Before starting Showtime’s The First Lady, which dramatizes the lives of Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, and Michelle Obama, I did not know much about Eleanor Roosevelt other than she accomplished groundbreaking work on human rights. But after watching all ten episodes of The First Lady, I’m dying to know everything there is to know about Roosevelt, especially more about her relationship with journalist Lorena “Hick” Hickock.
The First Lady does an excellent job of exploring the relationship between Eleanor and Hick, with an impressive performance by Gillian Anderson as Eleanor. And let’s be real, as much as I loved learning about the other first ladies, if I could have an entire show devoted to Hick and Eleanor’s love affair, I would be in queer heaven. (For now, I’ll have to do with my latest book purchase Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady).
On The First Lady, Eleanor and Hick (played by Lily Rabe) first meet in episode two. In episode four, we learn that Eleanor’s husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) has been unfaithful with multiple women, including Eleanor’s personal secretary. Eleanor is devastated but cheers up pretty quickly by attending a sapphist salon, where a woman rightly remarks that “the whole damn world would be much better off if the queers were running things.” Hell yes!
It is at this salon that Eleanor meets Hick, and Hick deftly flirts with Eleanor, saying that she likes friction and women who speak their mind. But it’s not until episodes five and six that things start to blossom romantically. Hick covers Eleanor for the Associated Press, which leads to handholding and a tender scene where Eleanor and Hick wake up in a hotel room and kiss each other with passion.
Episode six of The First Lady is especially poignant because it juxtaposes Eleanor and Hick’s relationship with Barack Obama’s legacy on LGBTQ+ issues. In this episode, Barack’s family pushes him to be more openly supportive of same-sex marriage. In the same episode, FDR confronts Eleanor about her relationship with Hick, showing that queer issues have always been present in the White House, even if only behind closed doors—literally. Towards the end of the episode, Eleanor surprises Hick with an adjoining room in the White House, which made my queer heart flutter with happiness.
The First Lady features other adorable moments between the Eleanor and Hick, including a declaration from Eleanor that Hick is not a mistress but “my favorite person, my confidant, my best friend.” Another episode includes a scene of Eleanor and Hick holding each other and kissing by the fire while eating s’mores and Hick licking Eleanor’s “sticky fingers.”
While Eleanor’s relationship with Hick certainly captivated me, Anderson’s portrayal of Eleanor as a crusader for human rights was just as riveting. In one episode, Eleanor organizes a concert for Black opera singer Marian Anderson after Anderson is banned from performing for the Daughters of the American Revolution. In another, Eleanor positions herself as the moral compass of the FDR administration, successfully pushing FDR to assist more than 80 Jewish refugees who are fleeing Nazi Germany.
I would be remiss not to at least mention the incredible performances by Viola Davis as Michelle Obama and Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford. Pfeiffer was almost hypnotizing with her portrayal of Ford and the effects of alcoholism and drug abuse, and Davis demonstrates a clear knack for Obama’s voice and mannerisms.
Though Pfeiffer and Davis’ performances are certainly Emmy-worthy, Anderson’s role as Eleanor has a special place in my heart. To see queerness in the White House is both unthinkable and legendary. We can only hope there is more of that in future years, both on screen and off. The sapphists had it right: “The whole damn world would be much better off if the queers were running things.”