[Law On Reels] 'Mrs. America'-A Must Watch TV Series For Feminist Jurists

Megha Mehta

16 Aug 2020 4:49 AM GMT

  • [Law On Reels] Mrs. America-A Must Watch TV Series For Feminist Jurists

    The show's depiction of complexities of feminist politics offers useful lessons for Indian feminist jurists.

    Recently, there have been a number of interesting developments relating to the promotion of gender equality in India. The Supreme Court has held that daughters will have coparcenary rights under the 2005 Amendment to the Hindu Succession Act even if their fathers were not living as on the date of the Amendment. Earlier this year, a division Bench of the Court had held that exclusion...

    Recently, there have been a number of interesting developments relating to the promotion of gender equality in India. The Supreme Court has held that daughters will have coparcenary rights under the 2005 Amendment to the Hindu Succession Act even if their fathers were not living as on the date of the Amendment. Earlier this year, a division Bench of the Court had held that exclusion of women from command appointments in the Army is illegal. Meanwhile, Zomato has introduced period leave for its menstruating employees.

    These developments have inevitably led to mixed reactions on social media. If one were to collect an assortment of Indians across caste, class, gender, linguistic, etc. lines and ask them the answer to the question 'What is Feminism' the answers would be the same as well as different. Most people broadly agree that 'feminism' is a movement for enforcing equality on the basis of sex. However the interpretation of 'equality' causes substantial conflict. The concepts of 'sex' and 'gender' themselves are being deconstructed in contemporary times. Therefore there cannot be any uniform 'feminist jurisprudence' in India even though the causes for which Indian feminists fight might happen to be the same.

    In this regard, Mrs. America is a must-watch series for Indian feminists, particularly jurists and policymakers. The 9-part Emmy nominated miniseries is a dramatized version of the American feminist movement's efforts to secure the ratification of the 'Equal Rights Amendment' to the U.S. Constitution. The primary-and most successful-opposition to this movement came from Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), a hard-core conservative activist who is believed to have spearheaded the Republican Party's transition from mild conservatism to the 'Grand Old Party' of Donald Trump we know today. Though Schlafly's life forms the focus of the series, each episode focuses on a different figure from the feminist movement. Mrs. America is therefore markedly different from mainstream shows and movies inasmuch as the protagonists are all women and the men are cast in supporting roles as husbands, romantic partners, etc.

    Of course, the issues faced by the American feminist movements in the 1970's cannot be copy-pasted into the current Indian context, and it is not the purpose of this article to suggest so. Article 15 of the Indian Constitution already prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. Patriarchy manifests itself differently in both countries due to the difference in cultural backgrounds, particularly the presence of caste in India. The right to reproductive freedom is a huge debate in the United States, whereas issues like sexual assault, dowry, child marriage, female foeticide, menstrual taboos etc. take up relatively more space in Indian mainstream feminist discussions. At the same time, certain interesting parallels can be drawn with the U.S. movement that can prove useful for Indian feminist activists.

    We see in the beginning that Phyllis (who was clearly the inspiration behind Serena Joy Waterford from The Handmaid's Tale) is a defence expert whose area of interest lies in the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaties ('SALT') talks between the United States and the Soviet Union. She is more concerned about curbing the spread of communism than feminism. Phyllis herself is a beneficiary of first-wave feminism-though she describes herself as a housewife, she is also a graduate from Radcliffe College and a key lobbyist for the Republican Party. She only becomes interested in opposing the ERA when her less politically inclined housewife friends complain that the ERA would strip women of the right to alimony and force their daughters to be drafted into the army. Phyllis, who is finding herself out-of-place in the old boys' clubs that are defense forums, conveniently grasps onto the ERA in a bid to become more politically relevant. It is interesting to see how patriarchy co-opts women by promising them special privileges based on gender-but only when those privileges ensure confinement of women to the domestic sphere. It also needs to be acknowledged that liberal feminism is often quite exclusionary of the concerns of women outside of the organized workforce, though there has been ad-hoc discussion in India on the need to formally compensate housewives for their unpaid labour.

    Cate Blanchett as Phylis Shclafly

    At the same time, Mrs. America depicts Schlafly's hypocrisy in delegating most of her own household chores to her black housekeeper Willie, so that she can campaign for women to 'stay at home' alongside Ku-Klux Klan sympathizers. This is similar to how savarna working women in India (the author of this piece included) are enabled to be in the foreground of discussing women's issues because of the invisibilized labour done by Dalit Bahujan women in our households.

    Simultaneously, one also sees that the pro-ERA movement isn't perfect either. It is evident that the agendas of the various national women's caucuses and conventions are primarily dictated by white, heterosexual women like Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) and Betty Freidan (Tracey Ullman), though there is tokenistic inclusion of black and queer feminists so as to appear more 'diverse'. The show itself glorifies Steinem's character as an angelic 'Fairy Godmother of Feminism'-like figure, while whitewashing her own political duplicity, particularly the allegations of her ties to the CIA.

    Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem in 'Mrs America'

    In a telling scene, when Margaret Sloan-Hunter (Bria Henderson), an editor at Steinem's Ms. Magazine speaks up about the tokenistic inclusion of black women at the workplace, Steinem and the other white women in the discussion immediately respond by saying 'Oh but there's no hierarchy here' and 'Look we have a black woman on the cover of our magazine!'. Instead of taking Margaret's claim seriously, the focus shifts to being about how 'we are not like that!' Feminists who occupy a privileged position (be it as able-bodied, cisgender, savarna, upper-middle class etc.) have a responsibility to sometimes just listen when people from the other side speak out instead of being defensive or making it out about ourselves.

