The Most Hated Woman in America Plot Summary:
A biopic on Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of American Atheists and the woman who took religion out of American public schools.
Religion is a sticky topic. You don’t talk about it in bars, or at Thanksgiving dinner, or really any large family gathering for that matter. Religion is polarizing, as is atheism. Atheism is just as bullshit as religion. Both are upheld by a strong belief in something that cannot be proved. Atheists think those with strong religious convictions are ignorant, pathetic people who need to be shown the way and vice versa. I think both kind of suck. Generally, I find atheists to be pretentious. They can’t concede a single point. On the flipside, I generally find religious people to be hypocritical and pretentious.
The Most Hated Woman in America was amazing. It played with all these points. Madalyn Murray O’Hair (Melissa Leo) was a tough, strong, outspoken, independent woman. She believed wholeheartedly that there was no God. She looked down on those that did, but that didn’t stop her from fighting for their religious freedom. Her parents, meanwhile, were through and through Christians. They reviled her work but when all was said and done they still supported her by allowing her to live with them rent free. She wanted to paint her father as a horrible man, which he was. He was bigoted and small minded and read the Bible but rarely practiced what was preached. But through all Madalyn’s berating he never kicked her out. I admit it is a low bar to meet, but it throws everything into a gray space, instead of the black and white of extremists.
The main story was very simplistic. It’s a kidnapping and ransom gone wrong. But Madalyn, Robin (Juno Temple), and Garth’s (Michael Chernus) last days on earth are blended together with the rollercoaster that was Madalyn’s later life. This was less simplistic, not in a storytelling way, but in what it dredged up. I found myself contemplating religion, specifically Christianity, as well as feminism, atheism, the Constitution, the current state of political affairs, and a slew of other topics for a long time after the credits rolled across the screen.
When Bill Jr. (Vincent Kartheiser) finally cracked and deserted his family, and the cause, I heard a quote from Gloria Steinem, over and over again. During the Democratic primaries Steinem said to Bill Maher, “Women get more radical as we get older, because we experience . . . not to over-generalize, but . . . men tend to get more conservative because they gain power as they age. Women get more radical because they lose power as they age.” Madalyn and Bill have their changed moments at around the same time. Madalyn, though outspoken her whole life, didn’t really act until her late 30s/early 40s. Bill was a self declared nonconformist and atheist, helping his mother with the cause until his late 30s/early 40s, when he turned to God and almighty money.
Honestly, religion makes my blood boil. It was hard to watch Bill convert and say he couldn’t even pray for Madalyn and not because I really cared about Madalyn. (Quick side note: I can’t really tell you if I liked her or not. She was mean and selfish but also fought for some very good causes.) But back to Bill and religion. I spent seven years in Catholic school and five years before that in CCD. I hated it. I couldn’t always pinpoint what it was, but now that I’m older I know it was the arbitrary rules (sex before marriage and you’re doomed) and the obvious oppression of women. Religion breeds oppression, hatred, extremism, and social blinders. Bill was so easy to slide into that world because it is a system built to benefit him, unlike being nonconformist.
The Most Hated Woman in America showed a woman determined in her beliefs become stronger and more powerful the more opposition was thrown her way. Madalyn Murray O’Hair did this country a great service by making a giant move towards actual freedom of religion. She was a flawed human, as any of us are, and Tommy O’Haver and Irene Turner did not shy away from that.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair deserves more recognition for her life and her death. She was a pioneer and The Most Hated Woman in America works to place O’Hair among other celebrated activists. I suggest making the time to watch this movie whether you are for or against religion or anywhere in between. It will make you think and hopefully make you see someone else’s perspective, at least for a moment.