The BBC’s deal with US broadcaster FX is a shrewd move by the broadcaster. FX has about as many hits as HBO and the fact that this deal guarantees their shows will have a UK home is something to be celebrated. Strangely though, the show’s are hardly ever given the prominence they are worthy of. Pose does reasonably well and a tiny bit of fuss surrounded Alex Garland’s sci-fi epic Devs earlier this year, but on the whole, the shows often feel neglected and little advertised.
The latest offering, Mrs America is a historical miniseries that tells the story of the movement formed by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly against the Equal Rights Amendment of 1972. While the main focus of the series is Schlafly, each episode focuses on a titular woman that was critical to the ERA debate. The BBC have chosen to air two episodes a week, with whole series available to watch now on the iPlayer. The first two episodes, ‘Phyllis’ and ‘Gloria’ feature the opposing personalities of Schlafly and feminist Gloria Steinem, and offer an intriguing start to the series.
As Phyllis Schlafly, Cate Blanchett is both gripping and unsettling. She perfectly captures Schlafly’s cold, considered and controlled debate approach with her signature politician’s smile that is never quite reflected in the eyes. Her characterisation of Schlafly is superb. She masterfully draws you to the character without allowing you to develop any warmth towards her. By placing the controversial Schlafly at the centre of the storyline, writer Dahvi Waller took an undeniable risk, which absolutely paid off in Blanchett’s performance.
Waller in combination with directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck uses brilliant interpositions of irony in these first two episodes that subtly bring to light the contradictory nature of Schlafly’s arguments for the audience. We watch as she dismisses feminist concerns of sexism, discrimination and unhappy marriages, which is then interposed with the easy misogynism of other politicians towards her and emotionless scenes with her husband. These uncomfortable scenarios and situations may perhaps go unnoticed by Schlafly, but they are certainly not lost on us as an audience.
Blanchett’s command of the screen is masterful, and watching her as Schlafly is much like watching a game of chess. She brilliantly conveys that the real debate is often not in the words spoken, but in their subtext. With a wicked glint in her eye, Blanchett carries this off skilfully. And while you may not agree with Schlafly, Blanchett’s portrayal undoubtedly commands your respect.
We even see a softer side of Schlafly in these initial episodes, highlighted in her relationship with her sister-in-law, Eleanor. As an unmarried, childless woman living in the seventies, Eleanor faces both social stigma and a deeply personal sense of shame, which Schlafly sympathises with. Though while Eleanor’s storyline helps to take the edge off the hardened Schlafly, even today, her story has relevance, much like many of the issues faced in this series. While the seventies may seem a long time ago to some, we are reminded that we may not have come quite as far as we thought. The sexism, discrimination and social issues faced by these women may perhaps feel a little too familiar to female audiences, forcing us to ask uncomfortable questions about current society. It does not shy away from difficult topics, but it is not abrasive either, handling them with consideration and depicting them truthfully.
In the second episode, ‘Gloria’, we are introduced to Schlafly’s polar opposite in the form of Gloria Steinem, played by Rose Byrne. Where Schlafly is controlled, Steinem is emotive. Where Schlafly’s relationship is mechanical, Steinem’s is passionate. Throughout the episode, they are contrasted and it becomes clear that they are opposites in every shape and form.
As Steinem – although not quite as theatrical a character as Schlafly – Bryne is equally as compelling. She is impassioned, fun, and brings the humanity that Schlafly lacks. Her characterisation is excellent, and having reviewed interviews of the women featured in the series, the cast did a magnificent job of recreating these iconic people on-screen. From the make-up and costumes down to the voices and mannerisms, they are doing so much more than simply portraying a version of these women, they fully embody them.
We see this in the way that they embody the two movements, in a clear-cut dichotomy that borders on being almost too easy to swallow. It is somewhat hard to believe that the two movements would have been so diametrically different, however, the characterisation shapes them more fully for us as an audience. The women’s liberation movement is characterised as youthful, colourful and diverse, while Schlafly’s movement is polished, suburban and stiff.
Despite creating this easy dichotomy between the movements, however, even in these initial episodes we begin to see the cracks forming and disagreements arising between movement members. While in the women’s liberation movement this takes the form of open debate, amongst Schlafly’s movement it looks more like shifting eyes and subtle disapproving glances. It certainly lays the ground for some interesting developments later on in the series and moves away from assuming a simplistic uniformity of thought amongst movement members.
At times, the series is perhaps too heavy on the political jargon. As someone with little knowledge of US politics and terminology, I did sometimes get lost in the terminology and it did have the potential to take me out of a scene because I wasn’t able to follow the flow of conversation. However, the jargon used is no doubt accurate to these events and while it occasionally borders on convoluted, a knowledge of US politics is certainly not an essential viewing requirement. The integral plot is still easy enough to follow, whatever your level of political knowledge.
The initial episodes of Mrs America are extremely promising for the rest of the series. It is beautifully shot, and boasts some of the most masterful performances the screen has to offer, with an all-star cast. It offers us a side of the equal rights amendment that we rarely hear about in history books, as perhaps now it may be hard to imagine that there was any opposition at all. By introducing us to the women that opposed the amendment and their concerns, Mrs America reminds us that progress is rarely as simple as it seems, and I will definitely be watching the rest of the series to see where it takes us next.
Mrs America Continues Wednesday at 9.00pm on BBC Two.
The Entire series is available to watch on BBC iPlayer
Contributed by Megan Hyland