Television

The TV Club, 2020

Entry 12: Mrs. America reconfirmed that women’s history is my history.

Cate Blanchett in Mrs. America
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by FX Network.

The 2020 TV Club features Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, the Hollywood Reporter’s Inkoo Kang, and Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff.

To Those I May Be About to Destroy:

It’s interesting you note our general reluctance to talk about Mrs. America, Inkoo, because the more I examine my own hesitance, the more I realize it’s closely wedded to my disinterest in further championing I May Destroy You (even though I already championed it earlier in the year): I have been sufficiently persuaded by other people that there is enough in there that is problematic that I don’t really want to heap more praise on them. Both would be in my top five, were I to make one. Both are terrific TV. Both, I think, have pretty sizable blinders on.

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Yet praise I shall! Let’s start with Mrs. America, because we haven’t talked about it yet, and I said I would do so the last time the baton was passed to me. I most appreciated the series as a brilliantly made, thoughtfully written deconstruction of the collapse of 1970s feminism in the face of a revanchist movement launched by Phyllis Schlafly and a bunch of concerned housewives. As Schlafly, Cate Blanchett stole back the “best at microexpressions” crown from Elisabeth Moss (though Moss reclaimed it in the mesmerizing feature Shirley this summer), and the supporting cast is aces at every level.

What’s more, showrunner Dahvi Waller’s patience with depicting the ways in which Schlafly’s movement ultimately hurt the women it proclaimed to champion ends up being intensely rewarding. At first, the series seems like it’s yet another anti-hero tale about a villainous but compelling white lady who aligns herself with racists to get what she wants. The brilliance of the show is that it’s not not that, but it’s also so much more. Waller turns every episode over to a new member of the show’s ensemble, offering biographical sketches of Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, and others who serve to deepen the overall thrust of the series’ take on the feminist movement of the era.

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Mrs. America’s eighth episode—the one where Sarah Paulson goes to the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston—might be my favorite TV episode of the year, as deeply implausible as it is (unless you give it a queer reading, which I might in a moment). It captures almost perfectly the ways in which leaving a cloistered environment where what you take in is carefully controlled and modulated can cause your brain to crack wide open, if you’re in just the right place for it. Even though it’s set in a hotel in Houston in 1977, it might as well be about a teenager with some concerns about fundamentalist Christianity getting the internet installed in her home in her teens. (I don’t know anything about that!)

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The tension within Mrs. America exists in its episode titles. Save for one episode (the cheekily named “Phyllis & Fred & Brenda & Marc”), the show’s first seven installments are each named after the women they depict: “Phyllis,” “Gloria,” etc. But the final two episodes are named “Houston” and “Reagan,” because we know history, and we know where this is headed. The Equal Rights Amendment fails. The Reagan administration serves as a rebuke to even Schlafly-style feminism. There’s nothing here you can’t see coming, because you know how the world works.

One reason I may have responded to Mrs. America as much as I did might stem from how it was part of an ongoing process in 2020 that reconfirmed for me on some level that women’s history was also my history. As a tiny trans girl in rural South Dakota, I used to scan the newspaper’s opinion section every day, and I remember being thrilled by the presence of Schlafly in its pages, not because I had any cognizance of what she was writing about (I doubt I could read half of the words in it) but because the little picture of her that ran with the column was of a woman, and on some intrinsic level, I liked that. When I got told by some parent or another that she was a woman who believed all the “right” things (again, rural South Dakota), I liked her even more.

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Schlafly, obviously, would be on the side of the “debate” over trans rights—which is really a debate over our right to live our lives—that favors denying gender-affirming care to trans teenagers, out of a misguided certainty that if you force someone through an unwanted puberty, they will get to the other side thankful for your intervention and not traumatized. But I was lacking for lady heroes, especially lady writer heroes, as a kid, and I latched onto her. Mrs. America shows just how wrong about her 5-year-old me was. (To be fair, she was wrong about a lot of things. What a stupid kid!) Schlafly’s every move was a “do as I say, not as I do” sort of deal, and the America she so supported was one where everybody who isn’t a straight white cis guy ends up at least a little traumatized, maybe even Schlafly. She starts out wanting a seat at the table, and the last shot of the series is of her literally taking a seat at the kitchen table, ha ha ha. It would be too on the nose if it weren’t precisely on the nose.

