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Betty. Mrs America, Part Four. Reviewed.

September 23, 2020
Behind the Scenes: Sundays with Schlafly – The Ginsburg Tapes

And so our week by week viewing of Mrs America continues.

After having read the real Gloria Steinem complain in the LA Times that 1970s feminism was being reduced to a catfight by this series, it feels eerie to see the fictional Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) warn against being dragged into a catfight. This drama may be a misrepresentation, but it’s also a drama about misrepresentation.

The same issue comes up week after week. This is a drama about women talking to other women, and drama is all about conflict.

This episode is also very much about intersectionality – its opportunities and its challenges. Is there a risk that intersectional commitments descend into disabling “whataboutery”? Is there an opposite risk that “pragmatic focus” results in the same people being sent to the back of the queue over and over again? In the meantime, we are introduced to the extraordinary wit and wisdom of Flo Kennedy.

We’re also shown a different kind of intersectionality on the Right where Schlafly deals (or doesn’t deal) with the racist fringe (a fringe of indeterminate size and influence) of the anti-feminist movement. Schlafly clearly adopted a “don’t ask – don’t tell” attitude when it comes to racism. Incapable of thinking of herself as a prejudiced person because she sometimes says nice things to her maid, Schlafly wants to be a national figure, and being a national figure includes the south, and southern reactionaries are very racist. This “don’t ask – don’t tell” policy is strangely mirrored and internalised by the fact that she’s not going to be able to fully acknowledge the fact that her son is gay but she’s not going to be able to “not know” it either.

It is heartbreaking to watch Tracy Ullman as Betty Friedan in this episode. A pioneer whose real moment was the early 1960s rather than the early 70s and who seems frequently adrift in the context of new political alliances. She’s difficult. She’s difficult to be with. She’s the person at the party you need to talk to and least want to. She is carrying the baggage of homophobic rhetoric (“Lavender Menace”) and she’s never going to be an intersectional warrior. She inspired so many, but nobody knows what to do with her. You sympathise with her, but it’s a hard-fought and difficult sympathy.

Feminism is credited with focusing the idea that the personal is the political, but for Tracey Ullman’s Friedan – too often – the political is the personal. Rehearsed by her husband, Phyllis learns that coolness is a weapon – that if you can break your debating opponent, you can win. In a chilling scene, Phyllis alludes cruelly to Betty’s personal circumstances while keeping a calm straight face. As Betty collapses in a frank and honest display of temper, Phyllis takes the spoils. Betty has accidentally managed to seem to confirm the most successful and repeated STOP stereotype involving “Libbers” – that they are angry, bitter, miserable, and obsessed with victimhood.

The ending of this episode is very moving and the final phone call from Gloria to Betty made me well up quite a bit. We’re shown a difficult but necessary initiation of a conversation that involves a very difficult kind of love

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