Slanted storytelling can’t conceal the charisma of Phyllis Schlafly
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It’s a curious thing: casting a dynamic performer to play a larger-than-life personality. Even if the portrayal is supposed to be unflattering, it can still create a powerful lure. Such is the case with Oscar winner Cate Blanchett playing conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly in the hit FX drama Mrs. America (rated TV-MA for language).
The show, which currently ranks as one of Rotten Tomatoes’ most popular, follows the rise of the Equal Rights Amendment and its eventual defeat, thanks to Schlafly and her army of homemakers.
The show depicts the feminists as fiery, intellectual, and even glamorous in their crusade. Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem is especially attractive. She not only boasts the willowy loveliness of a Hollywood starlet, she’s also the only icon of the era to show real concern for the average women these ideological titans are supposed to be representing in their Capitol Hill clashes.
Steinem shuns positions of power, caring more about the cause than raising her personal profile. She doesn’t let a busy schedule deter her from engaging with an anonymous young mother, her brow wrinkling with empathy to hear of the woman’s shame over having an abortion. Most especially, Steinem resists capitalizing on her good looks, even for the sake of the movement.
Schlafly, by contrast, gamely slaps on a swimsuit for a fashion show fundraiser. She rules her organization (which she at one point tries to name after herself) with a perfectly manicured iron fist, sweeping aside any upstart housewife who might try to usurp her position. Ambitious and grasping, she callously jokes about feminism as the refuge of spinsters—within earshot of her unmarried, middle-aged sister, ignoring the wide eyes of pain the remark produces.
Schlafly’s family members have made it clear Mrs. America’s creators made no effort to consult them or anyone who knew Schlafly well. But even as producers craft a fictional Schlafly to suit their desired ends, inconsistencies shine through. To wit, it seems a bit laughable to depict a woman with six children as icy and unresponsive to her husband’s affection.
But the real disconnect comes when the show sneers at Schlafly’s dire warnings that the feminist movement will lead to a genderless society of women in foxholes. At this moment, boys are competing in women’s sports and using their locker rooms and restrooms. A Texas judge ruled that the males-only military draft is unconstitutional. And, just a few weeks ago, a U.S. military commission issued a report recommending making women eligible for the draft.
Even halfway perceptive viewers will have to ask themselves in what way Schlafly’s concerns were overblown. Complex and compelling, Mrs. America can’t conceal the charisma of a singular figure who gave voice to tens of millions of voiceless American women.
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