There’s something exhilarating about “playing devil’s advocate”—you get to poke holes, and you don’t have to mend any. Perhaps that’s why most of the combatants in the “culture war” spend more time railing against alleged evils (whether it’s gay marriage or prayer in public schools) than they do supporting positive proposals. It also makes for more entertaining political theatre.
This principle is at the heart of the Netflix biopic The Most Hated Woman in America, which tells the story of the provocative and bristly Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of the American Atheists and a key player in a landmark Supreme Court decision that prohibited mandatory Bible-reading in public schools. The film focuses on the sordid end of O’Hair’s life in an effort at detailing how the prickly and provocative behaviors that landed her a national platform also provided her a host of personal and professional enemies. But Melissa Leo makes for far too likeable of a grumpy grandma for the point to really stick. Instead, the story of O’Hair’s rise to national stardom provides a fascinating and important look at the flaws of both sides of the “culture war.”
The documentary portrays O’Hair as a passionate “non-conformist” willing to pick a fight anywhere she can find one, from joining a lunch counter protest against segregation to railing against the convictions of her devout Christian father. After one fight culminates in a controversial Supreme Court decision, she discovers that people are willing to support her work, and she begins building a platform and securing financial support to found American Atheists. Before long, she’s hosting rallies on college campuses and giving radio and television interviews about her latest cause.
‘In a bizarre way, O’Hair’s story may sound oddly familiar to anyone who grew up in or around the “other side” of the fight: A passionate woman finds purpose fighting the supposed evils of the surrounding culture, comes to enjoy her status as a polarizing troublemaker, and ends up profiting from the outrage of both her supporters and her detractors. The Most Hated Woman does an excellent job at revealing the fundamental contradiction of O’Hair’s life—that while she spent it fighting against the evils of organized religion, she also built an elaborate organization around her beliefs and embezzled large sums of money. More than either celebrating or discrediting O’Hair, however, The Most Hated Woman highlights the disastrous allure of oppositional politics.
While O’Hair did not intend to become the face of “freedom from religion,” she did entertain an infatuation with the notion of being a “revolutionary.” Early scenes with her eldest son, Bill, feature romanticized notions of an “us against the world” perspective, and in one interview she ribs, “I do love a good fight. And taking on God and the church is kind of the ultimate, isn’t it?” In one of the most powerful moments in the film, an upbeat “This Little Light of Mine” serves as the backdrop for a sequence of scenes showing the creation and growth of the American Atheists. O’Hair tapes newspaper clippings with headlines like “The Devil’s Daughter” on the walls of her mother’s dining room, and she unwraps a box of magazines bearing the headline “Most Hated Woman in America” to the cheerful applause of her staff.