It's easy to be inspired when progress is being made. However, the true challenge of hope will always be to maintain it when momentum slows or, harder still, when the opposition is gaining more ground than we are. While these statements may seem obvious as we consider moments in our lives where the going got tough and the tough had to get going, it's sometimes a challenge to see these ideas represented in traditional entertainment where we can usually count on a happily ever after.
This certainly doesn't mean that the shows or movies we consume are all rainbows and butterflies — we all thrive on a little bit of drama and heartbreak — but when a show like Mrs. America comes along, where history has told us exactly how it's going to end, we still can't help but still be disappointed by the outcome. The trick is to allow for inspiration and disappointment to co-exist together.
For those of you who might not know, Mrs. America is a new mini-series on Hulu that premiered in April and is centered around the 1970s political movement to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. It features fictitious renditions of real, historical women such as Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Shirley Chisholm and uses their perspectives and voices to tell the story of a movement — but not an entirely successful one. Mrs. America is able to offer this diverse narrative that helps break down incredibly complex issues such as feminism, grassroots politics, and bipartisanship by including the perspective and voice of Phyllis Schlafly, a devout conservative and the woman who campaigned against the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. And in case you're a little fuzzy on your American history, she won.
The choice to not only include Shlafly's narrative but make it a prominent piece of the series, making her the primary voice of the premiere and the finale, was understandably controversial. However, as Dahvi Waller, the creator of the series, has stated in interviews, that's kind of the whole point. Without seeing the other side of the issue, without intellectually understanding what made Shlafly's movement so powerful and compelling to so many women, change in any capacity will continue to feel divisive and disjointed.
Waller sought to create a portrait of an ensemble rather than a biopic of any of these women and demonstrate how the community and the connections within it contributed to this powerful and, to some of us, heartbreaking time in history.
So let's listen to each other, even when we don't agree. Listening should no longer be seen as an act of contrition but as fundamental to the act of resistance.
Waller, who is a native Canadian, is best known for her contributions to Mad Men, which won her an Emmy in 2011. Now the comparisons between these shows with respect to their commentary on themes of gender and sexuality could run far and deep, but one thing appears to be clear: Waller is in the business of telling stories, even those that we might not find favorable. And similar to how those men of Madison Avenue feel synonymous with the office they work in, Waller structures Mrs. America to represent a movement of women — rather than a movement led by one.
These days, it can be challenging to find hope in anything. It's disheartening to watch progress slow, stop, or reverse altogether, and it's easy to get caught in wishful thinking about what it would be like if everything just went your way. However, shows like Mrs. America don't work to show you that all hope is lost — it's actually quite the opposite.
There is inspiration even within loss; there can be conflict in camaraderie, and there is value in understanding your enemy rather than just knowing them. Finally, regardless of political affiliation or historical accuracy, Waller uses this show to drive home an important message: that women's stories matter. What's more, they have power. The power of the movement towards the Equal Rights Amendment was not in its success but in its failure and in the galvanization of generations of women to grow stronger and smarter together.
So let's listen to each other, even when we don't agree. Listening should no longer be seen as an act of contrition but as fundamental to the act of resistance. What's more, as Waller has so cleverly shown us in Mrs. America, movements of any importance are not about the one, no matter their fame or historical notoriety. The stories of these women are stories of communities, connections, organization, civil discourse, and strength. It is in coming together to tell our stories that we can find power in the ferocity of our feminism and our femininity. And, as Waller has shown, it can be magical when we do.