HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Actor Sarah Paulson’s ode to feminism in Mrs America


Mrs America is a show with an outstanding cast of outstanding women with an outstanding message. It’s about feminism and how a group of American women from a number of states gather together to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment Act, while facing opposition in Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), who is a vehement conservative, but a feminist herself, even though she doesn’t quite recognise it.

The story is a timely reminder of the protest that we are all equal - that women should be paid the same amount as men, can decide what to do with their own bodies, have the right to abortion and even their right to choose whom to love and share their lives with.

But it’s also a show about transformation and change and no character portrays this cognitive shift more than Sarah Paulson’s role as Alice Macray – a composite character written into a show based on true events and real people.

And while feminists around the world have been carried on the backs of the actions of the people portrayed in the show, such as Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) and Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) – the political educator and democrat to run as America’s first black woman president - it’s really a composite character who breaths life back into feminism and resurfaces it from something I feel we have recently swept under the rug, rather than remembered and continue to remember.

Paulson’s character is a loud shout-out to any viewer of the show as proof that we contain multitudes of aspects, we can be both confused and changing at the same time, until we finally find a place within ourselves to make sense of the world around us and as women, claim our place in it.

The fight is not over. And Paulson’s Alice is an embodiment of that existential crisis. It is the great push and the great pull. Her character is able to move the viewer both to and fro between generations of liberated women, their fight and realisation of liberation, and the waves that have suddenly become calmer but need to once more riptide.

I won’t give away any real spoilers, but episode 8 is the culmination of this composite character’s constant thinking, and while she seems to rest on the sidelines of the show for every episode before that, one cannot quite escape the meaning to her silence, the metaphors for intersectionalism and the almost jarring reality of like-minded women trying to shut each other down instead of lift each other up. Something we still participate in today as though we’re robots of the system of patriarchy.

I find it sad that we still find ourselves doing this, here, now, in 2020, when we should be so much further along. I find it even sadder that it took a fictional illustration to remind me of the decades-long structural system of patriarchy that created this women-eat-women environment where resources and power are few and far between, and so we scavenge and hunt and kill each other (metaphorically, of course) because if you don’t kill first, you don’t eat. Or at least, that’s the system’s tagline and Paulson’s penetrating performance makes a wordless nourishing meal out of this message. Somehow.

I started watching the show in April, then a bunch of things happened like death and pandemics and lockdowns and long-haul COVID and having a new child, so binging on shows became secondary and ideologies came third.

Priorities change and feelings change along with them, but then one day, all of a sudden, there is method in the madness of life and the search for meaning continues. And I, as a true believer that art needs to be unfolded by the viewer, (even if the viewer’s unfolding turns out to be a massive waste of time because the only thing that reveals itself is meaningless crap – let’s be honest, I can’t tell the difference between children’s and adult’s drawings anymore), I returned to the show and completed watching it this week.

It sounds petulant and fickle, but it took Paulson’s composite in a pop-culture, digital, almost throwaway medium to shove me back into the 21st century and ask, how are we still here? Where is our next feminist wave? And why aren’t we riding the shit out of it?!

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.