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I mentioned reading the series through a queer lens earlier because a) I kind of bring a queer lens to everything by virtue of being who I am, and b) a lot of the series’ central dynamics are fueled by the sort of white-hot repression that I understand vividly. Some critics complained that the way Alice, Paulson’s character, immediately started hanging out with the liberals in Houston was too abrupt and sudden, but in my experience, that’s what really happens. You spend your whole life being told that certain people are dangerous, then you meet them and realize they’re mostly OK, and then something inside of you begins to flower and maybe opens up doors you didn’t dare look at. It took meeting one (1) gay person in college for me to realize just how much what I had been taught was horseshit, and “Houston” is an incredibly moving examination of that idea that also makes Phyllis Schlafly (who visits Alice in a dream) into a kind of lesbian succubus in a way that underlines just how horny Alice has always been for her without having her come out and say, “You know … sometimes I think about kissing Phyllis Schlafly, my friend and colleague, even though we are both, indeed, women!”

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But the flip side of literally everything I wrote above is that the further I drift from traditional criticism, the less I find the things I think to be vital to understanding a series like Mrs. America. Don’t get me wrong: I think there’s a need to bring a queer lens to a show like this, because it underlines a subtext in American history that we don’t always talk about. Yet everything I love about Mrs. America—and I love, love, love it—is neatly vivisected by critics of color like Angelica Jade Bastién and Alessa Dominguez.

I don’t know that either Bastién or Dominguez would disagree with literally anything I wrote above, except my assertion that it’s one of the best shows of the year. Both argue, persuasively, that the series is one made for the mainstream prestige TV audience, which is assumed to be largely a white audience. (While I’m sharing awesome writing on this show, here’s another, more positive piece from fellow trans critic Jude Doyle.) The idea that even if TV criticism is growing more and more diverse, we’re often assumed to be writing for the sorts of upper-middle-class white people who tend to read our websites, informs a heck of a lot of what we write. For instance, shows like FX’s trans history lesson Pose or even the goofy AMC treat Dispatches From Elsewhere (which featured a trans woman as its romantic lead, mostly without commenting on her identity) are often written about entirely through the lens of what they mean for “trans representation,” rather than whatever other qualities they might possess.

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I mostly understand this focus on representation. It made me cry to see Eve Lindley as Simone in Dispatches From Elsewhere, because I had never seen someone like me at the center of a story like that one without being demonized. But I think it also tends to obscure our ability to accurately dissect the power dynamics inherent in stories like this. Simone has more layers to her than most fictional trans women, but she is, at the end of the day, kind of an inspiring woman who helps a man see that he just needs to stay true to his inner voice to realize his potential. I think every critic I know would agree representation is not enough, but when we don’t necessarily belong to a group being depicted on screen, it becomes a kind of fallback position.

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I’m not trying to say anything here other than “This is really complicated,” but it’s worth pointing that out again, because, well, this is really complicated. I adore I May Destroy You, but I’ve had conversations with a number of sexual assault survivors who feel that the show skews too closely to arguing that the real responsibility to avoid rape lies with would-be victims, not their potential assailants. A lot of this criticism is driven by stuff Michaela Coel has said outside of the show proper, so I wouldn’t count it against the show in a review, and it’s also not my personal reading of the series. But it was interesting enough to make me question my largely unquestioning praise.

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As I mentioned earlier, when I brought up The Queen’s Gambit, some part of me automatically feels the tiny tug of “But is it though???” when seemingly everyone around me is saying, “This is so good!” I’ve been doing this long enough to trust my own opinions, but I also wonder if I’ve been doing it so long that I no longer trust my own opinions to be all that important outside of the vacuum of my own thoughts. Ideally, readers would be consuming a wide variety of viewpoints to get a bunch of different ideas about the quality of our favorite TV shows. But we all know the number of us doing this job is limited to begin with, and the number of viewership options is so overwhelming that, too often, we sand away the flaws that exist even within the shows we love most in the name of getting people to watch them. It’s hard to have a nuanced conversation on a crowded bus with so many other people jostling for your attention, so maybe you just shout, “HEY, WATCH MRS. AMERICA! IT’S PERFECT!” and leave it at that.

I don’t really know how to pivot away from that, so I’ll just ask all of you: What older TV did you discover this year? Somehow, I had never seen Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I’m going through it a few episodes at a time for my newsletter and really enjoying it. Or, barring that, just tell me which TV shows this year made you laugh hardest.

Suddenly remembering there was a whole season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. this year,

Em

Read the previous entry.

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