Mrs America: Cate Blanchett’s addictive BBC drama has set Twitter on fire

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Mrs America is all about the IRL “villain” who inspired Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Taleand people are obsessed.

Updated on 9 July: in case you missed it, the first two episodes of Mrs America aired on BBC Two last night. Set in the 1970s, the TV show sees Cate Blanchett step into the shoes of anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly. As in, yes, the longtime Religious Right activist who successfully led the effort to stop the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Who advocated “traditional” roles for women in American society. And who’s the likely inspiration for Serena Joy in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Is it any wonder, then, that people are now thoroughly obsessed with the show?

That’s right: #MrsAmerica has been steadily trending on Twitter since the credits rolled, and, judging by the many, many tweets about the series, it’s gone down an absolute storm.

“My God but #MrsAmerica is incredible,” tweeted one viewer. “The cast, the soundtrack, the graphics in the credits!”

“#MrsAmerica is sooo good! Just give Cate Blanchett all the awards,” raved another.

One more noted: “I’ve been so excited for #MrsAmerica ever since I first knew #TraceyUllman was doing it … and it didn’t disappoint. Brilliant stuff. What a cast. What a story. Great music too.”

“I am loving #MrsAmerica and fully expect to become obsessed,” agreed another.

Our favourite, though?

“Watching #MrsAmerica and wondering how anyone could be against equal rights for women. But what an excellent drama and Cate Blanchett is sublime.”

Of course, if you have yet to clap eyes on the show, you’re probably wondering what all the fuss is about.

With that in mind, then, here’s everything you need to know about the star-studded series.

As reported on 7 July: what’s the plot of Mrs America?

The programme is a dramatisation of (you guessed it) the backlash against the Equal Rights Amendment in America. Phyllis Schlafly, in a bid to carve out an influential niche for herself, spearheads the fight, arguing that “equal rights” will undermine housewives and eventually see women drafted to fight in the military.

All too soon, though, bigots and religious extremists begin supporting her cause. For the briefest of moments, Schlafly pauses to consider the impact of her actions. Her pursuit for power, though, proves relentless. Cue the rise of the so-called Moral Majority, an organisation linked to the Christian right and Republican Party.

Of course, the show is not entirely focused on Blanchett’s antihero: we also get to spend time with her opposition (although not nearly enough, according to some critics, who feel the scales are tipped in Sclafly’s favour). Throughout the series, then, we see Schlafly go up against an all-star band of feminists: Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Jill Ruckelshaus, and Betty Friedan.

Unfortunately for our merry band of women’s libbers, they’re too busy fighting among themselves about intersectionality to give Shlafly a run for her money. And, while they’re calling for equality, they’re failing to properly address the issues that arise for BAME and LGBTQ+ feminists.

As per Rolling Stone: “Friedan doesn’t want gay rights being part of their platform; Chisholm is accused of favouring women’s issues over black ones (and vice versa); Ruckelshaus strongly disagrees with her colleagues on many issues, and so on.”

The result? They become a “circular firing squad, while Schlafly and her followers are shooting at them in unison.”

Mrs America: Rose Byrne portrays Gloria Steinem
Mrs America: Rose Byrne portrays Gloria Steinem

How does Mrs America handle the controversial Phyllis Schlafly’s character?

To quote the TV show’s Representative Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale): Schlafly “is a goddamn feminist. She may be the most liberated woman in America.” She just chooses not to see herself that way.

A Radcliffe graduate with six children and a failed run for Congress under her belt, Blanchett works hard to give us a nuanced, balanced performance. Her version of Schlafly isn’t just cunning, regal, and terrifying: we also see that her own needs and desires constantly come second to that of her husband – indeed, there is a chilling incident of marital rape in the first episode. We witness her frustration at being told to take notes, and to “smile, with teeth”, by the men she encounters throughout her life. We feel her pain as she’s forced to deal with hurtful words from her feminist opposition. And we can’t help but note her forced smile as she’s introduced to a crowd as “the wife of one of our biggest donors, Mrs. J. Fred Sclafly”.

Mrs America: Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly
Mrs America: Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly

Still, though: Schlafly is the kind of political figurehead who’s happy to rewrite reality in order to suit her own needs or ego. Who knocks others down without a second thought. Who would happily deny others the right to equality in order to grasp power for herself.

So, yes, she is very much a villain. But she is, at least, a human villain – one which we can understand and empathise with, all while shaking our heads over her questionable decisions.

What’s the link between Mrs America and The Handmaid’s Tale?

As previously reported by Stylist, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) is a major character in The Handmaid’s Tale – and, as those who have read the book will know, she played a major role in the shaping of Gilead’s regime.

That’s right: before the Republic was formed, Serena made headlines with her powerful lectures and essays on the subject of “a women’s place”. She repeatedly argued that traditional gender roles should be upheld at all costs, that women should remain in the home, and that ‘wicked’ and ‘immoral’ females be punished for their ‘sins’. And, as we all know, her dreams of a misogynist future have come true – although she, like so many others of her gender, has been forced to pay for it with her freedom.

Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Joy in The Handmaid's Tale season 3
Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Joy in The Handmaid's Tale is thought to have been inspired by Phyllis Schlafly.

While Serena is undeniably fictional, many have suggested that she was inspired by the real-life Phyllis Schlafly, who began her political career as an anti-feminist in 1964 when she published her first pro-family book, insisting that women should stop focusing on politics and instead tend to their families and work inside the home.

It wasn’t long, however, before Schlafly’s words came back to bite her in the ass – just as they did for Serena,

In 1967, she ran for president of the National Federation of Republican Women. However, her critics argued that, as a mother of six children, she couldn’t fully devote herself to a political post – and, after an ugly fight, Schlafly lost.

What has Cate Blanchett said about Phyllis Schlafly?

Speaking to Collider, the actor dubbed Schlafly a “polarizing figure”. However, she added that “it’s undeniable that she was a contemporary woman who really changed the course of the American political landscape.”

“I think she did that by shifting the language,” says Blanchett. “She really did move the notion of anti-abortion, which then became pro-life, as the central platform of the Republican party, and conflated that with being pro-American and pro-family, and characterised the feminist movement as being anti-family.

“So, the language and the rhetoric that she employed, during the course of the campaign to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment has had a profound influence in the way the Republican party not only talks to the American populace, but talks to itself about what it stands for.”

Who makes up the cast of Mrs America?

Alongside Blanchett, who has been lauded by critics (this writer included) for her portrayal of Schlafly, we have:

  • Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem
  • Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug
  • Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm
  • Elizabeth Banks as Jill Ruckelshaus
  • Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan.

Further cast members include Sarah Paulson, John Slattery, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Ari Graynor, Melanie Lynskey, and Kayli Carter.

Mrs America: Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug, Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, and Elizabeth Banks as Jill Ruckelshaus
Mrs America: Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug, Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, and Elizabeth Banks as Jill Ruckelshaus.

Is there a trailer for Mrs America?

You can watch the trailer for Mrs America below:

How many episodes of Mrs America are there?

There are nine episodes in the series, which are titled as follows:

  • Episode 1. Phyllis
  • Episode 2. Gloria
  • Episode 3. Shirley
  • Episode 4. Betty
  • Episode 5. Phyllis & Fred & Brenda & Marc
  • Episode 6. Jill
  • Episode 7. Bella
  • Episode 8. Houston
  • Episode 9. Reagan

When is Mrs America coming to our TV screens?

Mrs America is set to air in the UK on BBC Two from Wednesday 8 July at 9pm with a double-bill. 

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Images: BBC

Mrs America has set Twitter on fire, and for good reason

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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