Since its Canadian premiere two weeks ago, FX’s Mrs. America has drawn near universal praise from critics. The nine-part mini-series explores the 1970s conservative campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment, dividing its time between the second-wave feminists who fought for it (including Rose Byrne’s Gloria Steinem and Tracey Ullman’s Betty Friedan) and the staunchly right-wing founder of STOP ERA, Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett).
Yet as audiences have had time to catch up with the series, Mrs. America has also spawned something of a debate as to how it positions Schlafly, and the problems that come with compressing history into easily bingeable entertainment.
In a joint interview this past week with The Globe and Mail, Blanchett and Mrs. America executive producer Stacey Sher spoke about the politics of adaptation.
Now that the series is out there in the world, how do you feel about the critical reaction to it?
Cate Blanchett It’s funny when it’s a very specific period of history, and you think it’s a finite, hermetically sealed investigation. But this is so keyed into issues people are thinking about right now. Not just women, but the grand inequity we have come to tolerate in society.
Stacey Sher We’re thrilled that it’s created a discussion, and I think that it’s funny to look back at the seventies as a much more inclusive time, at least ideologically, because none of us realized that mainstream Republicans then were pro-ERA and pro-choice. It’s hard to imagine a time when the U.S. political structure wasn’t so polarized, and had real and thoughtful debates.
Blanchett The notion of public discourse being a conversation and discussion, and being able to have long-form nuanced discussions about very important subjects … it doesn’t feel like we have those public platforms any more, as much as social media promised it would be.
Regarding that nuanced discussion: What do you think about the criticisms that have appeared since the show’s premiere, which argue that the series casts a too-flattering light on right-wing white women? There was a much-discussed essay on Buzzfeed positing that the show pulls its punches about Schlafly’s history of racism.
Sher I would say that they are basing it on one episode, and they haven’t seen where the series is going yet. I would also say that if you start a story by shouting, you have nowhere to go. Our approach was to start from an entry point and shift. Look, we’ve all become really comfortable preaching to the choir. These buckets that we’ve aligned ourselves into on social media have allowed us to only hear the level of discourse that we want to hear. If we want to examine the times we live in now, it doesn’t serve anybody to start with a position of either canonization on one end or demonization on the other. If we take a humanistic look, we can try to figure out how we got from here to there.
Blanchett At the time that the ERA came to prominence, the traditional women, Phyllis included, were outside of it. She galvanized a whole slew of traditional women who felt alienated and marginalized by the women’s liberation movement, and she activated their fear of change. So [the series] starts from an unexpected place. But there are many different points of view in the women’s movement. Women are not a monolith and the series does speak to that notion. It’s one of those things that if you only watch one episode, you’ll only get one point of view. It’s not a film, it’s a nine-part series, so we hope that people will stay with it to the end.
Sher We don’t shy away from talking about Phyllis being aligned with the John Birch Society. We certainly in later episodes talk about the Klan and her affiliation, and we see the racist members of STOP ERA at certain meetings. I don’t think we’re backing away or whitewashing who she was. We’re just not doing it in one hour.
In terms of getting those multiple points of view, what was the thinking, then, of creating Sarah Paulson’s character – a friend of Schlafly’s who ends up leaving the movement and acting as a kind of rational argument against Phyllis – but who has no real-life counterpart?
Sher She has several real-life counterparts; she’s a composite. There were several women close to Phyllis who make her aware of the movement.
There were no discussions between producers and the Schlafly family prior to the series airing. Since it has gone out into the world, though, have you heard anything?
Is that something you’d welcome?
Blanchett Phyllis wrote a slew of books, many of which I read. And her archives are vast, because she was very obsessed with having access to the national conversation and to getting her message out in the media, so all of what she said exists. It’s tricky, isn’t it? Because it’s not a biopic about any one character; it’s as much about a time and legacy as any individual. And the only reason to delve back into recent history is to illuminate or investigate how we arrived to where we are now. We wanted to work out why we are living through a backlash and why isn’t the notion of equality enshrined in the American Constitution, and what’s terrifying about that notion. That’s what we were investigating as much as any particular person. No character alive or dead was reached out to. We didn’t want to get bound up with prioritizing one story over another. Then it goes into agitprop and tells audiences what to think.
When dealing with polarizing figures like this, you are going to offend, you are going to have sins of omission. But that’s part of the process because the conversations need to be robust, engaged and passionate. It’s good that people are having issues positive and negative with the series. That’s part of the point.
This interview has been condensed and edited
Mrs. America airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX, with episodes available to stream on FX Now
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