Well, that was exasperating. My response to this documentary is analogous to that old joke in which two little old ladies chat with each other in a restaurant. “That food was terrible!” says one. “And there was so little of it!” says the other. What’s wrong with HBO’s one-hour documentary about feminist Gloria Steinem seems like a microcosm of what’s wrong with many media representations of feminism. And it’s too short.
Given HBO’s apparent “women are window dressing in tales about men” philosophy, I suppose I should be delighted that they threw us Gloria: In Her Own Words directed by Peter Kunhardt, who’s done similar treatments of JFK and Teddy Kennedy. But it leaves a strange taste is your mouth. For many years, feminists have repeated the late 60s phrase, “the personal is political” — that is, the notion that one’s personal struggle to gain respect or get an abortion is a broader if not universal political struggle faced by millions of women. Somehow, this bio-doc manages to make the personal just personal: isolated, unique. And yet the film shows that after a lifetime of dealing with media representations of herself, Steinem has learned to be philosophical. She probably saw the final cut and simply shrugged her shoulders.
In many ways Steinem’s the ideal subject for HBO because it’s hard to miss how beautiful she is; in fact, it seems that topic alone is one of the major unifying subjects of the piece (and HBO does love its beautiful women). Yet physical beauty is often an alienating characteristic, not a unifying one. I spent so much time thinking, how does a woman of 77 look like she’s only 52? that I had to watch the documentary a second time to make notes on all the profound things it hides in between the lines. There’s even a long-distance shot of her in silhouette, yet still identifiably in a bra and panties, getting dressed to go out; it’s followed by a shot of her teasing her hair into a glamorous ‘do, putting on eyeliner, and then entering the party and charming her dinner companions.
Yet on top of those images one hears her saying things that still jar for their power. Take, for example, her response to being called a bitch — a response she delivers in her stunningly self-possessed, low-key voice. Being called a bitch still gets to her, she admits. “But what I’ve come to understand lately is that it is not always personal — that all women come in for this kind of stuff. If you don’t play your role, if you dare to aspire to something, you get it automatically.”
If only the doc had focused less on Lifetime Channel-quality melodrama and more on her intellect. Using a lot of jumpy editing, it vacillates between glimpses of key moments in the feminist movement and teary-eyed confessions about her personal life: her mother’s nervous breakdown when she was a child, her wrestling with self-esteem, her sensitivity to criticism; why she streaked her hair, why she wore aviator glasses. Worst of all: a mini-cat fight with Betty Friedan. Gag.
In some ways, this documentary functions as a kind of Intro To Feminism for high school kids — for everyone else, it’s maddeningly basic. One can finish watching it and still not know that feminism is still relevant, that it has a history that extends beyond the year 1980, and that Steinem would be the first to insist that she is really, really not the only voice in this movement, particularly in this day and age.
Despite all this, I felt myself affected by her description of her first feminist consciousness back in the late 60s. Despite having had an abortion as a young woman just out of college, she was deeply struck by a large group of women giving testimony about how important it was to make abortion legal. After listening to them testify, she became appalled by the situation:
“The injury, the danger, the infection, the sexual humiliation, you know, to get an illegal abortion. I suddenly realized, why is it a secret? If one in three women has needed to get an abortion in her lifetime in this country, then why is it secret and why is it criminal and why is it dangerous?”
Sometimes I wish a new Gloria Steinem would emerge from the ranks of the 20-something feminists of our age — someone whipsmart, media-savvy, and eminently appealing in front of the camera, and therefore capable of galvanizing the movement once more. We could use her: someone with the talent to redirect stupid or baited questions back to the true issues at hand. But looking at what Steinem had to endure — the extraordinary, ugly vitriol directed at figureheads, particularly strong women — I wouldn’t wish such a fate on my worst enemy.
And yet: four or five years ago Steinem gave a public lecture at my campus to a crowd of some 500 attendees. When she walked onto the stage, wearing pleather pants, high-heeled boots, and a great sweater, the crowd screamed with delight and admiration and a kind of elation I’ve rarely seen among these often-complacent students. Steinem smiled at us with that Mona Lisa smile of hers and said, “Do you like the pleather pants?” The crowd was in ecstasy.
Maybe that’s the most depressing takeaway from this documentary: 40 years after the founding of Ms. magazine, we still need our heroes to be a size 6, we need them to be gorgeous even at age 77, and we prefer them in pleather pants. Our culture may not be as overtly sexist as it was during the 60s, but the feminist movement is still just as much needed — and yet a well-financed documentary on HBO can’t muster enough courage to show us that the personal is political.