'Mrs. America' Episode 8: Alice as lead instead of Schlafly would’ve shown movement’s growth in ‘70s better
Spoilers for ‘Mrs. America’ Episode 8 ‘Houston’
‘Mrs. America’, FX’s biographical miniseries, has received criticism on multiple fronts. A prominent one among those is the humanization of the show’s villain, Phyllis Schlafly. Cate Blanchett’s stupendous performance of the conservative firebrand ideologue tends to often portray her as an ironic victim of her own philosophy. Hoisted by her own antifeminist petard.
Another department where the show has received criticism is how it chooses to indulge in creative liberties with imaginative stories about the historical figures (feminists or otherwise) outside their documented public life. Yes, the portrayal of the historical figures has largely been deemed accurate by historians. But there are obviously a lot of liberties the show takes to make the story look more human and engaging, instead of what could certainly look more like a documentary.
While the first one is arguable to a certain degree -- humanization need not be the same as glorification -- the second one feels nitpicky. It’s a serialized bio-fic and it needs to have a bit of leeway with the story. But even in the format and style, it has chosen to go ahead with, ‘Mrs. America’ could have done things better. And episode 8, ‘Houston’ is proof of that.
The episode that chronicles the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas, focuses on Alice Macray (Sarah Paulson), the timid friend-cum-lieutenant of Schlafly in her antifeminist struggle. The episode sees the housewife-turned indoctrinated conservative Alice grow a conscience as she interacts and mingles with women from all walks of life. She laughs, sings, eats, talks, drinks, prays, shares, and fraternizes with women who Schlafly taught her were the enemy of her and other housewives.
The episode sees Alice attain personal growth and by the end of it, she chooses to raise her voice against the blind opposition to the agendas set by the second-wave feminists for the conference.
Here’s what the show could have done better: it could have told the story with Alice at its center.
As far as ‘Mrs. America’ goes, it’s hard to pinpoint one character whom the show focuses on. Each episode has a historical figure at its center and the episode then charts their journey, personal and political, and paints for viewers a fairly nuanced character sketch. But if one has to pick a character that feels like the show’s lead, it has to be Schlafly. For starters, the show’s title alludes to her. She is also the one who has received the most screen time combined.
It’s safe to say that Schlafly is the show’s subject. And that leads to some of the criticism it has received, as mentioned earlier in this piece. However, if Alice were to be focused on in the whole show, and not just this one episode, that criticism could have been averted, simply because Alice is not a bad person.
Alice’s character, even if it begs sympathy, does not glorify malignant ideologies; mostly because she has none. For the most part, she has been content parroting Schlafly’s opinions. Another reason why Alice would be the better Mrs. America as compared to Schlafly is the potential for personal growth. We see Alice questioning her own group’s rhetoric, even apologizing for their horrid stance on LGBTQIA issues.
Her growth could have been a better barometer for the feminist movement of the ‘70s. Her growth would also lay to rest the idea that the show’s creators want us to sympathize with Schlafly. And finally, it would have been a great depiction of internal conflicts surrounding the politics of feminism and antifeminism.
Plus, and this is not a slight at Blanchett, Sarah Paulson’s talent is criminally underutilized in this series. Alice being the Mrs. America would have been an infinitely better choice than this. Yes, despite its flaws, the show has managed to shine bright and shine well. But could it have been better? Yes. And making Alice the lead character would have been a great start in that direction.
'Mrs. America' drops new episodes every Wednesday on Hulu.