There’s Nothing Good About Phyllis SchlaflyRoundup
tags: conservatism, feminism, Equal Rights Amendment, television
Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin and author of Filmsuck, USA. She also hosts a podcast called Filmsuck.
While most critics are lauding the show for “humanizing” and encouraging us to empathize with Schlafly, Pier Dominguez of Buzzfeed does something commendable by pointing out what some of the worst of her stances were:
In real life, Schlafly was against the Republican Party’s civil rights platform before the ERA, and even right before her 2016 death she was railing against “illegal aliens” on her radio show. The show dramatizes the difference between strategic versus “real” racists, and chooses to portray Schlafly as an incidental one. But ultimately all we can know are the results of the real-world policies she supported. (Not to mention the racially coded language of states’ rights that she was intent on mobilizing.)
Yet most of this eye-popping material is omitted or downplayed in Mrs. America, apparently in a bid to make Schlafly more likable for contemporary audiences. Even Cate Blanchett’s professed approach to the role refuses any harsh judgments:
I don’t believe in demonizing anybody. My agreement or disagreement, my personal political persuasions — I couldn’t be less interested in folding into a character. . . . We’re all full of contradictions and hypocrisies. No one is perfect, including Phyllis — although her hair was mostly always perfect.
The consequences of this middle-of-the-road tendency to gloss over uncomfortable facts and make everything pudding smooth are that 1) it’s peddling misinformation and 2) it’s boring, representing people as far less spiky and weird and startling than they actually are. A good example of the show’s weak gestures toward galling truth is the way it portrays Gloria Steinem betraying Shirley Chisholm by secretly cutting a deal to throw her support behind the more mainstream Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. After leaving McGovern’s hotel suite, she gets into a packed elevator, and we get an overhead shot of Gloria — poor, poor Gloria! — mercilessly squeezed in among politicos in a symbolic image of the pressure put upon her by others.
It would make a big difference in how people regarded Steinem and her continuing legacy as a pillar of the feminist movement if we got another scene showing us how easily Steinem slid into actions that would’ve done her reputation no good if they were widely known back in the 1970s. In 2015, it was revealed that she once worked for a company called the Independent Research Service that was a front for the Central Intelligence Agency, and then defended the agency in ludicrous terms: “In my experience the agency was completely different from its image; it was liberal, nonviolent, and honorable.”
But you’re not going to get that kind of “here’s the emotional truth” flashback in Mrs. America. It doesn’t fit with the show’s soggy agenda that shows us every woman defined by her sorrow and no woman defined by her perfectly human rage or ambition or cynical, more-than-willing collusion with the powers that be.
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