6 February 2023

A portrait of women avoiding being swallowed by circumstance

Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) sits for the official portrait that represents the serene femininity expected of her. Picture: SHOWTIME 

By Wendy Knowlton 

4 June 2022

Michelle Obama (Viola Davis) resisted expectations that she become, what she called a “Stepford FLOTIS”. Her determination echoes through the stories of Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson) and Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) in this intriguing 10-part series, which moves between the decades interweaving the stories of these three first ladies.  

Each must fight to define her White House role as more than decorative accessory. Iconic outfits and hairstyles are meticulously reproduced for this handsome production and the three portraits shown in the first episode depict one way of seeing each woman. The aim of the series, however, is to seek what’s behind the carefully curated images. Sharp-witted Roosevelt is aware of expectations that she “smile, nod and gaze adoringly” but is scornful of a title that refers to her sex rather than her skills. Ford’s progressive views and “candour” are feared by those who feel the less they hear of her opinions the better. And Obama is warned that any attempt to be assertive will have her labelled an angry black woman who could harm her husband’s ambitions. It is alarming to see how little has changed over time, as a procession of men in suits attempts to force each woman into following protocols. In the opening credits the audience is confronted by debutantes in pearls or beauties in bathing suits, juxtaposed with clips of men flexing their muscles, aiming their guns, or reaching for power. 

Michelle Pfeiffer delivers the standout performance as Betty Ford. She is the most reluctant first lady, unexpectedly stepping into the position when her husband took over from the disgraced Richard Nixon. Her dependency issues give her a vulnerability that requires strength of character to overcome, and Pfeiffer conveys both beautifully. Anderson enhances her reputation for taking on iconic women from history, and Davis gives us the private Michelle Obama, terrified of the very real danger of the assassination facing America’s first black president. 

The choice to jump between storylines allows for parallels or contrasts enhancing individual strands. But the fragmentation can also be frustrating. Involving scenes sometimes end abruptly, stripping the audience of the opportunity to examine the moment in depth. There is some unevenness between episodes too. The backstories for each woman are less compelling than their lives in the White House, despite some intriguing moments. For instance, we learn that Ford trained with dancer Martha Graham and was able to wrestle small alligators. 

But this fictional imagining of what lives thrust into the spotlight through marriage rather than choice might be like, has a lot to offer. Each woman must avoid being swallowed by fashion shoots and house and garden renovations. A four-year term might seem more like a four-year sentence. As Eleanor acerbically notes about being first lady, “That’s not a job … that’s my circumstance”. What these women do with their circumstances is what makes this series worth pursuing. 

The First Lady is currently available on Paramount+. 

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