Chatting With the Feminist Icon I Played on TV

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Brenda Feigen is a feminist activist who graduated from Harvard Law School; directed the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project (with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg); co-founded Ms. magazine and the National Women’s Political Caucus; was former legislative vice-president of NOW; produced the studio film Navy Seals; wrote a memoir; was married to fellow attorney Marc Fasteau; and is now married to her partner of 28 years, Joanne Parrent. I, Ari Graynor, am an actor who played Brenda on TV.

The FX limited series Mrs. America tells the story of the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment, featuring fictional versions of Brenda and her contemporaries, including Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm. While we were shooting the show, I didn’t know Brenda. But at its best, acting is a form of radical empathy, allowing you to dive so deeply inside another person’s experience you feel it as your own. Sometimes, a part you play helps shape who you become. I’d never even spoken to Brenda, but playing her changed my life.

A few months into quarantine, I received an out-of-the-blue email from Brenda with the subject line “Thank you.” A few hours later, we met on FaceTime, and a few weeks after that, I asked if I could record a conversation between us. Brenda suggested we do it on her birthday; she recently turned 76. I prepared for our talk with many important, political questions, but like so many of the best, long, and meandering calls with friends, it became much more about sharing, understanding, and the advice I needed to hear. We thought maybe someone else might need to hear it too. Here, an edited version of our conversation.

What was it like to see yourself portrayed on TV? 

I’d heard about the show, and I’d tried to get my hands on a script, but I couldn’t. As the premiere got closer, I saw an episode was titled “Phyllis & Fred & Brenda & Marc,” and I really started to freak out. Two days before the episode dropped, I developed a horrible case of shingles on the left side of my face. I was more anxious than I can ever recall being — all of a sudden, my private life is just all over the screen. And, obviously, it was tweaked a little bit, but it wasn’t false. I felt like I had been almost eviscerated, just cut open and spread apart.

But you portrayed me so sensitively and thoughtfully. I was just blown away. I didn’t feel like I was watching a performance — I felt like I was watching myself. What was it like for you, playing a real person who was alive?

I felt an enormous amount of responsibility. I read everything I could get my hands on that mentioned you, and stared at your pictures, and studied and carried your book around with me. I felt very protective of you, especially because your story was so personal. 

Were you surprised to hear from me?

All I wanted was for you to feel safe and cared for. So to get that email, and know you felt good and wanted to connect, it was the greatest gift I could have ever imagined. I cried and called and texted everyone from the show, and most of them cried too. 

I’d really love to know more about you. So tell me.

I knew I wanted to be an actor at 6. I had this separate theater life outside school — I felt most like myself when I was onstage. But in my day-to-day life, I really wanted to be “like everyone else.” Back then, my sensitivity and inherent observer self felt like a liability rather than a gift.

I’m still close with a lot of my girlfriends from high school and college, and almost everyone is married with kids. I didn’t recognize until recently how tied my own expectations of myself were to getting married and having children. It’s only been in the last few years that I started to question those assumptions and internalized belief systems. I had been in a relationship with a wonderful man for about two years when we started shooting Mrs. America, and I was asking myself a lot of big questions at the time — 

What big questions?

Like, Do I really want to be married and have children, or am I just attached to the idea of it? What does marriage mean to me? There was a part of me that was struggling with what and where I thought I “should” be at that point in my life. 

Meanwhile, I had a longtime dream of buying a house in upstate New York. I had already auditioned for Mrs. America and was secretly hoping that was gonna be the magic gig. And it was. A few weeks later, I got the offer for the show, and the next day I put an offer in on the house.  

I bought the house on my own, and it was wild going through the process of buying a house while preparing for Mrs. America, thinking how relatively recent it is that women can even own property without a man. And how crazy it is that an unmarried lady couldn’t get any credit without a male co-signer until the ’70s. Anyway, I closed, and we started shooting the series. And then I was surrounded by all these incredible women telling a story about all these other incredible women and the fight for equality.

