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Cate Blanchett deserves better than ‘Mrs. America’

‘Mrs. America’ is an important series—talking about a pivotal moment in the history of America and the feminist movement—but not a very good one

The half-baked ‘Mrs. America’ is a compromise for Cate Blanchett but she is too good to let that show.
The half-baked ‘Mrs. America’ is a compromise for Cate Blanchett but she is too good to let that show.

No one likes feminists," a lawyer says, dismissively, on the new historical drama Mrs. America, streaming in India on Disney + Hotstar Premium. “Not even liberals." His wife, hitherto mid-argument, cannot disagree. “That’s true," she concedes with an amused laugh. “They’re no fun." As she says this, we cut from their stuffily elegant home to a woman wearing iconically tinted aviator sunglasses and addressing the press about her new magazine, which they believe has an “octopus lady" on the cover—it is, in fact, the goddess Kali. The woman in shades is the one and only Gloria Steinem, who then swaggers into a party with the entitled poise of a rock star. The no-fun accusation doesn’t hold.

If anything, the show’s creator Dahvi Waller, a Canadian writer who also worked on the excellent shows Mad Men (Netflix) and Halt And Catch Fire, may be stressing the point that unlike the focused and eventually united right wing, the liberal feminists may be let down by having too much fun—or, at least, by allowing each other too much disagreement. While the show brings alive feminist icons like Steinem, Betty Friedan and the trailblazing Shirley Chisholm, it isn’t quite telling their story. Instead, the Mrs America of the title is a conservative activist we first see wearing a patriotically red, white and blue swimsuit.

Her name is Phyllis Schlafly, and she is played by the greatest actress alive.

Cate Blanchett can do anything. She has deservedly won Oscars for Blue Jasmine and The Aviator. She has played historical figures as far removed as Bob Dylan, Queen Elizabeth and Katharine Hepburn. She has been a hammer-crushing Norse supervillain as well as a sophisticated New Yorker with exquisite taste in gloves and girls. As her first starring television role, Mrs. America feels like a moment.

The show’s creators seem awestruck by her. Getting Blanchett to play Schlafly—the politician who brought the right wing together against the women’s liberation movement—should have been a masterstroke but the show keeps tripping up the actress by giving her little to truly say. A smart female politician who would much rather school Republican senators and congressmen on defence, she is forced instead to choose an appropriately female political stance to stay relevant: Therefore, she decides to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment. Blanchett is predictably convincing as the driven and relentless Schlafly but keeps delivering the same character beats over and over again. Even as Schlafly rises to prominence, the character sadly doesn’t seem much fun.

The show plays out with excessive predictability. Various facets of feminism are duly name-checked as Mrs. America suffocates in its own seriousness. The result is an important series—talking about a pivotal moment in the history of America and the history of the feminist movement—but not a very good one. The terrific ensemble (Margo Martindale, Tracey Ullman, Sarah Paulson, Melanie Lynskey, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Elizabeth Banks) deserved sharper, less obvious writing. The sadly cancelled Amazon Prime series Good Girls Revolt, set in 1969, where female journalists waged war to get their rightful bylines, is much more compelling, primarily because it engages with its characters instead of pointing at them and expecting viewers to be impressed.

In Mrs. America, things come to the boil in episode 3, Shirley, about Shirley Chisholm, the black woman who ran a US presidential campaign in 1972. Played by Uzo Aduba, Chisholm’s extraordinary story feels urgent and immediate. Her campaign posters are strikingly emblazoned with the words “Unbought. Unbossed" yet Chisholm hasn’t earned the full support of her feminist allies—they are playing it safe by throwing their weight behind the male Democratic candidate who has a greater likelihood of actually winning. Gloria Steinem may applaud from behind her aviators and wear a very cool pin that says “Ms Chis For Pres" but she is reluctantly brokering a deal for the other side.

This is, then, a series about women having to compromise. Steinem—channelled effectively by Rose Byrne, resembling a woman eternally coming off a hangover and having to squint at the world—is alleged to have earned her first byline as a journalist “because she has great legs". In the other corner, Schlafly and her conservative cohorts are hesitantly taking aboard racist supporters because every vote against Equal Rights counts.

The feminists, fighting for a libertarian utopia, constantly contradict one another, each trying to find the very best way forward. The conservatives, on the other hand, fight a campaign based on self-promotion and misinformation—these are appealing political tools, hard to counter without engaging in even more moral compromise. It is easier for the wrong side to win because compromise comes easier to posturers than to idealists.

The half-baked Mrs. America is a compromise for Blanchett but she is too good to let that show. In an early scene, a man impressed with the bread she has made wonders if she has considered becoming a professional baker. She doesn’t give him a predictably withering look, instead pausing long enough for her contempt to unmistakably come through. “No," she confirms. “I have never thought about that."

As an anti-hero, Schlafly has incredible conviction and commitment and the Australian actress rightly plays her as a woman who cannot be denied. A woman who knows she has what it takes and understands that the world expects her to smile every time she makes a point. This she does, and—thanks to the poised performance—wins over even those on the other side. She may be lethal, but hers is an amazing grace.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

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