It’s the kind of quote you might expect to see cross-stitched on a tote bag, and I found myself wondering whether Eleanor had actually said it. A search through the online archive of her papers yielded nothing. Google results for the quote don’t reference the first lady, they reference “The First Lady” — as in, promotional materials for the new show. Gillian Anderson tweeted the line from her personal account.
The “capable woman” quip sounds like something Eleanor could have said, but it’s also 2022 feminism spackled on a 1930s fresco. It satisfies the desire for solidarity across generations, inviting modern viewers to see Eleanor Roosevelt through a modern lens. It’s a feminist revisiting of a time period that was not always kind to women.
This is the whole point of the series, a prestige project billed as “a revelatory reframing of American leadership.” This is also the point, it seems, of a tidal wave of other works debuted in recent years: What if our first pass at history had gotten it wrong, and what if we could now make amends by getting it exactly right?
Last year’s “Impeachment: American Crime Story” transformed Monica Lewinsky from a punchline into the vulnerable heroine she probably always was. Hulu’s “Pam and Tommy” snatches the narrative of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s 1995 sex tape back from the late-night talk show hosts who once used it as raunchy fodder and properly positions the saga as a horrific invasion of privacy — one in which Anderson is the only person savvy enough to foresee the devastating effects it will have on her reputation.
“Because of your big career that’s so much bigger than mine?” wheedles her petulant husband.
“Because I’m a woman,” she replies, exasperated.
Tommy can’t grasp his wife’s point, which is that nudity and sexual exposure has always meant something different for men and women. Tommy might feel personally embarrassed but he is unlikely to be publicly pilloried or diminished like Pam.
Did an exchange like this actually happen? Possibly. Certainly Pamela Anderson, star of “Baywatch,” would have understood how her body was thought of as America’s communal property. But in “Pam and Tommy,” the dialogue doesn’t seem directed toward Tommy Lee so much as it seems directed toward an audience of nostalgic millennials and Gen Xers who might also have missed the point the first time around. The show offers a teachable moment for a remedial culture and an eight-episode apology to Pamela Anderson. We get it. We were terrible to women then. We’re better now.
“The First Lady” tells the story of three first ladies: Roosevelt, Betty Ford and Michelle Obama, each episode flashing forward and backward to linchpin moments in the three women’s lives as they swat away sexism that manifests differently depending on the decade and administration.
Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) shares her struggles with breast cancer and then with alcohol addiction, developing a public voice that her husband’s male advisers — Donald H. Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney — would prefer pipe down. They try to dissuade her from holding a state dinner; a friend insists that state dinners are the bedrock of diplomatic relations: “It seems to me like these are the only moments that really, truly matter and they were state dinners that first ladies made happen.”
Michelle Obama’s storyline (depicted by a powerhouse Viola Davis) presents viewers with the fanfic of a backstage encounter with Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. The two women seethe over Donald Trump’s “Access Hollywood” recording. “That f—-ng tape!,” Michelle says as Hillary rolls her eyes.
But then rather than immediately give Hillary the support she’s asking for, this Michelle does another satisfying thing: She takes her husband’s former rival to task for the selective feminism of her campaign that left women of color in the cold. Hillary apologizes, and then two of them agree to join forces and vanquish Trump.
Watching “The First Lady” and several of these other prestige dramas, I find myself wondering about the difference between celebrating and pandering. It’s invigorating and overdue to see history told from a feminist perspective, and it’s never too late to acknowledge that women have always been victims of their time — even the women who shaped history, setting us on course to a future where feminist historical dramas would be in high demand. On the other hand, many of these dramas are so heavy-handed as to seem overly eager to please. It’s as if screenwriters, in their attempts to reframe history, have chosen the loudest, most neon frame they can find.
Mostly, though, the emotion I have when watching these shows is a surprising one: unease. Because they are often depicting not America’s ancient history but its recent past. Eleanor Roosevelt and Betty Ford are names in history, but Monica Lewinsky and Pamela Anderson? We were at those circuses. We might have believed the wrong narrative, laughed at the wrong target, learned the wrong lessons — and then carried those lessons with us for 10 or 40 years.
The best dramatized histories are never just about the history. They’re about the present and the future, reminding us that progress is a continuum and that the way things looked then isn’t the way they look now.
What shows are going to be made about us in the coming decades? What sins will we be atoning for, and what will need to be reframed? Will we say the right words the first time, or will we have to wait for the TV version to tell us what we meant?