HBO’s documentary Gloria: In Her Own Words is a straightforward biopic of Gloria Steinem’s life to date, primarily focused on her heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. I suspect that most readers are already quite aware of Steinem’s life and work, but just in case, the short version is that she is a journalist and activist who had the eloquence, theatricality, and, most importantly, brains to become a leading figure in the U.S. Women’s Liberation Movement that sprang up in the 1960s and still continues in various forms today. This social movement is known as the second wave of feminism in this country, the first wave being composed of the suffragettes of the early 20th century. One of the major slogans of second-wave feminism was “the personal is political,” a phrase that does not appear in this film but seems to inform the narrative decisions to conflate Steinem’s personal life with her politics. What is most surprising in this film is how vulnerable Steinem allows herself to be in public; having seen her on talk shows, I had an impression of her as a lioness, always cool and a bit removed. However, in this film, she allows herself to be seen while emotional or proud or even a little silly, which certainly makes her seem more human to me than the icon she was before.
Strangely, her vulnerability is actually a strength, and I suspect that she knows this. It does not hurt her image for her to become more human, nor does it hurt for her to have a reason to update her image, if you follow me. One thing that the film makes clear is that Steinem was meant for the spotlight. Although some of the gains of second-wave feminism are under attack in the U.S., the documentary itself has little to say about feminism in the 2010s, leaving me to suspect that this documentary mainly exists to return the spotlight to Ms. Steinem. I know there’s a long lag time from wrapping the film to releasing it, and the filmmakers could argue that the historical struggles they document inform the current situation. However, state legislatures all over the country have been rolling back abortion rights, throwing obstacles in the way of legitimate voters, and de-funding education and health programs for several years now. These were some of the central concerns of Steinem and other second-wave feminists, part of their definition of equality. Perhaps it would not do to end a glowing biopic by pleading to protect the changes Steinem helped initiate some 40 years ago, but this film does not quite tie the past to the present and goes out not with a bang but a whimper. It’s trying too hard to be respectable, I think, at least at the end, and I doubt that the young Gloria Steinem would have been so concerned about respectability. This is unfair of me, though, to hang a young person’s attitude around an older person’s neck, even if they are the same person. I just want to register my unease with this documentary, because while it was interesting, I was never exactly sure why it had to be made now.
We start with Steinem’s definition of feminism: a person, male or female, who believes in full social, economic, and political equality for women. And, she adds, who acts on that belief. Although we start with ideas, this is not a documentary about ideas but a documentary about the person speaking them, so we’re pretty much done with the philosophic underpinnings of feminism right here. The narrative goes like this: A young Gloria Steinem moves to New York to be a journalist in the early 1960s, but she has a hard time finding a place to live due to chauvinistic attitudes of landlords. While she claims that she thought the position of women was biologically dictated, later parts of her narrative seem to contradict that. With a bit of Michael Moore-esque historical irony, the documentary offers advertising images of women on their knees or prostrate, worshiping vacuums, scrubbing floors, and serving a smug husband. Steinem found work as a journalist but could only write about issues that were fun and frivolous. Women’s issues, so to speak, at least according to the zeitgeist of the early 1960s.
Her big break came when she went undercover as a Playboy Bunny to expose the draconian working conditions in Hef’s empire. Her subsequent article included photos of her dressed as a Bunny, and she states that she later regretted the move because it was hard to be taken seriously afterwards. Nevertheless, the movie offers footage of Steinem being interviewed shortly thereafter, being asked about how often she thinks of marriage. She tries to turn it around, but her interviewer denies that it ever crosses his mind. In current time, she tells us that she identified with Holly Golightly, Audrey Hepburn’s character from Breakfast At Tiffany’s, but she also says that she always wore large glasses to hide behind the lenses.
