In Her Own Words: Gloria Steinem on HBO

Much of the publicity for the new HBO documentary Gloria: In Her Own Words tells us that the movie was made because young people don’t know who Steinem is. As people who are currently reading/writing feminist blog content, you and I probably aren’t who they’re talking about. Still, whether you’re a seasoned veteran of the feminist movement or one of these young whippersnappers the media are warning us about, the biopic is worth a watch.

HBO’s Sheila Nevins gives us an informative—if at times heavy-handed and kinda cheesy (I, for one, feel I have seen enough vintage advertisements used to illustrate old-timey sexism at this point)—61-minute film, full of news clips and interviews with Steinem from the past six decades. It’s interesting to hear from someone who has been doing activist work for so many years, and pop culture fans will find it fun to see her smack down sexism on talk shows through the ages—Barbara Walters, Phil Donahue, Arsenio Hall, Larry King, and more—though explaining the idea of feminism to talk show for fiftyplus years must get old sometimes for Steinem herself.

For anyone familiar-ish with Steinem’s life and career, the stuff you’d expect to see shows up in the film. Her undercover Playboy assignment, her campaigning for the ERA and abortion rights, her work with the National Women’s Political Caucus, her founding of Ms., the books she’s written, her late-in-life marriage to David Bale, and so on. However, even if none of that’s new to you (and I for one found myself surprised at a few things—did you know that one of her first female role models was the character Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and that’s what inspired her hair streaks?), hearing Steinem’s take on it years later is enlightening. She discusses the past and present with a combination of vulnerability and frankness reminiscent of Obi Wan Kenobi (if he were a 77-year old feminist, which would be awesome).

Of course, the film is short and doesn’t go into much depth on any of the topics it covers. It would have been great to hear more about the 1976 Democratic National Convention, or the history of women of color in the feminist movement (the film mentions Flo Kennedy and Dorothy Pitman Hughes and shows a few clips but doesn’t give us much beyond that). There’s a short segment about white, middle-class feminists voting on whether or not sexual orientation should be considered a feminist issue that begged for more coverage as well. Yes, the film is a kind of oral history of Steinem herself and not the feminist movement as a whole, but it still could have used more analysis.

Steinem at a convention; she is standing on stage and clasping her hands

The whole thing kind of fizzles out at the end, and we don’t get much on the modern-day feminist movement (there’s some 2005 footage, but that was as recent as things got). As someone who has lived through several iterations of feminism, I’d have liked to hear Steinem’s thoughts on the present as well as the past. At the end of the film though, she does say that she remains optimistic about the future of feminism and plans to keep working until she can’t do it anymore. (In fact, she’s currently calling for a boycott of NBC’s The Playboy Club in addition to working on other projects.) When reflecting on how her life story might impact younger feminists, she says, “The primary thing is not that they know who I am, but they know who they are.”

Though it doesn’t dig too deeply into, well, anything, Gloria: In Her Own Words is a well-paced, interesting hour of television. (If nothing else, you get a chance to see footage of Steinem’s off-the-wall 50th birthday party, featuring a sing-along led by Bella Abzug and Marlo Thomas.) Like other glossy retrospectives of the second wave, it serves to remind us both how far we’ve come and how much work is left to do.

Further reading:

by Kelsey Wallace
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Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs.

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1 Comment Has Been Posted


Great review of what was IMHO a terrific documentary on a woman who I have always liked but now am an unabashed admirer.

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