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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

“Betty” is a force of nature in Mrs. America but Phyllis is a natural disaster

Illustration for article titled “Betty” is a force of nature in iMrs. America/i but Phyllis is a natural disaster
Photo: Sabrina Lantos (FX)
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Much as either would hate to admit it, Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly are mirror images of each other. Betty’s book, The Feminine Mystique, addressed the very housewives that Phyllis believes she’s representing. They’re even of the same social class, education, and race, considering the original readership of The Feminine Mystique. They have similar dislike of queer people—Betty is the originator of the term “lavender menace”—and disinterest in supporting marriage equality. The main difference is that Betty’s audience hates the norms they’re trapped in, while Phyllis’ cherishes them.

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And they are indeed just norms, even though Phyllis tries to argue, in a mock-debate with her husband, that they’re rights. Fred points out that for all her points, there’s a strong counterpoint—and when she tries to use politics and policymaking as a point, he firmly tells her: “Not the right crowd.”

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It’s a crowd Betty is used to, to her credit. As she prepares for a date, she picks out a dress she wore on TV, where she put the host in his place with her continuous use of the word, “orgasm,” a trick she jokes she uses with her husband. Of course, she’s a few years divorced now, with her husband remarried and her daughter borrowing her stepmother’s clothes. She gets along with her blind date, and though she contends he hasn’t called, he does end up in her column. She talks a lot about herself on the date—I once read that a good date (for heterosexuals, anyway) is one where the man asks more of the questions. They discuss the women’s march, and Gloria Steinem, to Betty’s chagrin. Betty opens up quickly, letting her date (and us) know that she, too, is from Illinois, but found her friends ready to abandon her when she couldn’t join a sorority because she’s Jewish.

It’s clear, when Betty talks about Gloria, that she misses being a one-woman show. As one character notes, Betty is a “force of nature,” with the celebrity to go with it. Women recognize her in the streets, come up to her with the hopes to get their copies of The Feminine Mystique autographed, and thank her for her work and her words. In previous episodes, she talks about staying in better hotels and getting excellent speaking gigs. Gloria finds Betty to be playing into the male press’s hands with her urge to debate Phyllis, but to Betty (and us), her disinterest in engaging with Phyllis seems naïve. And while Betty’s clearly frustrated by Gloria’s celebrity, it’s not so much Gloria’s looks that frustrate her than her much more political, slow-moving, and (to Betty) watered down politicking. And it’s clear that Gloria knows she doesn’t have the same verve as Betty does. “What I would give to write a book that women talk about like they talk about the Feminine Mystique,” she says, with naked envy. “I would retire to the Hamptons and listen to the waves crashing.”

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Illustration for article titled “Betty” is a force of nature in iMrs. America/i but Phyllis is a natural disaster
Image: Sabrina Lantos (FX)

While “Gloria” presented Betty as a garrulous radical, “Betty” presents Gloria as almost oblivious, especially when it comes to Phyllis Schlafly’s influence on a specific audience.

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I have the same problem with this episode as I did with “Gloria,” — the problem with focusing on Phyllis is that we don’t get nearly enough on the other much more interesting legends in this show. While this episode pinballs between Phyllis and Betty, it also includes Gloria and Flo Kennedy – but not nearly enough of Betty on her own. Also, Flo should’ve actually had an episode of her own, considering how much she shows up, and how much she is a character in her own right.

Flo fights with her peers at a meeting with a coalition of black women. She defends Margaret Sloan’s (Bria Samoné Henderson) queerness to one member, while showing her frustration with Margaret’s contention that their coalition is little more than “Sunday’s at Flo’s.”

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You might remember Margaret as the new writer at Ms. Magazine, who brought her daughter to her first day. In a pitch meeting, she suggests a story about tokenism in the workplace, as in the way that a person of a certain group will be treated as representative of that group. Her fellow writers—all white women—hope she doesn’t have to deal with that at Ms.! Margaret doesn’t know how to respond to this pearl-clutching, but I wish the writers had responded by expanding her part a bit more. Similarly, I hope Phyllis’ maid Willie B. Reed (Novie Edwards) gets more to do than the aggrieved side-eye she does as Phyllis says some bullshit.