She continued to work as a freelance journalist on frivolous women’s issue stories until she found herself at a hearing where women were telling the committee about their harrowing abortion experiences. Steinem herself had had an abortion at age 22, and she found the testimony of these women and their refusal to be sidelined to be galvanizing. She realized that one in three women needed an abortion in their lives and could not understand why abortions were secret, illegal, and dangerous. By 1970, she had become a voice and figurehead of the nascent women’s rights movement. Fascinatingly, one of the images that the documentary shows from the women’s rights movement is a protest where women are tossing bras into trashcans to be burnt. I had thought that bra-burning was a myth. A quick trip to Snopes informs me that yes, it was a myth and that no one burnt those bras in the trashcans. I’m assuming that my mind added the fires after years and years of suggestion.
Over a cheesecakey image of Steinem holding up a “We Shall Overcome” sign, the film offers footage of the CBS commentator Harry Reasoner verbally drooling over the miniskirt fad, followed by a radio personality talking about how hot Steinem is but how ugly most of the other women involved in the women’s movement are. This whole discussion of Steinem’s hotness, which comes up a few times in the film, is a little problematic for me. Yes, she’s an attractive women, but an awful lot of her media seems to be involved with how pretty she is. I understand it from the chauvinist side, but I don’t really understand it from Steinem herself. In an interview with Helen Gurley Brown, she talks about how people dismiss her hard work because of her good looks and says that some of women’s power is getting men to fall in love with them.
I think my problem here is that the film makes it appear as if she is trying to have it both ways: She wants to be the hottest lady in the room, and she wants to be primarily respected for her mind. It’s certainly possible for both of these desires to be simultaneously realized, but it seems to me that her concern about her looks is mainly about her ability to attract male attention, while her concern about respect is more universal. That is, she’s competing with other women to be the prettiest, while telling them that what’s important is their minds. This would be less disconcerting if she were less forthcoming about her high opinion of her own looks. She did appear a little surprised when her interview on The Colbert Report last week started with Colbert complimenting her looks, but I don’t remember her protesting much. I realize that this is a complicated issue for anyone, especially a women trying to overturn ingrained misogyny by winning hearts and minds. She’s damned either way. I suppose what I wanted was for the film to be more aware of that.
Another major event of the early '70s was Steinem's founding of Ms. magazine after Esquire, one of her early employers, ran a piece attacking her as selfish and ambitious. Interestingly, Steinem says that among the rejected names for Ms. were Sojourner and Sisters, but they decided on Ms. because it was short and it had an obvious point. After footage of Harry Reasoner opining that Ms. covered all possible women’s issues in the first—and, he predicts, last—issue, the documentary tells us that the first issue sold out in less than a week. Later footage will show Reasoner eating crow as the government accepts “Ms.” as an official designation.
There’s some other amazing footage in the documentary, including an incendiary argument between Steinem’s friend Flo Kennedy and an extremely condescending producer for Mike Wallace at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. There’s some lovely footage of Bella Abzug along with Steinem’s testimony about her friend’s support. As the documentary progresses, the political becomes more personal for Steinem. She feuds with Betty Friedan, although after the initial statement, both women carefully avoid insulting the other. In the 1980s, she suffers backlash on The Phil Donahue Show and Larry King Live. She is depressed in the late '80s (weren’t we all?), and she writes a book about self-esteem in 1992. She cries incessantly while delivering Bella Abzug’s eulogy. In 2000, she marries David Bale, an entrepreneur (the film doesn’t mention that he’s Christian Bale’s father). Bale, unfortunately, passes away from lymphoma within a few years.
We end up in the now, which is, because of production times, several years out of date. The film offers footage of women marching on Washington D.C. in 2005 and Glenn Beck mocking Steinem on his CNN show, which sets the time somewhere between 2006 and 2008. Steinem says of the young women involved in the women’s movement now: “The primary thing is not that they know who I am, but they know who they are.” It is a lovely sentiment, but the fact of this documentary belies it, which gets back to my initial unease. The point of this biopic is not to bury Steinem in history but to praise her and raise her profile. Considering the attack on many of the issues that were central to second-wave feminism, Steinem could certainly use a bully pulpit, because someone needs to remind people of the high stakes in abortion rights, voting rights, and adequate funding for health and education. However, the end of the film makes it sound as if Steinem has finished her fight and is ready to let someone else take the pulpit. If this is the case, I am left wondering, again, why this film needed to be made. At least, why now?