    The show also erases the opposition of working-class women to the ERA as many of them did not desire 'equality' at the expense of longer working hours. In India, most State-level Shops and Establishments legislations prohibit night shifts for women employees. However the draft Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019 states that women may be employed in night shifts with their 'consent'. While this is certainly beneficial for those women who genuinely wish to pursue night-shift oriented jobs, it is worth critiquing whether a doctrinaire vision of equality is desirable if it means subjecting persons of all genders to the same oppressive economic framework. This is especially in the context of today's 'girlboss' feminism that encourages women to imitate masculinized behaviours at the workplace.

    It is also interesting to see how because of the domination of white feminism, the pro-ERA movement often sacrificed more 'radical' causes to maintain a political platform for pushing the ERA through. This is particularly because the ERA was a bipartisan movement which was supported not just by the 'liberal' democrats but by Republican women as well. Steinem deliberately favours a more 'moderate' Democratic candidate over Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), who is the first black woman to be nominated as a Presidential nominee, so as to gain traction for legalizing abortion. Further, we see that in that era, even celebrated feminists like Betty Freidan were homophobes. At one point, the movement considers dropping a gay rights' resolution so as to not risk offending the heterosexual majority. A character shouts in frustration 'I am tired of shrinking our dreams to appeal to the middle!'

    There is also the underlying sub-plot of how all the women in Mrs. America often have to pander to men-be it husbands or politicians-for securing their share of power. There is an unwillingness to directly confront or antagonize male 'allies' out of fear that that they might withdraw their support. When Shirley brings up the issue of sexual harassment of Congressmen's secretaries-including their Democrat counterparts-Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) resignedly says that she will fix it once she is elected to the Senate, rather than offering support for a public movement to make them resign.

    It is an uncomfortable truth that even movements which are supposedly geared towards toppling oppressive power-structures prioritize their battles according to political expediency, which in turn is determined by the interests of hegemonic groups. In the Indian context, this can be seen in the context of the lack of feminist discussion about the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. There is also the problem of the relative lack of public outrage towards violence against Dalit women as opposed to the attention given by Savarna media to sexual assault cases where the victims are upper-caste, urban women. The complications produced by sexual harassment allegations that cover prominent male 'allies' and 'friends', finds echoes in the debate surrounding LoSHA and #MeToo in India.

    Like I mentioned earlier, the narrative of Mrs. America cannot be directly copy-pasted into the Indian scenario. However the show's depiction of the complexities of feminist politics offers useful lessons for Indian feminist jurists-be they lawyers, lawmakers or policymakers. One of the major reasons why the ERA movement failed is because the American feminist movement underestimated the degree to which women like Phyllis Schlafly and her supporters were ready to defend status quo. Further, they believed that the lip-service support offered by politicians and the media would be sufficient to counter Schlafly's campaign. Therefore the anti-ERA movement teaches us that gender is not a determinant of whether or not someone is a 'feminist' and performative activism by companies/governments should not be mistaken for actual political achievement of feminist goals.

    Another important takeaway from Mrs. America is that be it the 1970's or present times, a movement for 'equality' is fundamentally one about power-sharing. The separate strands of identity politics form part of the broader power structures that govern a democracy. Though opposing the ERA was prima facie only about upholding assigned gender roles, Phyllis aligns herself with Catholic 'pro-family' activists who are staunch anti-abortionists, homophobes, racists and transphobes. She also manufactures the 1970's version of 'fake news' so as to create moral panic in conservative voters. In this way she not only defeats the ERA but also unites the KKK and other radical right-wing groups and helps to consolidate Ronald Reagan's bid for presidency. This shows that patriarchy does not function in isolation-anybody who supports gender discrimination is likely to support other forms of structurally dominating fellow human beings as well. Therefore feminists have to collaborate with activism to eradicate other forms of discrimination such as caste, class, ethnic/racial discrimination, homophobia, right-wing communalism, etc. At the same time, feminists also have to navigate the tricky tightrope of not letting cis-het male leaders in other movements suppress their voices.

    Though there is no organized opposition to the feminist movement in India along the lines of Schlafly's 'Eagle Forum' (yet), echoes of their ideology can be found in (usually savarna) anti-feminists in India. These are people who, like Schlafly, are comfortable with the gains of first-wave feminism (i.e. right of women to study and vote) and are afraid of anymore 'radical' progress. An interesting difference is that while the Eagle Forum at least fought for retaining some pro-women privileges, Indian anti-feminists argue for the removal of all such laws that confer special protections due to their alleged 'misuse' e.g. the backlash against Section 498A of the IPC. However, the underlying ideology is the same-the heteronormative patriarchal 'family' and/or the neo-liberal economic structure must be protected at all costs.

    For example, a number of prominent Indian women have critiqued the concept of period leave arguing that it will reinforce gender ceilings at the workplace. This ties into an overall 'pull-yourself-by-the-bootstrap', 'survival of the fittest' capitalist mentality which believes that those who cannot deliver 100% performance at all times are not worthy of earning a living, and people should be able to make it in the rat race even if they had an unequal starting point. This also indicates the emergence of a new wave of feminism in India wherein the women who campaigned for equality in the past might stand in opposition to those seeking a more radical and egalitarian future.

    The author is a graduate of NLSIU Bangalore, currently a legal researcher based in Mumbai/Delhi. You can follow her movie/TV show-review blog here if interested.

    (This is the nineteenth article in the "Law On Reels" series, which explores legal themes in movies)


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