There were so many deep moments while shooting, but there was one moment in particular: We were shooting the scene at the bar, at Bonnie & Clyde’s, where you, “Brenda,” were making out and dancing with the character Jules. And Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, our director, kept giving me the same note: “It’s beautiful, but I think you can, like, be more free?” And after a few takes of me trying to control what I thought that meant, it just dawned on me: You can’t act free. Acting free is not the same as being free. 

I’m sure that’s right.

That really hit home and became a touchstone in every scene and in my own life. Ultimately, my relationship did end, which was very hard. But I gave myself permission to be open and see that things don’t have to just look one way. I think even in as independent as my life has been, there was still a way I was looking for, waiting for, “the guy.”

I understand completely. When we get together with straight friends, I still notice a certain deference that the women — no matter how feminist they are — pay to the men. Either they baby the men, or somehow it just isn’t what they would be like if they weren’t in those relationships. Look, I had a choice. I was in New York, running around going to Ms. softball-game parties every month at Bonnie & Clyde’s, and this woman kept flirting with me. I just finally thought, This is crazy. Why am I resisting this? 

Putting aside being unfaithful to Marc — I mean, the fact that I was fooling around like that, in retrospect, is disturbing as hell. But if I hadn’t been chased by someone like that, I don’t know that it ever would have happened. There was a difference in the way I was in a straight relationship compared to the way I’ve been able to be with women. Which is myself.

Tell me more about that difference. 

With Marc, I was able to be myself, but there was a trade-off. It couldn’t be too much. I was conscious of how equal he and I were. I’m not sure that same consciousness permeates my feelings when I’m with a woman. I’m just me.

Do you think if it was another time, like if that were happening now, it would be easier to face that part of yourself? 

I think now, people seem to be much more accepting of everything, so there’s not a lot of reflection. In a way, it’s harder now, because everything is so acceptable that you’re kind of expected to be honest the minute you open your eyes and get your period, or before that — you know what I mean?

I have to back up for a second. I think it is crucially important for women to keep putting themselves first. We still haven’t arrived as a sex with parity. And by that, I mean not just equality but power. I have a big, big thing about power in Hollywood. And the women who have power, I don’t think they use it particularly well.

I think that’s partly because what we know of power is primarily patriarchal power. That’s our model. So sometimes, when women find themselves in a position of power, it’s just the old patriarchal model in a cuter outfit. 

That’s right.

I think we have to dismantle internally in order to dismantle externally. To bring something outward that isn’t just a facsimile of how men in power relate, but all the glorious feminine qualities. And by feminine, I mean the feminine and masculine polarities that live inside everyone. Feminine power is holistic. It’s something else. It’s not enough to just be “one of the boys” or, as your book title says, “not one of the boys.” 

I feel like I’ve been almost attacked by men for being, or trying to be, better than they are in some particular way.

What was it like being at Harvard in the ’60s?

It was a very, very hard thing to be at Harvard as a woman in those days. Women just didn’t get called on unless it was “Ladies’ Day,” which was the one day a year professors called on women. But I fought it. I stood up and accosted the most eminent constitutional-law professor in the country. And he made some stupid crack, trying to make mincemeat out of me. Everybody laughed, and I was so angry — there was just no way I could forget something like that.

Therefore, my road was mapped out. It was just barrier after barrier that had to be knocked down. And still does. You just really have to bash the walls down. I haven’t been very delicate about it. But I want young women to do that, to keep bashing things down so we can be ourselves in this society.

I’ve spent a lot of my time over the last six years writing. There’s one script I’ve written that, at various moments, I’ve felt ready to direct, but it has been infuriating to see in myself how destructive my own doubt can be. I don’t doubt my talent or that I have something to share, but I tee myself up and then get scared. I feel a lot of shame about that. 

No, you can’t. I understand, but just do it. You have to do what you want to do. That’s the only regret that I have, and it’s taken me until I’m 70-fucking-6 years old to feel powerful in my own self.

But that’s crazy that you’re saying it took you until 76 — you’ve been fighting things your whole life! 

