Mrs. America is a show about the second wave of feminism conveyed through the eyes of Phyllis Schlafly—a power-hungry far-right conservative asshole who wanted to stomp out women’s rights in order to propel herself into the White House.
On the other side of the spectrum was Gloria Steinem who was the literal face of 1970’s feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment that Schafly was so desperate to eradicate. Arguably the most famous feminist in American history next to like, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
And she was the worst character in Mrs. America.
This might be confusing to explain because there are two problems with the character and they are intertwined. Gloria Steinem was poorly written into this show and Rose Byrne was far and away the worst actor in a cast full of 25 points per game scorers.
If you’re not familiar with the story of the ERA and this women’s movement, the only name you might recognize—outside of Shirley Chisholm who was the first black woman elected to Congress and the first black candidate to win a major party’s nomination for president—is Gloria Steinem.
Yet, the show just uses her as a prop to hold up the other women’s’ stories. The show isn’t particularly interested in digging into the foundation and growth of her magazine, Ms. She sort of just whined about wanting to write a book and made out with the dude from Insecure.
Here is what the show creator, Dahvi Waller, said about how characters were chosen:
I knew that I wanted to tell the story of the death of moderate Republicanism and certainly pro-choice Republicans, so that brought Jill Ruckelshaus, who was one of the Republican founding members, into the development process. The fact that Brenda Feigen Fasteau debated Phyllis Schlafly—that was the other way I chose my characters: Who actually interacted with Phyllis? I guess some people might have created a fictional debate between Gloria Steinem and Phyllis Schlafly because it makes for great television. But I really wanted to follow the true story.
Totally understandable that Mrs. America was the story of Phyllis Schlafly and the women in her orbit which makes it even stranger that Gloria was in this show so much when they were never in the same room together.
The “Houston” episode gave the perfect example of how Gloria Steinem should’ve been used. Alice Macray played by Sarah Paulson, is Schlafly’s right-hand woman who was with her day one as they began to mobilize and take on the feminists. She starts to realize that Schlafly is a manipulative sociopath and after spending time with the pro-ERA women, begins discovering the nuance in politics.
Down the hall from her hotel room, she sees Gloria Steinem strut into her room and Alice is in awe of her. At the end of the episode, she meets up with Phyllis and Schlafly asks her ‘did you see Gloria Steinem?’.
That’s how Gloria should’ve been used.
As this heroic figure that even the right-wing religious weirdos were obsessed with. She’s a superstar and a real life celebrity but Mrs. America turns her into a boring naive loser who doesn’t understand politics or intersectional feminism. Which is probably true of the actual Gloria but it wasn’t explored enough and her scenes were just nothing.
On top of that, Rose Byrne suuuuuucks.
I admit I may be biased. When it was announced she’d be portraying Gloria Steinem, I immediately had doubts. Nothing Rose Byrne has done up to this point had made me feel like she was capable of holding her own in a series with Cate Blanchett.
But I also had that same thought about Elizabeth Banks and she exceeded expectations. Knocked it out of the park. Her scene at the bar with Cate Blanchett as they talked about their own political aspirations and women being sexually harassed is a Top 5 moment in the show. It was the only scene where it felt like I was watching two movie stars trying to get Oscars. I didn’t know Lizzy B had that in her toolbelt.
Rose Byrne? Not so much. Again, Gloria is the most famous woman in the show. I know what she sounds like and how she talks. Rose Byrne? Not so much.
As someone with a deep monotone voice, I know that Gloria is in that club yet Rose was unable to consistently maintain the same voice over the course of a scene. I felt like she was more focused on keeping up an English accent that she couldn’t also sound like Gloria.
Which is a shame because if you watch any tape of Phyllis Schlafly, you can see how perfectly Cate Blanchett nails her. Even the way she stutters as she gathers her lies together.
Now, it’s unfair to say that Rose’s performance is bad because she isn’t an impressionist. No, her performance is bad because she’s a bad actor who was eaten alive by Margot Martindale and Uzo Aduba whenever they were on the screen together.
Mrs. America is a fantastic show and the best series I’ve watched in 2020 regardless of how much of a distraction Rose Byrne was. It was the perfect reflection of today’s modern politics where facts no longer matter and morality and ethics are sacrificed for meaningless power and notoriety.
Dahvi Waller did an amazing job making me care about a despicable woman so much that I was genuinely upset when Ronald Reagan didn’t select Phyllis to join his cabinet after all the work she put in.
The final shot of her cutting apples and returning to a life of being just a housewife was a beautiful ironic and tragic end to the story about a woman who pretended to want that life as she desperately spent every day trying to avoid it.
Release the version of Mrs. America with all of Rose Byrne’s scenes cut.
Here is the famous Phyllis Schlafly vs. Betty Friedan debate where Betty said that Phyllis should be burned at the stake.