What 'Queen's Gambit,' 'The Crown' and 'Mrs. America' are whispering to us

Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of "Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics." She co-hosts the history podcast "Past Present" and "This Day in Esoteric Political History." The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)In this season's final episode of "The Crown," Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth have one last meeting, perhaps the most touching of their 11 years sparring over the direction of the United Kingdom.

"I was shocked by the way in which you were forced to leave office," the Queen said. "And I wanted to offer my sympathy, not just as Queen to prime minister, but woman to woman." Though a fictional depiction, words underscored a very real shared experience that united the two leaders, even though that similarity did little to strengthen their relationship to one another.
Nicole Hemmer
"The Crown" is not the only scripted drama this year to delve into ways women navigate arenas of power once closed off to them. Three major period dramas of 2020 -- Netflix's "The Crown" and "The Queen's Gambit" (a story about Beth Harmon, a young woman chess prodigy) and FX's "Mrs. America" (a reinterpreted history of 1970s political activism by Phyllis Schlafly, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm and others) -- have centered on the lives of women in a world dominated by men.
From the Queen and the first woman prime minister dueling over the direction of Britain to feminists and anti-feminists scrapping over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), these shows have blown past the days of the Bechdel test (do at least two women in a show talk to one another about something other than a man?) to a much deeper reflection on how women navigate the possibilities of power.
    Set in a not-too-distant past, these shows feel both relevant and safe: centering ambitious women in an era where the sexism is both obvious and easy to condemn. The moral clarity that structures these shows -- the buffoonish men who demean or dismiss these women are easy to ridicule and condemn -- provides a comfortable backdrop against which richer conversations ranging from racism and sexuality to emotion and ambition play out.
    And as historical dramas, they offer an extra bit of comfort to make them easily bingeable in a year when we crave certainty: we know how the world will change after these women's stories end, because it's the world we're living in.
    It's especially telling that the year's most thorough explorations of women's power come in the form of period pieces, ranging from the 1950s through the 1980s. By slipping back several decades, the shows unfold in a time when the very idea of women wielding power in the US or UK struck many as unusual if not unwelcome, and where the framework of being "first" still dominates.
    The image of a woman alone in room full of men repeats again and again in both "The Crown" and "The Queen's Gambit," a stark visualization of the novelty and isolation that often frames the experience of being the first, and a reminder that "first" usually also means "only."
    Situating these experiences in the past makes the sexism, when it appears, instantly recognizable for the viewer. Take a scene from the first episode of "Mrs. America," when conservative activist Schlafly meets with Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. Goldwater knows Schlafly -- she was a committed activist who supported his 1964 presidential bid -- and greets her warmly. She is, in many ways, already an insider: known for her writing on foreign policy and her electoral energy. But when the meeting begins, one of the men in the room calls on Schlafly to take notes while the men talk.
    You don't have to be particularly evolved on gender politics to get the snub, nor to cringe in the next episode when one of Steinem's male colleagues carries on about her nice legs.
    The writers on these shows also seem to understand that morally uncomplicated stories are usually less interesting, so the historically grounded sexism is often sparingly or strategically used in the narrative. In "The Queen's Gambit," for instance, there are only a few moments where rank sexism ever appears: when Harmon is paired with the only other woman in her first tournament and when a woman writer for Life magazine focuses more on Harmon's gender than her chess strategies. Otherwise she glides through the male-dominated world of chess with ease, gathering friends, admirers, lovers and few if any detractors.
    Harmon is a fictional creation, drawn from the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis -- but so is the chess world she navigates. In the 1960s women could not compete with men at the World Championships. When they finally could in the late 1980s, they did not receive a warm welcome. "They were too nice to her," chess champion Judit Polgar told The New York Times, noting that when she was coming up in the chess world men were far more disparaging.
    While "The Queen's Gambit" erases misogyny, "Mrs. America" and "The Crown" are fascinated by it. Rather than challenge chauvinism, their main characters weaponize it. The most intriguing characters in both are the conservative women who rise to power while openly hostile to feminism -- and often, to other women, even those closest to them (while close to their sons, both Schlafly and Thatcher clash with their own daughters.)
    In real life, Thatcher declared, "I owe nothing to women's lib." She included no women in her original cabinet, a deliberate choice her character in "The Crown" explains to the Queen: "Not just because there aren't any suitable candidates. But I have found women in general tend not to be suited to high office anyways," adding that they are "too emotional."
    The fictional Thatcher is hardest on herself when she betrays any emotion that she feels is too feminine, berating herself for crying (over her missing son, as we learn) during an audience with the Queen and seeming to miss or ignore the monarch's assurance that Thatcher was far from the first prime minister to have shed tears during their meetings.
    At the same time, Thatcher eagerly embraces traditionally feminine roles at home -- she dotes on her son and cooks for him and her cabinet ministers alike -- while approaching politics firmly as a world where she must act like a man to succeed. Schlafly, however, makes those traditionally feminine roles core to her political identity: she is the iron housewife battling against the ERA, arguing that equality will destroy the differences between men and women and must be prevented and sealing her point with gestures like bringing fresh baked goods for the legislators she and her allies intend to lobby.
    "Mrs. America" makes clear the ways Schlafly defends misogyny while still being cramped by it: it's only when not taken seriously as a foreign policy mind that she turns to fighting the ERA to amplify her political voice. And, of course, the show makes a meal of her hypocrisies, particularly her ambition for a political career that takes her out of her home and into the halls of power, all while promoting a politics rooted in traditional gender roles.
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    Even these more complex tales are eased by their historical setting. In the 1990s, conservative women forged a language and identity that more neatly squared their traditionalism and their political ambitions, so much so that many right-wing women today identify as feminist, or at least embrace the idea of women's equality.
    In the 1970s and 1980s, the tensions and hypocrisies of anti-feminist activism are clearer, giving us two historical anti-heroes with an intriguing complexity that their feminist counterparts, at least in the case of "Mrs. America," lack.
      All of this means that these stories, though fascinating and layered, nonetheless feel like comfort food, something familiar and interesting but not too challenging. Which is not to dismiss their value -- we could all use some comfort food these days. More than that, these shows offer an on-ramp to critical thinking and more intense conversations about ambition, genius, intersectionality, motherhood and power.
      But they also allow viewers an easier option, to marinate in the magnificent costumes and music, to escape their own reality by judging the horrid characters and applauding the sympathetic ones. That flexibility explains, perhaps, why three shows have been so immensely popular: they speak to us, but not too loudly.