From 70s feminism in Mrs. America to female-led comic-book action in The Old Guard

First published on: 22nd July 2020

Whether you’re tentatively enjoying the newly “unlocked” outside world or still very much hibernating, we’ve got you covered with our fav picks of what to watch next. This week we’re dabbling in 70s feminism in Mrs. America, Australian detention centres in Stateless and female-led comic-book action in The Old Guard. By Sarah Bradbury.

Mrs America, BBC iPlayer series

I first caught wind of this series via a clip shared by BBC Radio 6 on Facebook – it was of a crucial moment where conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly (a pitch-perfect Cate Blanchett) stands up to deliver a speech to a room of housewives, articulating just why the proposed Equal Rights Amendment in fact presented a threat to women’s privileges.

While hearing those words from a 2020 perspective seemed totally bonkers, it was also totally fascinating to hear a woman voice such opinions and immediately made me want to understand more about a moment in the feminism movement I realised I was entirely ignorant of.

And so into Mrs. America I dove. Directed by British filmmaker Amma Asante (BelleA United Kingdom), it follows the key female players in the fight to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified in the US during the 1970s. While it’s Blanchett’s immensely watchable Schlalfy that holds the limelight, we’re also introduced to pro-ERA feminist Gloria Steinem via a perfectly cast Rose Byrne, Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for President, played by Uzo Aduba, Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks) a Republican feminist activist, US congress woman and activist Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) author of The Feminine Mystique…I could go on.

In fact if there was a drawback to the drama, is that it’s so jam-packed with extraordinary characters, you’re left desperately wanting to know more about each beyond the glimpse we get in their short airtime. Although a show that prompts you to go digging curiously for more historical context has perhaps got something right.

The 70s aesthetic is wonderfully captured (you’ll be hankering after that unmistakable aviator-adorned Gloria Steinem look) and despite the all-star cast, including Sarah Paulson as fictional Alice Macray, the dynamics between them are brilliantly balanced. The nuanced interplay of the different perspectives on the movement are deftly explored, with no side coming out completely unscathed. As are the brutal barriers each of these women faced in their personal and professional lives, giving you empathy even with the likes of Schlalfy, who despite her views and anti-feminist activism, was in fact a feminist in many ways (does she even really believe in the slogans of STOP ERA or is it a pragmatic play for power?).

What stands out mostly for me is also how much of what was happening back in the 70s remains depressingly relevant today, albeit in less brazen and overt ways (Schlafly thanking her husband at the end of each speech for “letting” her be there will send shivers).

Not only has the ERA still has not been fully ratified but issues of intersectional feminism rage on, with the fight for women’s rights often challenged for not also including within it LGBT+ rights and the anti-racism cause. In other ways, the series actually shows the women’s movement at its height and leaves you strangely craving to being able to share in the sense of optimism and empowerment these women felt at that time. Beautiful to look at, inspirational to watch, and genuinely educational, without being didactic, I definitely recommend you give it go.

Stateless, Netflix movie

A devastating look at the reality of life in an Australian immigrant detention centre, Stateless is not a cheery watch but is certainly eye-opening. We’re given a way in via the story of Sofie Werner, an Australian woman who’s unlawful detention in the centre is loosely based on the true story of one Cornelia Rau.

Werner is a seemingly confident and beautiful air hostess with everything going for her. But we soon discover she struggles with pressures from her family and after finding herself in the clutches of a cult – funnily enough Cate Blanchett reappears here alongside Dominic West as the smiley-yet-deranged cult leaders – her mental health, and situation, starts to spiral downward.

We are also introduced to three contrasting characters whose paths unexpectedly intersect with her own: an Afghan refugee desperately attempting to flee persecution with his family, a young working-class Australian father doing his best to make a living as a guard in the centre, and a bureaucrat under huge pressure to deliver results in a warped system.

Werner is played by Yvonne Strahovski who, if you’re a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale, you will instantly recognise as Serena. But any familiar expectations are quickly overturned. Here she puts in an incredibly impressive turn as a vulnerable and sympathetic character who we feel increasingly desperate for as she is continually let down and abused by the people and systems around her.

There is perhaps a slight imbalance with how much we explore her plight and that of the white Australian guard and official rather than that of the immigrant detainees themelves. And Werner’s story is arguably as much about mental health than it is immigration.

But through characters such as Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi), we are also able to see beyond such individuals as statistics, to move beyond the ingrained stereotypes of a ‘refugee’ to see a man suffering the same hopes and desires to care for his family as any other man. Overall, Stateless is affecting and gut-wrenching in revealing the injustice of Australian’s mandatory detention programme, a practice that is still in use, and indeed the shameful way in which immigrants are criminalised throughout the Western world.

The Old Guard, Netflix movie

If you’re looking for a bit of escapism for a night, you could do worse than give this totally silly comic-book caper under the guise of a gritty action thriller a go. Charlize Theron channels a lot of her memorable role in Mad Max: Fury Road and cements her ability to carry action scene as demonstrated in Atomic Blonde as Andy, who at first sight seems to be the fearless leader of a group of mercenary soldiers.

However, it turns out Andy is short for Andromache of Scythia, and she in fact heads up a group of immortal ancient warriors who are able to regenerate and have used their abilities to help protect people through the ages.

Despite the far-fetched premise, Theron brings a totally engaging commitment to the role, helping us to suspend our disbelief and follow in her soul searching and her crew’s battle to escape capture by an insidious Big Pharma boss who wants to study and capitalise on their invinceability .

It’s also refreshing to see the usual comic-book fare flipped, with Andy leading – and mostly outdoing at every turn – a crew of guys and demolishing anything put in front of her. Add into the mix KiKi Layne as new recruit Nile Freeman and you have yourself a badass female led-superhero film (look out for the epically choreographed fight scene on the cargo plane). It also overturns other superhero stereotypes, with two of her henchmen revealing they are soulmates who’ve been in a loving relationship through centuries.

Without giving too much away, there seems a pretty heavy nod toward a follow-up so I wouldn’t be surprised if Gina Prince Bythewood’s film ended up being the start of a franchise…Here’s to shaking up the genre with more female and LGBT characters and less lycra!

Crashing, Netflix series

Not new but new to Netflix, I actually watched this series a while back when reeling from the second season of Fleabag and gasping for more Phoebe Waller-Bridge. This relatively unknown series was another of her making, and while its a very different beast to her masterpiece, still a jolly good watch.

The charm of this series was how much it brought me back to my student days, following a bunch of skint 20-somethings doing their best to navigate communal living as “guardians” (I remember friends doing it when they first moved to London and thinking it sounded a lot a like paid-for squatting…). There’s a lot of sleeping on mattresses, make-shift dinners fuelled by cheap red wine and almost zero privacy with a lot of quirky characters living in close proximity – often with hilarious results.

Waller-Bridge’s character and the premise is totally different from Fleabag but carries with it that same wit and perceptive representation of human interactions.

As well as being left to relive those messy years of trying to figure out my identity, killing time and falling in and out of love that dominated my early twenties, I’m definitely inspired to pick up a ukulele…

Catch up with our other recommendations here:

What have you been binge-watching lately?