Why I’m in love with slick Seventies drama Mrs America

I’m completely nuts about this series – from Cate Blanchett’s alabaster poise and Rose Byrne’s quiet bravery, to the clothes that make you want to go wild on Etsy.

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Cate Blanchett’s alabaster poise has rarely been used to greater effect than in Mrs America (9 July, 9pm), in which she plays Phyllis Schlafly, the Republican mother of six from Illinois who, in 1972, began a long and ultimately successful campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the US constitution. Yes, the wig helps: a helmet of hair so forcefully controlled, even a passing tornado could not whip it into disarray; also, the paste brooches she wears on her lapel like military medals. In the end, though, it’s her face that tells the story. The mask has only to slip a millimetre for the viewer to be suddenly aware of the turbulent depths of simmering ambition and sublimated rage beneath, and thus to be filled with unexpected sympathy for a woman at whose funeral, four years ago, Donald Trump was the most notable eulogist.

I’m completely nuts about this series, with its soundtrack that’s all Etta James and Mama Cass, and its clothes that make you want to go wild on Etsy; I’ve only to see Tracey Ullman, who plays Betty Friedan, the arch grump whose book, The Feminine Mystique, changed everything, to clap my hands in delight. (FYI, I regard Friedan’s cantankerousness as a Good Thing.) I was uncertain, at first, about Rose Byrne’s performance as Gloria Steinem, which seemed, in its over-reliance on her aviator shades and luxuriant curtains of hair, to verge on caricature. But by the end of the second episode, I was in love with her too. Byrne captures not only Steinem’s famous niceness, but also her quiet bravery: something that has to do not so much with her activism, as with her determination neither to marry nor to have children.

When we meet her first, Schlafly is nurturing an ambition to run for Congress. And why shouldn’t she be? The author of several books, she’s a popular figure on the conservative talk shows; she has lots to say about Nixon’s plan to sign a nuclear treaty with Russia. Still, there is a problem: her husband, Fred (John Slattery), wants her at home. In Washington, hoping to get the nod from Republican big wigs, she bridles at talk she might run on women’s issues. Later, though, it occurs to her that she might use the ERA to her own ends. Political influence comes in many forms, and henceforth hers will involve not Capitol Hill, but the US’s heartlands, whose female denizens she intends duly to convince that equal rights will result in – among other outlandish things – their being drafted, and thus in finding themselves in fox holes in Vietnam.

Oh, the layers that are involved in this volte-face. Schlafly knows very well that there’s huge power in being a wife and a mother. Her spinster sister-in-law Eleanor (Jeanne Tripplehorn) is a figure of pity, even to herself; bachelor girl Steinem, shortly to become her adversary in the matter of the ERA, is to many women a “pathetic” creature who cannot find a man. And yet, she understands, too, that there’s also no power in it at all. The scene in which, having returned home from Washington, she submits wearily to sex with Fred, is straight out of The Feminine Mystique. Does Schlafly see the irony in the fact that the libbers are, however unwittingly, about to help her wrestle her own meagre share of freedom? If she does, she pushes the thought down, hard, like pastry in a tin.

It would have been easy for the creator of Mrs America, Dahvi Waller, to play favourites here. But if the adorable Steinem, tap-dancing alone as she thinks of the abortion that put the iron into her campaigning soul, is almost exactly what she seems, Schlafly is not precisely her opposite. It’s a cliché of the movies that women look suddenly gorgeous when they remove their spectacles; that the “real” them is not a mouse, but a model. Here, though, it’s the other way round. Once Fred is asleep, Schlafly replaces her contact lenses with glasses that make her look not unlike Velma in Scooby Doo – at which point, another Phyllis appears. A secret blue-stocking, this one is fed up with complicated girdles and false eyelashes; by the baking of muffins and the coddling of men. She is every bit as earnest as Steinem, and almost as worn out as Friedan. 

Mrs America 
BBC Two

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 10 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation

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