Hollywood Casts A Very Flattering Light On Right-Wing White Women

In reimagining the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly as a prestige-TV antihero, the new FX series Mrs. America overlooks some uncomfortable realities.

“I don’t believe in demonizing anybody,” said actor Cate Blanchett in interviews promoting her much-hyped new FX series, Mrs. America, which premiered this week. “We are all full of contradictions and hypocrisies. No one is perfect, including Phyllis, although her hair was mostly always perfect.”

She was referring to Phyllis Schlafly, the real-life blueprint for Blanchett’s protagonist in Mrs. America. Schlafly was a conservative mom from Illinois who mobilized a cavalcade of women against the Equal Rights Amendment that feminist activists had fought to get passed in the 1970s. Her updo, pearls, and respectable upper-middle-class white femininity made her a conservative icon, with bestselling books and endless television appearances on shows like Donahue and Good Morning America. Thanks to her fearmongering about the prospect of a genderless society and a women’s military draft, and her influential mailing network of conservative women, she is often credited as one of the architects of the ERA’s demise.

Blanchett is both star and an executive producer of Mrs. America, and she’s already getting Emmy buzz for her portrayal of Schlafly. The show’s reception follows a pattern recently set by the movie Bombshell, which fellow Academy Award winner Charlize Theron both coproduced and starred in, garnering her Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for her transformation into Fox news anchor Megyn Kelly. Both actors are relatively vocal liberals who have spoken about how they had to put politics aside to really dig in to their portrayals. The awards show buzz they garnered speaks to the way the entertainment establishment views their physical and moral transformations into “controversial,” history-making conservative women as a real achievement.

Mrs. America is an ambitious, smart, and well-acted show that turns policy and politics into nine bingeable episodes (though it lags toward the middle). Still, just as Bombshell did with its portrait of Kelly and her Fox News colleagues, the series’ supposedly complex depiction of its conservative white protagonist in some ways shies away from Schlafly’s most unpalatable beliefs. The show admirably attempts to make the messy politics of the 1970s — including the difficulties of coalition building on the left and the dangers of fake news — speak to our current moment. But it pulls its punches about its right-wing protagonist’s history of racism, ultimately making the show’s dramatic stakes and conclusion less powerful and relevant than it could have been, and more of a TV history version of Sean Spicer on Dancing With the Stars.

Mrs. America is not just about Phyllis Schlafly. It’s a little like a political version of FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan, telling the story of the rise and fall of the ERA through the relationships between a variety of celebrities and historical figures, including Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), a black congressional leader who became the first woman to run for president; Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), founder of Ms. magazine; author and activist Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman); and Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), a member of Congress from New York.

While different episodes are designed to spotlight more of the other characters, they all come back to or revolve around Schlafly. The show opens by illustrating her home life and politics, showing how her anti-communist sentiment evolves into the attacks on feminism that she is now most well-known for. Her friend Alice (a fictional character played by Sarah Paulson), suggests that she put her efforts into fighting the Equal Rights Amendment. “What I am against is a small Northeastern group of establishment liberals putting down homemakers,” Schlafly says, referring to feminists like Friedan and Steinem. “The libbers love to say that they’re dedicated to choice, but if you dare to choose the path of full-time mother, if you don’t feel enslaved, you’re just dumb and unenlightened.”

This is juxtaposed with subsequent scenes of Schlafly being objectified by her husband, who pressures her to have sex after a long, tiring day of work. In other words, the show tells us, in a sentiment echoed by some of its other characters, Schlafly was working against her own interests: pushing against women’s empowerment even as she struggled to empower herself in her own life. It’s telling that Mrs. America imagines her that way. We don’t actually know how trapped Schlafly felt in her own marriage, if at all, but the liberal imagination seemingly can only understand conservative white women as failed white liberal feminists.

The show unspools a number of storylines throughout its nine episodes, including Chisholm’s battle for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, and Abzug, Steinem, and Friedan’s fight to get abortion laws written into the Democratic platform. As these political operatives all scramble to make their own gains, Schlafly uses her impressive rolodex of conservative women to mobilize them against the ERA.

The amendment, an attempt to make gender a federally protected category like race and religion, already had a long history before it was revived as a political fight in the ’70s. Others have written about how it initially emerged out of the women’s suffrage movement and had already failed to gain traction not just because of traditional women suburbanites, but because other activist groups were more concerned about race and class.

The liberal imagination seemingly can only understand conservative white women as failed white liberal feminists.

