Historical events

The First Lady, Pam and Tommy and feminist accounts of historical events are adorable. Maybe too sweet sometimes.

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In a scene from Showtime’s new series “The First Lady,” a fictional Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson) clashes with her shellfish stepmother, dissecting FDR’s latest infidelity.

“When you marry a man,” the elder Roosevelt warned her daughter-in-law, “you can’t be surprised when he acts like a man.”

Eleanor’s tart response: “When you marry a capable woman, you can’t be surprised when she acts like herself!”

It’s the kind of quote you might expect to see cross-stitch on a tote bag, and I wondered if Eleanor actually said it. A search of the online archives of his papers turned up nothing. Google results for the quote don’t refer to the first lady, they refer to “The First Lady” – like in promotional material for the new show. Gillian Anderson tweeted the line from her personal account.

The quip of the “capable woman” sounds like something Eleanor could have said so, but it’s also the feminism of 2022 sprawled across a 1930s mural. It satisfies the desire for intergenerational solidarity, inviting modern viewers to see Eleanor Roosevelt through a modern lens. It’s a feminist revisit of an era that has not always been kind to women.

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This is the whole point of the series, a prestigious project presented as “a revealing reframing of American leadership”. This is also the point, it seems, of a tidal wave of other work launched in recent years: What if our first pass in history had been wrong, and if we could now make amends doing exactly the right thing?

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” rips the narrative of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s 1995 sex tape from the late-night talk show hosts who once used it as raunchy fodder and correctly positions the saga as a gruesome invasion of private life – one in which Anderson is the only person knowledgeable enough to foresee the devastating effects it will have on his reputation.

“Because of your great career which is so much bigger than mine?” annoys her irritable husband.

“Because I am a women,” she replies, exasperated.

Tommy can’t grasp his wife’s point that nudity and sexual exposure have always meant something different to men and women. Tommy may feel personally embarrassed, but he’s unlikely to be publicly pilloried or belittled like Pam.

Did an exchange like this really take place? Perhaps. ‘Baywatch’ star Pamela Anderson would certainly have understood how her body was considered America’s common property. But in “Pam and Tommy,” the dialogue doesn’t seem directed at Tommy Lee so much as it seems directed at 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 catch-up culture and an eight-episode apology to Pamela Anderson. We understood. We were then terrible with women. We are better now.

The First Lady” tells the story of three first ladies: Roosevelt, Betty Ford and Michelle Obama, with each episode scrolling back and forth through pivotal moments in the lives of the three women as they weed out sexism that manifests differently. by decade and administration.

Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) shares her struggles with breast cancer and then alcohol addiction, developing a public voice that her husband’s male advisers – Donald H. Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney – would rather quiet. They try to talk her out of hosting a state dinner; a friend insists that state dinners are the bedrock of diplomatic relations: “It seems to me that those are the only times that really, really matter and those are state dinners that the first ladies have had.”

The script by Michelle Obama (portrayed by a powerful Viola Davis) introduces viewers to the fanfic of a behind-the-scenes encounter with Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. Donald Trump. “That fucking gang!” Michelle says as Hillary rolls her eyes.

But rather than immediately give Hillary the support she craves, this Michelle does another satisfying thing: She takes her husband’s former rival to task for his campaign’s selective feminism that has left women of color in the dark. cold. Hillary apologizes, then two of them agree to join forces and defeat Trump.

Watching “The First Lady” and many of these other high-profile dramas, I wonder about the difference between celebrating and flattering. It’s invigorating and it’s long past time to see the story told from a feminist perspective, and it’s never too late to recognize that women have always been victims of their time – even women who have shaped history, setting us on a path to a future where feminist historical dramas would be in high demand. On the other hand, many of these dramas are so heavy that they seem too eager to please. It’s as if the writers, in their attempts to reframe the story, chose the loudest, most neon setting they could find.

Most of the time, however, the emotion I get from watching these shows is surprising: unease. Because they often don’t describe 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 in those circuses. We might have believed the wrong narrative, laughed at the wrong target, learned the wrong lessons – and then taken those lessons with us for 10 or 40 years.

The best dramatized stories are never just about the story. They speak of the present and the future, reminding us that progress is a continuum and the way things looked then is not the way they look now.

What shows are going to be made about us in the decades to come? What sins will we atone 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?