Dahvi Waller and the story behind ‘Mrs. America’
Multiple perspectives shine through in “Mrs. America,” the new FX miniseries on Hulu that centers around the 1970s fight for the Equal Rights Amendment. The creator of the series, Dahvi Waller, grappled with how to bring such a tense and historical movement to television in the 21st century.
“I think every writer who writes a period drama of any kind grapples with how to remove that modern-day lens that we just automatically have,” Waller told Times film writer Mark Olsen for “The Reel” podcast. “We were grappling with: How are we going to explain what the hell the ratification process is to American audiences? It’s so not intuitive.”
Waller is no stranger to historical television: She was previously a writer on the critically acclaimed series “Mad Men.” But she tells Olsen it was challenging to structure this series in particular.
“I spent a lot of time on newspapers.com reading newspaper articles from the 1970s,” she said. “Really getting inside the mind of these women back then. How they spoke about the movement, how they spoke about each other and themselves.”
Waller says it was important for her to explain the roles that each character played and how exactly they each fit into the movement of the time.
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“This is very much an ensemble piece. It’s not a biopic. It’s not a biopic of Phyllis Schlafly. It’s not a biopic of Gloria Steinem. It really is an ensemble,” she said. “What I really wanted to do with this series is show there’s so many different ways to be a woman and there’s so many different definitions of womanhood and there’s so much diversity that sisterhood and womanhood isn’t monolith. And I thought, the best way to really dramatize that was to have these multiple perspectives.”
One standout and somewhat controversial performance in “Mrs. America” involves Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-feminist conservative who sought to dismantle the Equal Rights Amendment.
“Well, first I question if they got to the end of the series,” Waller says in response to reviews that her show is too sympathetic toward Schlafly, played by Cate Blanchett. “If you want to anticipate and be prepared for the next backlash, because there will always be a backlash any time there’s a movement forward in this country, you need to understand why leaders like Phyllis Schlafly got such a big following. You have to understand her appeal. And if you’re not rooting for her, or you don’t find her sympathetic, you will not understand why she appealed to thousands of politically conservative women.”
Of course, on the other side was the women’s movement, full of feminist leaders fighting for change. Where the opposition was led by one singular character, Schlafly, the women’s movement had multiple leaders. Waller felt it was essential to represent all of them onscreen.
“I wanted each of them to have their due,” she said. “I didn’t think it was honest to portray only one of them as the sole leader and tell the story from only one of their points of view.”
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