Mercifully, despite practical dialogue and inept structure often getting in the way of its best dramatic moments, Aaron Cooley’s limited series The First Lady occasionally bends to the will of its images; namely, those of its heroines — Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, and Michelle Obama — as they war not with their husbands, but their innermost thoughts.
There is a particularly haunting expression that Gillian Anderson pulls when assuming the role of First Lady #32, Eleanor Roosevelt. In character, she quivers, eyes lidded and glazed in thought. Teeth protrude from her mouth as her lips sink and lift. Her body twitches as though her neurons are fist-sized: each of their charges resulting in a little physical twitching of remembered harrows, old and new. It’s a disarming way to bring to life a woman whose greatest impediment to popularity remains, to this day, her looks. But here, whatever superficial misgivings one might have about Gillian Anderson playing Eleanor Roosevelt — she’s too straight, she’s too thin, she’s too pretty — become moot. The only beauty that matters is that of one woman’s pain being laid bare by another in performance.
In her own lifetime, Eleanor Roosevelt knew pain well. Much of it stemmed from her experiences with deprivation, drunks, and death. When overwhelmed by sadness during her early days in Washington, she found an antidote in communing with the dead. Eleanor mosied to Rock Creek Cemetery to sit in solitude and gaze upon an androgynous sculpture by a French-Irish artist, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Dedicated to a photographer who committed suicide by ingesting her own darkroom chemicals, the figuress is bronze. Her head rests on her knuckles, and a shroud drapes from there down to her feet. Misery loves its company, and the macabre little voyage to this gravemarker lifted Eleanor’s spirits. It would be one she’d make regularly — and eventually, with a companion. Ahead of her husband’s inauguration, she visited the sculpture, casually referred to as Grief, with an Associated Press reporter in whom she would confide her life’s pain and pleasures: Lorena “Hick” Hickok.
Though the intimacy a veteran performer can convey in a few milliseconds of footage should never go understated, The First Lady fails to support the magnitude of Anderson’s, Michelle Pfeiffer’s (Ford), and Viola Davis’ (Obama) respective abilities. It is politically breathless and uncritical; fixated on stringing these disparate personalities together into a tidy, benevolent garland of American Girl unity. Vowing to free its First Ladies from the towering shadows of their husbands, it only succeeds in shrouding them further in a tasteful, textbook history of the Presidency. The series mechanically pivots from administration to administration in each episode, preventing the viewer from meaningfully immersing themselves any one political milieu’s issues and emotions. It would’ve befit The First Lady’s feminist overtones to slow down, to stop trying to “have it all,” to instead — as Dahvi Waller’s historical drama Mrs. America did — lushly profile one woman per episode throughout its limited run.
Vowing to free its First Ladies from the towering shadows of their husbands, the show only succeeds in shrouding them further in a tasteful, textbook history of the Presidency.
Where Eleanor is concerned, it felt paramount to get this right. Given that the broader public has only recently become aware of her private affairs, and The First Lady has an essential role in establishing her as something more beguiling than FDR’s homely wife, thoroughness should have been prioritized over demands from executives, ratings, committees, algorithms, and being the first to case Eleanor’s indiscretions in the amber of prestige television.
The lesbian filmmaker Barbara Hammer, who also happened to be quite fond of Eleanor, had much to say about the limitations mainstream storytelling devices impose upon those dispatching from the fringes. She was especially interested in how they encroach on stories concerning women like her. Her outlook remains woefully relevant today. Barbara admitted that she was still surprised that stories by and about women continued to copy “the linear, narrative, left brain dramatization of the novel or script, of the Hollywood and international entertainment film.” This was in 1977: three years before some of the love letters between Eleanor and Hick were released to the public, only to be dismissed by their compiler as the detritus of “an unusually belated schoolgirl crush.”
For Barbara, it wasn’t that women were too stale or holier-than-thou for mass media, but that mass media was not always equipped to make logic of our bodies, our minds, and — most luscious of all when depicted well — our errors and hypocrisies. Likewise, today’s rush to meet a quota for inclusive media has failed to compute the forms these tales should take.
