Why the New Gloria Steinem Biopic Fails Where Mrs. America Succeeded

The Glorias has four times the Steinems and half the drama.

The six women stand in front of a Greyhound bus, many of them with long brown hair parted down the middle like Steinem’s
Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Lulu Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Julianne Moore, Gloria Steinem, and director Julie Taymor behind the scenes of The Glorias. Photo by Dan McFadden, courtesy of LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

There are a thousand ways to thoroughly enjoy a not-especially-good film, and Julie Taymor’s The Glorias offers up one of them. Based on Gloria Steinem’s 2015 memoir, My Life on the Road, The Glorias is too long by at least 30 amiable minutes. Yet despite its length, the movie covers so much ground that the actors get stuck uttering ridiculously expository dialogue. When the characters aren’t busy explaining things to one another that they all already understand, the screenplay is full of on-the-nose lines like “Thank you for listening. We didn’t think anyone outside our village cared.” Taymor’s central conceit—having actresses playing Steinem at four different stages of her life riding a vintage bus down an endless highway—suggests a lot more drama than it delivers. It’s not as if the Steinem of her late 20s (Alicia Vikander) is tremendously at odds with her 50ish self (Julianne Moore), or that either of them has to justify major compromises to an idealistic teenage Gloria (Lulu Wilson).

The Glorias is also gorgeous, replete with daffy fantasy sequences, including one in which a talk show host informs Steinem, with faux-sheepishness, that she is a “sex object” and the screen dissolves into a swirl of red-tinted fog pierced by nuns, sexpots, little girls, and the tornado from The Wizard of Oz, complete with one of the Glorias as the bicycling witch. (Aside from these, the movie is relatively faithful to the facts.) Taymor alludes to the death of Steinem’s beloved father (Timothy Hutton), a feckless, itinerant entrepreneur, by having the eldest Gloria watch mournfully from the bus window as his car cruises past on the highway. Even something as simple as a shot in which the twentysomething Gloria sleeps on a row of airport seats is transfigured by Taymor to resemble a Renaissance painting of a recumbent saint.

That iconography is no accident, although as a modern-day saint, Steinem is far from a martyr. When she was 22, a British doctor provided her with an abortion in defiance of the law, and he made her promise that to repay him she would do what she wanted to do with her life. (She dedicated My Life on the Road to him.) That’s a promise Steinem kept: She has been remarkably true to herself. She is also hard-working, a tenacious organizer, curious about and compassionate toward others, modest, and attentive to the many forms that injustice takes in this world. In short, Steinem is a person so admirable that she both commands and deflects the biographical eye. My Life on the Road, the closest thing she has written to an autobiography, is organized around its author’s many travels and the people she’s met while on speaking tours and visiting other activists—a canny device that allows Steinem to keep directing the reader’s attention away from herself and toward the many causes she champions.

The Glorias covers some of the same territory, and even a few of the same incidents, as Mrs. America, the FX miniseries about anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly, who, in the 1970s, opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. Both Schlafly and Steinem became political celebrities, and both embodied seeming paradoxes. Schlafly, presenting herself as a simple homemaker, used her formidable intellect and talent to shore up an ideal of femininity that renounced ambitions like hers. (The series features a scene in which Schlafly attends law school in disguise.) Steinem deployed her stylish beauty to champion a set of beliefs that included the argument that women shouldn’t be valued primarily for their appearance. But Schlafly, as played by Cate Blanchett, presents the riveting spectacle of a woman divided against a self she hardly knows. Part of her problem is structural: In conservative ranks, the only way she can win the power and influence she so desires is to pose a someone renouncing both power and influence. Yet she also seems to believe much of what she says. In one scene, she enters a confessional and tearfully wonders why God put this “fire” in her if he didn’t intend her to use it.

Steinem is depicted in both The Glorias and Mrs. America as being uncomfortable with the attention her looks attract, but as Moira Donegan pointed out in the Guardian, the real Steinem was a “savvy and deliberate manipulator” of her own celebrity when she found it necessary, as well as more adept than many of her fellow second wave feminist leaders at taking a back seat. On this subject, as on a few others, The Glorias seems to be in conversation with Mrs. America. The latter features a scene in which Schlafly, the only woman in a political meeting on nuclear policy, is asked by one of the men to take notes. In The Glorias, Steinem offers to take notes for a small gathering of Native American women at the 1977 National Women’s Conference. Steinem’s self-effacement would come across as conventionally feminine if she didn’t reserve her deference for those more marginalized than herself.

To be clear: Steinem is a great woman and an inspirational figure, but she does not make for an interesting character. As much as the public has fixated on her looks, we haven’t spent much time wondering what’s going on inside her head, possibly because there seems so little division between her inner and her outer life. Schlafly, a misguided bigot, fascinates precisely because she is riddled with the sort of flaws—self-deception, vanity, opportunism—that hamper most of us mortals. How did she square those circles? If living often feels like getting lost in an unnavigable labyrinth, a few people, like Steinem, seem to glide through it as steadily as the bus that ferries along the four Glorias in The Glorias. Steinem has faced her share of challenges—a mentally ill mother, idiot male bosses and critics, the rivalrous envy of Betty Friedan, etc.—but she has always possessed a strong sense of who she is and where she’s going. She does not get in her own way.

So whether you find The Glorias a pleasure to watch or not will probably depend on how strongly you agree with Steinem’s politics. For someone who does, it’s gratifying to see her come into her feminist consciousness, informing her boss at New York magazine that in fact she is one of “those crazy women.” The movie often seems to bend over backward to demonstrate that Steinem’s feminism was intersectional avant la lettre: It depicts her time in India listening to Dalit women relating the hardships of their lot, her support for lesbian activists in the face of Freidan’s resistance, her public-speaking partnerships with Dorothy Pitman Hughes and Florynce Kennedy, and her friendships with both farmworkers advocate Dolores Huerta and the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller. This is the truth, and one that ought to be asserted in the face of glib, uninformed dismissals of second wave feminism as only concerned with the interests of middle-class white women. As a member of the choir, I’m happy to be preached to on these matters. But I recognize it as preaching, however sumptuously mounted, all the same.