienated black women felt in the movement, as well as addressing how Gloria Steinem was the face of the movement because she was pretty, and Betty Friedan's problematic response to the LGBTQ members of the movement.

When watching the series, one cannot help but compare it to the current day, where the struggle for women's rights is still an ongoing issue.

There was a pang of sadness when they talked about having a woman as president in the near future and then looking to the current day when that has still not become a reality. When Bella tries to convince Shirley to drop out of the presidential race and endorse the white, male candidate, it mirrors the current situation with the Democratic party choosing Joe Biden as the presidential candidate.

And then there are the Trump echoes: Phyllis ushers in the larger support of the religious fundamentalists in the Republican party which we have seen the results of; she also chooses not to discourage the support of racist members and those aligned to the Ku Klux Klan in order to make up the numbers that she needs. Even though Phyllis Schlafly died in 2016, before she died, she endorsed Donald Trump, which seems exactly on brand for her.

It's easy to focus on the performances of the series because everyone does an amazing job, but what makes Mrs America excellent is all the factors of the show. From the writing, which is interesting even when the characters are talking political jargon, to the stunning 70s costumes and the music that would have you jiving with it during every episode.

However, the fact that it is based on history does give the show a bittersweet tinge, we celebrate the small victories that the feminists have. But knowing the outcome of all their hard work, does make one feel quite despondent. Mrs America is a must-watch, not only for the excellent performances but for the important message of why equal rights are still something we have to fight for today. 

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:

Mrs America airs Mondays at 21:30 on M-Net (DStv 101).

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