By Sarah Carlson | Film | August 19, 2011 |
By Sarah Carlson | Film | August 19, 2011 |
A photograph of a young man, gazing with wonder at vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, said plenty about the 2008 U.S. election when it moved across the Associated Press wire that October, and it still does. Because the man’s face is framed between Palin’s legs.
It’s a nice shot, and one the photographer may have seen as symbolic given the nature of Palin’s run — only the second woman in U.S. history ever to make it on a major-party ticket. Plus, she’s pretty! Hillary Rodham Clinton’s pantsuits just aren’t photogenic. Others found the shot more symbolic of the sexism still present in our culture, a theme the election three years ago again brought to the surface as Palin and Clinton vied for a seat at the boys’ table and faced untold vitriol from men and women across the political spectrum. Just as President Barack Obama’s election didn’t mark the End of Racism, women such as Palin and Clinton making huge political strides doesn’t mean sexism is a relic of the past. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem took the analogy a step further in 2008 in a New York Times op-ed, “Women Are Never Front-Runners,” that imagined a mixed-race woman with an identical background and resume to Obama and posited she would never achieve such great heights as her nonfiction counterpart, or at least not nearly as quickly. The gender barrier isn’t taken as seriously as the racial barrier, Steinem said. Her piece, however, divided feminists, reopening wounds from the 1960s and ’70s developed as second-wave feminists of all races, classes and sexual orientations felt leaders such as Steinem, The Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan and New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug weren’t representing their interests in the cause.
Author Rebecca Traister covers this friction and much more concerning the role of women in the historic election in her insightful 2010 book, Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women. Steinem is featured throughout the book, but the activist’s views on the election are nowhere to be found in the HBO documentary about her life, Gloria: In Her Own Words, which premiered Monday. There’s just too much to cover, and the one-hour program only grazes the surface of Steinem’s life and career, largely focusing on the ’70s. The 2008 election is one of many chapters in the women’s liberation movement, which, as Traister points out in her book, and as Steinem herself would tell you, isn’t over. It’s barely getting started. “I’m old, but the movement is young,” Steinem, 77, recently told the Los Angeles Times. “Every social justice movement has to last at least 100 years or it doesn’t really get absorbed into society. We’re only 30 or 40 years into this!” Gloria, while entertaining, only stops to look at some of the markers along the way.
There’s no narrator for Gloria, directed by Peter Kunhardt. Steinem tells her story while numerous film and audio clips are interspersed along with photographs. “These women are not kidding — they are deadly serious,” reports one male news anchor as he narrates images of women protesting on the streets. Much of the documentary plays as an impressive “Look at how far we’ve come” message, one older women can feel proud of and younger women (myself included) can only marvel at. Even as sexism persists, these days women have better odds of calling a spade a spade and being taken seriously. But 50 years ago, “There was no word for sexual harassment; it was just called life,” Steinem says. “So you had to find your own individual way around it.” Her work as a journalist didn’t begin as she’d wanted it to in the ’60s, writing about fashion, babies, makeup and textured stockings instead of her real passion, politics. Going undercover as a Playboy bunny to expose working conditions at the Playboy Club was a break, but her infamous piece hurt her professionally and personally, opening her up to ridicule and painting her as disingenuous. She regretted the stunt for years. As the women’s movement progressed and Steinem found herself unable to publish work about it, she began to speak out. If feminists still encounter hostility in 2011, Steinem says, it’s a step forward from the ridicule they encountered in 1971.
On goes the name-calling, the men in the news treating the movement with a mixture of amusement and contempt. Many credit Steinem’s fame to her looks and discredit other women’s because of theirs. They even debate the appropriateness of the prefix “Ms.” instead of “Miss” or “Mrs.,” and one reporter asks President Richard Nixon what he thinks of the issue. Nixon thought that question was stupid, as one of his Oval Office recordings revealed, and he considered Steinem someone no one listens to. But Ms. proved an appropriate name for the magazine she helped found. “Sometimes, the only way you can get attention to the problem is to freak out people, is to dramatize it,” Steinem says. “There’s such huge punishment in the culture for an angry woman.” She’s “thin-skinned,” though, and often is hurt by slurs hurled her way, especially an Esquire piece that depicts her actions as entirely selfish. (A Google search for “Gloria Steinem, Esquire” brings up a 2010 feature listing her among the “75 Greatest American Women.”) Outside her office window, a pornographer erects a giant cartoon of her, nude, with a sign that said “Pin the cock on the feminist.” In the late ’80s, a caller to “Larry King Live” hoped she would one day “rot in hell.” The hate can make her cry, but it can’t make her stop.
Steinem remains even-keeled throughout her past interviews, her deep voice unwavering and not often raised. Even today she sounds and looks the same, with her streaked, Holly Golightly hair, big glasses and long, slender fingers tipped with long, slender nails. Moments of levity come when we see her tap dancing, in elevators and for Barbara Walters, or flirting during an interview with George Burns. “Gloria” only scratches the surface of the ’70s and rushes through the ’80s, ’90s, and Aughts, stopping to dwell every now and then on Steinem’s upbringing in Toledo, Ohio, and her relationship with her parents. A more detailed look at the movement itself would be nice, touching on the problems Traister and many others examine. But for now, Kunhardt pays homage to one of its imperfect leaders. “My hope is this film will make people thing: It’s been 30 or 40 years. Where do we want to be 40 years from now?” Steinem recently told the Associated Press. “I want people to realize that if a very imperfect person did this, maybe they can, too.” And for the younger generations watching, those who, thanks to previous generations’ struggles, have had an easier time earning better jobs and more respect, Gloria essentially asks the question, “Who’s next?” Who will continue the fight?
“The primary thing is not that they know who I am,” Steinem says at the conclusion, “but that they know who they are.”
Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Pembroke Welsh Corgi.