While racing to be the first to portray Eleanor’s lively gay life, The First Lady occasionally becomes a source of queer embarrassment. Unsubtly titled “shout out,” the sixth episode breaks a sweat trying — and failing — to narratively parallel Eleanor’s liaisons dangereuses with Michelle negging Barack into defying the Defense of Marriage Act; the queasy, entertainment equivalent of someone assuming that you are vegan just because you prefer the company of other women.
While racing to be the first to portray Eleanor’s lively gay life, The First Lady occasionally becomes a source of queer embarrassment.
But it’s the opposite that makes Eleanor and Hick’s relationship so seductive—and entices one to weather The First Lady to dine on the charming scraps delivered by Anderson and Lily Rabe, who stars as Hick. The affair ran counter to modern notions of visibility and gay marriage: it thrived in invisibility. Lacking a gay rights crystal ball, Eleanor benefitted from her husband’s status and the era’s paternalistic attitude towards womanhood. She was able to, for the most part, do as she pleased.
Eleanor’s relationship with Hick began between Franklin’s 1919 investigation into “vice and depravity” in the Navy, and his Congress passing a law to curb cruising in D.C. in 1935. And while this may seem bleak, it was actually a lively time to be queer in Washington. As David K. Johnson documents in his book The Lavender Scare, “In 1965, Confidential reported that ‘a generation ago, Washington was the capital of Fairyland, U.S.A. More lavender lads and lesbians worked there than anyplace on earth.’” Yet The First Lady, so hard-pressed to imbue queer history with meaning, numbly connects Eleanor’s heart with the underripe fruit of contemporary legislation.
Eleanor and Hick’s courtship is one that strikes a nerve between the obscene and the banal. A First Lady conspired to move her younger lover into the White House, and scant few members of the public blinked! In another time and place, that might have resulted in a Perez Hilton doodle or spawned a viral TMZ headline. Or an impeachment trial. Instead, it strikes the queer viewer as both an egregious abuse of power, and some sort of fucked-up queer American Dream that one has been cheated out of. That story can’t be told in ten compartmentalized episodes that exercise more temperance than Eleanor did during her teetotaler phase.
To The First Lady’s credit, Eleanor is a challenging subject. Even in queer community, we split hairs in the effort to better connect with her: Was Eleanor bisexual or a lesbian? Was Lorena butch? Did they or didn’t they have sex? Ultimately, Lorena destroyed a great many of their most intimate epistles, leaving us to reckon with all that we do not know, and to trust our gut when appropriate. It can be grief-inducing to realize we may never really know Eleanor Roosevelt. But we too must enter the cemetery and gaze upon her sad facsimile until we experience a sense of magic and imagination. Or, as Barbara Hammer did, raucous humor.
It can be grief-inducing to realize we may never really know Eleanor Roosevelt.
In her 2000 film History Lessons, the filmmaker compiled an array of found footage to try to tell the story of early 20th-century queerness: including antiquated lesbian pin-ups, informative reels on unhealthy friendships between women, stag films, and anything else that she could find to suggest and attest to the undocumented delights of subversive female sexuality. Its unpredictable sixty-seven minutes are bookended by none other than Eleanor Roosevelt, delivering a seminal speech. Whenever Eleanor says “the rights of women,” the word “lesbian” is inserted before ‘women” in dubbing. The voice actor, credited as “Eleanor Roosevelt’s lesbian voice,” was Florrie Burke, Barbara’s long-term companion. This link between past and present lesbian romances, though farcical, is anything but tedious.
Ultimately, my lone concern where The First Lady is concerned is that the omnipotence of its talent and reach will dissuade others from trying to tackle the messy, torrid complexity of Eleanor’s life; that it will serve as the be-all, end-all for a biography that deserves context, fantasy, and even indictment. Where Eleanor is concerned, a happy medium between the avant-garde film and the lackluster episodic exists. And it remains ready for the taking.♦
History Lessons (2000) images courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix.