Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Activism in the 70s through the prism of prestige TV

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A month ago, Hulu's miniseries "Mrs America" about the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment concluded. To give a quick synopsis, in the 1970s, 35 of 38 states needed ratified the ERA so it could become part of the constitution and guarantee equal rights to women. The ratification seemed like a surefire process, but right-wing activist Phyllis Schlafly more or less single-handedly turned the issue in a nasty partisan fight, a development that culminated in Ronald Reagan's election, the "conservative revolution" and a large backlash against liberal causes that arguably lasted until the Obama years.

The series tackles important players of this time over the span of nine episodes, highlighting one person per episode, starting with Schlafly herself, hitting monuments like Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm, inventing an increasingly doubtful compatriot of Schlafly's and ending with Ronald Reagan himself (althought the president is never depicted on screen and a background presence).

One thing that's striking, aside from the production values and general quality (this is practically a given in the day and age of prestige TV, I feel), is the level of buy-in required by the viewer. If you're not well-versed in the history of the epoch, good luck. This show basically expects you to know who George McGovern was and how the primary process of 1972 was revolutionary as well as what disgruntled conservatives mean when they scathingly invoke the name of Rockefeller.

The pace of the show is also very fast. Every episode lapses considerable time, often a year or more, and you're expected to keep up without a lot of exposition. This helps the coherence and quality of dialogue, of course, but again, if this isn't your area of expertise, good luck. I had to stop frequently and to explain to my wife what was going on because she didn't to happen to have read a few books on the topic. And she's a studied historian as well!

But let's put that aside; if I couldn't deter you until now, you're likely to enjoy the show. I want to shine a spotlight on the depiction of activism in the show. Its central conceit is at the same time its major flaw: It's building up the character of Phyllis Schlafly as its main character. In theory, this is a great idea. The audience is likely overwhelmingly liberal, and to challenge existing notions about good and evil in this fight is a smart writing decision. It worked for "Game Change", back before Trump entered the White House.

And therein lies the rub. Because on the one hand, it's very hard - from a liberal perspective, that is - to not see Phyllis Schlafly as a bad person that had hugely destructive consequences for American society. And while the show occasionally tries to humanize her, she remains a cipher and, worse, quickly becomes boring. Her arc is incredibly repetitive.

After the first episode, I understood that the takes on the ERA cause only as a vehicle to gain influence in the party, that she's a bigot and that she's not happy with her role in society. But there isn't much movement after that, whereas we get A LOT of movement on the left side of the fight, where there's also a plethora of actors (in both senses of the word).

This makes sense, because the fight against the ERA was very lopsided. Until the end, the amendment had 70-80% support in the general populace; it was only the mobilization of the Evangelicals and the southern KKK-extremists in the cause that gave it the leverage it needed in some key states. In that way, there's a fascinating parallel to the alliance of the temperance movement with the suffragettes at the dawn of the 20th century; a topic someone needs to write about these days.

But back to the show. On the lefty side of things, you get titans like Glora Steinem and Betty Friedan facing off. There is real conflict, and both of these veteran activists face off against the forces of that aligned themselves with the Democratic party establishment; and then, there's the Republican women who support the fight (crazy times, huh?). Against that, you have Galadriel droning on about desiring the One Ring, essentially. Not that it's Blanchett's fault, the script doesn't give her that much aside from the subplot of her gay son that basically goes nowhere.

Part of that, to take another detour, is endemic to the genre of biopics, because human life doesn't have arcs. Our lives unfold as they do, random, without clear victories and defeats. There's always an "after", even and especially so after we had a big moment. These aren't usually faring well in fiction.

In the case of "Mrs America", what we can see are a lot of conflicts within the left side of the spectrum. While Steinem vehemently opposes the idea of engaging Schlafly, arguing it will only raise her profile, Friedan is itching for a fight. Abzug is constantly making painful compromises to get a little bit from the Democratic party, always fighting for unity, mostly failing, whereas activists demand radical action, big shows and ideological purity.

One example of this is is the fight to include gay rights into the platform of the women's movement. Some, like Abzug, oppose this on pragmatic grounds, others, like Friedan, on ideological ones. Over the episode, a real shift on this topic occurs, with the triumphant adoption into the platform on the Houston Women's Conference in 1978. Nothing like this happens on the right.

Even more starkly, in the last episode, the Carter administration humiliates Abzug because she finally gave in to the more radical demands to force Carter into substantial concessions. In reaction to the dismissal of Abzug and the preening over the ignoring of their issues, the feminists publicly break with Carter. This is played as a triumphant moment of principle and contrasts starkly with Schlafly's opposite decision in the two prior episodes to throw her lot in with the right-wing extremists and the KKK in order to gain the numbers she needs for her rallies and access to some mailing lists.

However, Carter lost. Reagan won the election with the support of the right-wing extremists and ushered in a huge backlash. The feminists had nothing to show for their "victory" over Carter other than one triumphal moment. It's said too much that it was deciding Carter's fate; obviously, many more factors were at work.

It is, however, an accurate portrayal of left-wing activism. It frequently prices ideological purity and shows of principle over actual gains. That makes them better people than their right-wing counterparts, to be sure, but it also leads to a lot of losing battles. Where the left splinters, the right unites, and in "Mrs America", it happens right before our eyes. This is even more striking because this is clearly not a focus of the show or, I'd argue, even intentional.

It's all the more apparent for that reason, though.

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