Illustration for article titled “Betty” is a force of nature in iMrs. America/i but Phyllis is a natural disaster
Image: Sabrina Lantos (FX)
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Part of that bullshit is how Phyllis suggests that she’s definitely not part of the John Birch Society, the kind of racist rightwing group that, among the many conspiracies it propped up, peddled the idea in the 1970s that a certain drug was a cancer remedy. Gee, that sure sounds familiar.

It’s that fact that Betty uses to contend that Phyllis has more nefarious connections than her housewife persona lets on, and leads to her debate with Phyllis.

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The episode really shines during the debate between Phyllis and Betty, full of the rich adrenaline that every good debate scene needs. Betty has heard Phyllis repeat the same talking points enough to cut them off at the pass, and is doing quite well until Phyllis starts her personal attacks. She clearly saw Betty checking out Fred. She contends that Betty’s the unhappiest woman in America, and turns to the audience. “The fact is, the ERA will not solve your personal problems,” she says, with a mean grin, reframing Betty’s focused critiques of the system as simply whiny complaints. It’s enough for Betty to become frustrated and call Phyllis a witch she wants to burn at the stake. And of course it is—part of Phyllis’s brand is she is already happy, that she is comfortable and her husband “gives her permission” to do what she wants.

Illustration for article titled “Betty” is a force of nature in iMrs. America/i but Phyllis is a natural disaster
Image: Sabrina Lantos (FX)
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And her personal attack gives her what she wants—at Alice’s son’s wedding, she is treated like the celebrity Betty was in the beginning of the episode. “We have our own champion,” says one woman. Of course, things are not as they seem at the wedding. For one, we see the young mother we met in the first episode being aggressively pushed and pulled by her husband into a pew. And Phyllis realizes, while watching her eldest, John (Ben Rosenfiel), play organ at the end of the scene that her son may be going out but he’s likely not going out to see girls.

Betty is embarrassed by her outburst at the debate, shocked at how she let Phyllis get the best of her. There is one silver lining, though: Gloria calls her and commiserates with how much Phyllis sucks. She also swallows some of her pride (and admitted envy) and tells Betty thank you for writing The Feminine Mystique, and how much it meant to her.

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Stray observations

  • I would recommend just reading The Feminine Mystique, with these caveats —and their deconstruction thereof.
  • The episode begins with the 1973 Roe V. Wade ruling, so I looked up a few articles that my friend Caitlin Cruz, who’s writing a book about the history of the procedure. It’s frustrating to see Phyllis act so mournful while knowing that Roe didn’t guarantee the safety of those getting or providing those abortions, and the majority of Americans, and even Republican voters, around that time agreed that abortion should be legal.
  • A commenter noted on a previous recap that Phyllis’s sons get speaking parts, but her daughters are left to sit quietly, and used in her talking points against the ERA. The opposite is true for Betty’s children – her sons are nowhere to be seen, but she worries about her daughter, how she dresses, and how close she might be getting to her stepmother. Even in this episode, Phyllis’s daughter is the one who contends with her mother’s frustrations while preparing for her debate. Phyllis forcibly handles her daughter’s fear of swimming by forcing her to daughter into jumping in the pool.
  • I didn’t write too much about the lurid cartoon of Gloria that shows up in Al Goldstein’s Screw magazine, but to be honest it really grossed me out. As did the creepy dudes calling the office—I wish we’d figured out more behind that attack, and more about how Ms. Magazine dealt with it. I did like when Bella said it didn’t need to be her, Gloria said, “Those are my aviators.” To which Bella replied, “And my labia.”
  • Shirley without her glasses looks so vulnerable in this episode. I wish we could stay a little longer on her storyline!
  • I winced when I saw Betty breathing and staring into the mirror. I recognize an asthma attack when I see one.
  • Betty’s neighbor, who she watches The Mary Tyler Moore Show with, is Harper’s writer Natalie Gittelson (played by Miriam Shor). She wrote the book The Erotic Life of the American Wife. Oh my.
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Sulagna Misra has written for The Cut, The Hairpin, and The Toast, as well as other publications that don't start with "the." She writes about what she thinks about when she’s not paying attention. She’s on Twitter so she can not pay attention more effectively.

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