The XX Factor

Gloria Steinem Gets an Hour on HBO

Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

Last night, I went to a screening of Gloria: In Her Own Words, a documentary about Gloria Steinem produced by HBO that will air Monday night at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. It’s about an hour long and covers Steinem’s childhood of neglect and deprivation, her pre-feminist life as a journalist in New York City (including her famous expose of the working conditions of the “bunnies” in the Playboy Club), her feminist awakening as she was covering an abortion speak-out in her capacity as a journalist, her founding of Ms. Magazine, and her life as an aging icon of the second wave of feminism. 

The good in this documentary is abundant enough to merit spending an hour with it.  The filmmakers dug up an amazing array of clips of people reacting negatively to feminism, much of which is so paranoid that it caused the audience I saw this with to laugh hysterically.  It was particularly amusing to watch men act like the Huns were at the door when presented with the idea of female leadership or, God forbid, women using the honorific “Ms.” instead of “Miss” or “Mrs.” It was also a nice reminder that while many men treated feminism like it was some kooky idea that had no traction whatsoever, in fact women across the country embraced it, selling out early copies of Ms. magazine. This, even though the magazine explored themes that seem radical even by today’s standards, such as raising children without heavy gender indoctrination or sharing household duties equally with husbands.  One thing I thought was particularly useful was seeing so much photography and footage of early feminists. A lot of us grew up with stereotypes about how second wave feminists were poorly groomed harridans, and many of us younger feminists have naively assumed that we could shrug that off by highlighting that we too can be funny, sexy, fashionable, and fun-loving.  But actually, you look at the pictures and realize that feminist groups always had a lot of smart-looking women in them, and that the stereotype that feminists are ugly is used by the opposition because it suits their ends, not because it has any relationship to reality.  Steinem got a lot of attention for being the “hot” feminist, but in reality she was more common than not.  

While the documentary is definitely worth an hour just for these revelations and rememberances, I found it rather unsatisfying on the whole.  Even though Steinem herself is a very collective-minded person, the documentary is so focused on her as a person that much of the actual feminist movement recedes into the background.  The filmmakers didn’t bother to get interviews with some other people who lived through the era and might have different perspectives on Steinem or the movement.  Steinem has had many interesting friends, but the only one who gets talked about much is Bella Abzug.  Steinem’s marriage at age 66 gets a solid chunk of screen time, but even though her active dating and sex life in the decades before is alluded to, we’re not given much in the way of details.  

More disturbingly to me, the documentary was far too upbeat.  The fight for the Equal Rights Amendment gets something like two minutes of screen time and then is skipped over, even though the loss of that fight is of equal importance to the win on abortion, historically speaking.  The ERA loss was the first time the right was able to successfully stop the feminist movement, and it’s been racking up important victories against women ever since.  Simply sliding past that because it’s unpleasant is irresponsible.  Especially since, in her remarks after the screening, Steinem made it very clear that she didn’t expect feminism to win with speed or ease. Instead, she argued that we’re really still in the second wave, and we should remember the first wave of feminism—based in the abolitionist movement, working toward the vote–took a century to win.  She expects it will take modern feminists just as long to reach our goals.  I wished I could have seen more of the nuance she presented in person in the documentary.