While it was once considered a lowbrow, uninspiring wasteland, television has proved its creative and commercial prowess in recent years, attracting A-list movie actresses like Emma Stone, Amy Adams, and Meryl Streep along the way. The wonderful Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett is the latest star to jump on the embracing-television-as-an-artistic-medium bandwagon. Per Deadline, she will executive produce and star in Mrs. America, an FX limited series centering on the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s.
Mrs. America will incorporate different voices from the ideological and political spectrum, including second-wave feminists Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Shirley Chisholm, as well as conservative and anti-feminist political activist Phyllis Schlafly. Spearheaded by Mad Men writer Dahvi Waller, the series will run for nine episodes.
Blanchett will play Schlafly, who opposed and ultimately helped defeat the ERA, which simply proposed that equal protection and civil rights won’t be denied to any American based on sex. Initially, the ERA wasn’t polarizing. With near unanimous bipartisan support (even from then-president Richard Nixon!), the bill seemed destined to be ratified until Schlafly charged against it. As a public defender of traditional gender roles, Schlafly mobilized many Americans into believing the ratification of the bill would unfairly disadvantage housewives and lead to women serving in the military. Schlafly played a key role in beating the ERA and damaging second wave feminism in turn. (She was also a vocal opponent of abortion and LGBT rights.)
Enter Blanchett, an outspoken supporter of Hollywood’s Time’s Up initiative and advocate for increased representation in film. It is alarming to see Blanchett take on the regressive Schlafly for her next role, as the two women’s political leanings diametrically oppose each other. Blanchett is no stranger to playing more antagonistic, overtly flawed, or villainous roles, as seen by her performances as the evil stepmother in the live-action Cinderella remake and Hela, the goddess of death, in Thor: Ragnarok.
Playing Schlafly, though, is a whole other beast. Where Cinderella’s stepmother and Hela are delightfully campy and cunning fictional characters, Schlafly was a real and horrific historical figure whose career promoted the disempowering of women, paved the way for the Ann Coulters and Tomi Lahrens of today, and generated irreversible, constraining ramifications for American women. Schlafly’s character thus presents uncharted territory for Blanchett — to properly render Schlafly, the actress must climb to a more deeply felt, sinister kind of villainy. Imbuing Schlafly’s character with any sort of humanity or nuance is a challenging task, but if there’s any actress who can a controversial figure, it’s Blanchett.
As one of the best working actresses today, Blanchett consistently gives wonderful and larger-than-life performances, even when the film she’s in isn’t all that great (looking at you, Ocean’s 8). Often, Blanchett initially presents her characters as fairly knowable and simple until she slowly unveils their layers of vulnerability and depth. Consider Blanchett’s performance as the titular character in Carol. At the beginning of the film, Carol seems nothing but cool, collected, and alluring. Then, Blanchett gradually unearths Carol’s personal upheaval and loneliness with a striking, poignant urgency. A similar case can be made for Blanchett’s performance as Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator: when the theatrical, strong-willed Hepburn expresses concern for her troubled boyfriend Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), Blanchett displays an earnest and heartbreaking empathy.
Time and time again, Blanchett has resiliently exposed the weaknesses and wounds of her characters, and it wouldn’t be surprising if she takes a similar approach to Schlafly. While Schlafly seemed devoid of any tenderness or compassion for others, there was some appeal, likability, and charisma to her persona — how else was she able to resonate with millions of Americans? Blanchett is an actress more than qualified to deliver Schlafly’s inferiority and even shatter some assumptions about the activist.
Of course, Blanchett’s performance style will largely depend on the tone and agenda of Mrs. America, which obviously remains unknown at this point. Blanchett could very well approach Schlafly as odious, loathsome, and undeserving of any audience empathy. Even so, Mrs. America will nonetheless re-expose us to a fascinating antagonist of the past, one we have likely forgotten amid the unavoidable, often corruptive conservative voices of the present.