Five stars for Mrs America which starts with a double-bill on BBC2 tonight at 9pm
Gloria Steinem, arguably the world’s most famous feminist, isn’t a fan of nine-part historical mini-series Mrs America, (BBC2 tonight at 9pm) in which she’s one of the two key characters.
In a recent interview, Steinem, excellently played in the drama by Rose Byrne, called it “ridiculous” and “not very good”.
She accused it of distorting the way things really were in the Women’s Movement by exaggerating the infighting between her and fellow feminists, and by overstating the historical importance of right-wing conservative housewife and mother Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), who led a campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) throughout the 1970s and is often held up as one of the reasons why it was defeated.
“In actuality, I don’t believe she changed one vote,” said Steinem, adding that Schlafly was “brought in at the last minute” to give the impression that most women were opposed to the ERA, when in fact, the majority were in favour of it.
Be that as it may, it doesn’t detract from the fact that Mrs America, which kicks of with a double-bill, is terrifically entertaining television. Playing fast and loose with history has never been so enjoyable and absorbing.
Whatever liberties creator Dahvi Waller and her co-writers may have taken with the facts, this is still a persuasive, pin-sharp account of a key period in American history that was simultaneously thrilling, inspiring, depressing and deeply, deeply strange.
The strangeness comes from Schlafly, brilliantly played by Blanchett. Here was an educated woman who earned a BA and an MA, yet nonetheless, worked tirelessly against her own best interests and those of her fellow women for her entire life. She was the proverbial turkey voting for Christmas – not that she’d have seen it that way.
It’s a concept any rational person, woman or man, finds it impossible to get their head around. Mrs America tries to make some kind of sense of it by portraying Schlafly and her fellow, pearl-wearing anti-feminists – who, as they blather on about making bread, sound like Ira Levin’s robotic Stepford Wives – as women bound by insecurity.
As Steinem’s feminist ally and sometime adversary Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman, wonderful) puts it at one point, these women are terrified of the ERA because they have no skills, no way of making a living on their own if their husbands dump them. They’ve never been trained to be anything else but obedient wives and doting mothers.
This, according to the drama at least, is just as true of Schlafly. She may be the smartest person in a room full of men, but she repeatedly defers to them when they patronise her.
When Republican politician Philip Crane (James Marsden) – a real-life figure, who’s portrayed here as shallow and sleazy – bluntly cuts across her as she’s making him look foolish during a joint TV appearance, she swallows her annoyance and smiles for the camera like a beauty pageant contestant.
Later, we see her surrendering sexually to her husband Fred (John Slattery), despite being exhausted after a long trip.
Whether presenting Schlafly – whose stated views, not least that there was no such thing as marital rape, just relations between husband and wife, were often monstrous – as a clever women, who saw opposing the ERA as a way of launching her own political career is accurate or not, Blanchett makes her a compelling character.
Whether the portrayal of Steinem as a woman who’s fiercely committed to the cause of equal rights, yet still eager to please her lawyer boyfriend Franklin Thomas (Jay Ellis) whenever he’s in town, is fair either is also open to question.
But Mrs America is a drama, not a documentary, and an immensely satisfying one; with a superb, predominantly female cast, including Uzo Aduba, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Elizabeth Banks and Sarah Paulson.