But on Mrs. America, the fight over the ERA is represented as a conflict primarily between white middle-class women (like Schlafly and her supporters) and white celebrity feminists. In retrospect, that racial and class homogeneity is part of what made the conversation about the Equal Rights Amendment so limited. Based on this show’s portrayal, the media — like Schlafly — primarily framed the amendment in terms of what middle-class white women would gain or lose, including the fear that their daughters might have to go to war. While the show smartly hints at the problem of tokenization in the depiction of Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazine, allowing that even supposedly progressive media can overlook race and class, it doesn’t quite expand that analysis far enough. In looking to explain why the public conversation around the ERA shifted, the series lets broader corporate media off the hook and instead relies on the villainy of Schlafly herself and her followers’ willingness to fudge facts.

The show also glosses over some unpleasant realities when it implies that racism was not a fundamental element of Schlafly’s politics, but rather a tactical position that emerged over time. She’s depicted as reluctant to mobilize white racism, and her courting of racist white Southern evangelical women is presented as strategic. “We can’t have anything to do with the Klan,” she tells one supporter. “But I am tolerant and I let everyone be against women's lib for the reasons of their choice.” Her friend Alice tells a Schlafly true believer that she felt comfortable with the movement “when it was about protecting our place in the home,” she says, “but somewhere along the way it’s become about something else.”

In real life, Schlafly was against the Republican Party’s civil rights platform before the ERA, and even right before her 2016 death she was railing against “illegal aliens” on her radio show. The show dramatizes the difference between strategic versus “real” racists, and chooses to portray Schlafly as an incidental one. But ultimately all we can know are the results of the real-world policies she supported. (Not to mention the racially coded language of states’ rights that she was intent on mobilizing.)

Of course, there is no need for a fictional show to be a mimetic representation of real life. Still, as with Bombshell, which didn’t represent Fox News’ xenophobia and racism so as not to complicate the protagonists’ heroism in their #MeToo battle, Mrs. America's ERA battle is also limited to an essentially single-issue story about gender.. The writers seem unwilling to let Schlafly’s racial politics make her too unlikable or unrelatable. Blanchett has said in interviews that Schlafly was an “alpha woman” just like her, suggesting how she found common ground with her. All the women portrayed, show creator Dahvi Waller has said, were “messy” and complex; her goal was to create “a true female antihero.”

But failing to grapple with the fundamental role of whiteness in Schlafly’s gender politics makes it harder to grapple with her legacy. Toward the end of the show, Schlafly, who expects to get some kind of post after Ronald Reagan’s presidential win, gets a call from Reagan himself. He’s thankful, he tells her, but she’s too controversial to actually be appointed. The implication is that even fighting against her gender, and defeating the ERA, didn’t ultimately get her the power she wanted. So did Schlafly lose?

Mrs. America has been widely praised, though some critics have noted a dramatic ineffectiveness at the center of the story and its conclusion. As Sonia Saraiya noted at Vanity Fair, “Sure, ambition corrupts, but Phyllis’s resentment seeks to devour her entire gender—she is, with each pious newsletter, shooting herself in the foot. Why?” Ultimately, she concludes, the show “doesn’t exactly have an answer, which makes for a curious hollowness at its center—a void that perhaps needs to be filled by the viewer herself.”

That hollowness is partly a result of the show’s unwillingness to confront the role of white identity politics head-on. It imagines a Schlafly disempowered by her gender: in some ways trapped in her marriage, and ultimately spurned by Reagan because she was too “controversial.” It’s Alice, who stands up to Schlafly and leaves her movement, who’s portrayed as the rational one. Similarly, Margot Robbie’s fictional character in Bombshell also leaves Fox News, as if giving liberal viewers someone “reasonable” to identify with. (Both seem present in large part to take some narrative pressure off real-life protagonists who have never appeared to have much doubt about the righteousness of their own causes.)

If Mrs. America makes it seem like Schlafly shot herself in the foot, that’s because the show participates in the somewhat tautological framework of gender hypocrisy or false consciousness, meaning the idea that anti-feminist white women are working “against their own interests,” rather than working to preserve their class and racial privilege above all else.

But Schlafly didn’t lose. Just because she didn’t make it into Reagan’s cabinet doesn’t mean she didn’t win the culture war. She was invoking and mobilizing the same vision of the straight, white, traditional upper-middle class that plenty of white women voted for decades later, in their quest to Make America Great Again. It’s no surprise that Donald Trump — who was also presumed by the mainstream media to be a New York–style Republican, and not “that kind of racist,” despite launching his campaign by railing against Mexican “rapists” — was the subject of Schlafly’s last book.

Cate Blanchett said the first time she encountered Schlafly was at a podium before the 2016 presidential election. “This little old lady was literally wheeled out to endorse Trump,” Blanchett said. “And then, Trump was at her funeral, and I was thinking, ‘Why?’”

Despite Blanchett’s riveting portrayal, this compelling miniseries’ inability to fully grapple with Schlafly’s politics — which were always about more than gender — prevents it from entirely answering that question. ●

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