I have been fighting, yes, but I want to be able to reap the reward of that fight. When I went back to my 50th Harvard Law School reunion, I felt victorious in some weird way. We were sitting in a classroom with all these smart and highly accomplished people, and I stood up and said something, and it’s not about the merits of what I said, but it’s about the fact that I was able to speak proudly — which I never would have been able to do in my 20s. It just had to do with — here are all these other people, and who the fuck are they? Are they really so much more important? Are they really so much happier?

Where did that finally come from for you?

I was feeling very anxious before this year that I wouldn’t have a chance to really do what I was meant to do in my life — that I haven’t really made a mark, didn’t make a difference enough. And then it finally dawned on me that the mark is the feminist fight I’ve been fighting all along. The fight, and the process of the fight, and the fact that we have resisted all the crap that’s been thrown at us. That makes me feel we really have changed the world — and it continues to change. And it must. But what you can’t do is be shy or wonder if you are behaving right. You can’t just do things nicely, and you can’t monitor what you’re doing to make sure you’re doing it politely.

The world feels on fire right now. There are so many things that need immediate and urgent attention. How do you push through without getting completely overwhelmed and hopeless? 

You grab at whatever is the closest, and you deal with it. And then you keep on.

Everything is connected. The fucking up of our planet is largely because male values, primarily through capitalism, have led to the destruction of so much. And I think if women were more in charge — maybe I have rose-colored glasses, but I think our values are entirely different. Countries that are being led by women are doing better with the coronavirus. Kamala [Harris] is more than qualified to run our country, and her diversity and inclusion is necessary to show that, however important the job, it can be done just as well as, if not better than, old white men.

To me, feminism means not just equality but also the values of women. The best way for me to describe what the feminist movement means to me is to show pictures from the Women’s March. All those diverse people, mainly women but men too, carrying signs for all the issues we demand attention be paid to — from Black Lives Matter, to the environment, to equal pay, to LGBTQ rights, to universal child care, and on and on. That’s what feminism means: encompassing all the issues that make people feel and be a part of society on equal footing.

I thought we might end with two questions from this beautiful game I bought online called We’re Not Really Strangers. What do you think our most important similarity is? 

I think your intensity is like mine. I hope that sounds like a compliment. You don’t just vaguely ponder something and move right on. I think you think deeply about these things. And that will stand you in good stead in every aspect of your life. What do you think?

I buy that. I’ve always felt I had an intense inner life, and for a lot of my youth, rather than embrace it, I fought against it. I was already owning it more, which I think just happens in your 30s, but playing you, I really felt it viscerally to not look away.

The way you looked at Cate [Blanchett] when I was trying to confront [Phyllis] Schlafly when she lied and just made up a fake case — I mean, that was exactly it.

It’s funny, even you said, “I hope this is a compliment,” which is really telling. We’re not taught as women to embrace our intensity. 

That’s exactly right. I completely and utterly agree with you.

And that’s such a huge part of growing into yourself. We’re taught to be easy and fun, not to embrace being alone. I think about that all the time being up at my house. There are so many images I can pull from the collective of “intense quiet man alone with a dog on the road on the land.” But there’s almost no images of that for women unless it’s, like, a crazy lady alone in the mountains. 

Or walking into a river or lake or ocean or whatever.

Yes, exactly! The Awakening or Thelma & Louise — so many stories are, like, once a woman experiences her own intensity or life force, she ends up killing herself. It’s so fucked up. 

I completely agree. It’s really important to sit with your own thoughts. I do that a lot.

And I gotta say, buying this house and sitting with myself and my dog on 62 acres of land, riding out a pandemic, I’m like, This is fucking powerful. So I love that comparison. 

Okay, I think this next question is a good place to end. What do I (and if I do, then so do other women) need to hear right now? 

Don’t be afraid. Just go for it. Whatever the it is. Whether it’s personal or professional, anytime you feel yourself holding back, you have to ask yourself why. What’s stopping you? And just do it. One thing an ex used to preach to me was, “Take the action and let go of the result.” If you can, take the action, for God’s sake. Take it.

Chatting With the Feminist Icon I Played on TV