In a bit of unintentional synchronicity, the HBO documentary on feminist icon Gloria Steinem "Gloria: In Her Own Words" airs mere weeks before NBC trots out period soap "The Playboy Club." Steinem's first foray into controversial journalism and, one could argue, feminism was an assignment from Show magazine to go "undercover" as a Playboy bunny. And though the NBC series clearly did not use Steinem's story, which focused on the arduous physical and emotional working conditions of the bunnies, as background, it did enable Steinem to make headlines; while doing publicity for the documentary, she called for viewers to boycott "The Playboy Club."
It's difficult to imagine that her voice retains enough resonance to affect ratings — at 77, she is perceived by many to be as much of a historical curiosity piece as Hugh Hefner. Which is why "Gloria: In Her Own Words," though not perfect, is such an important documentary.
During the hour-long tour of Steinem's extraordinary life, viewers are reminded that the blatant sexism of "The Playboy Club" and "Mad Men" was not fiction (or at all entertaining) and that the modern social equality movements, including the women's movement, were propelled by individuals whose lives were often defined so much by the causes they supported that the actual person became a rumor, documented by personal anecdotes and public events.
This much I saw, albeit briefly, for myself. For three years in the late '80s, I worked at Ms. Magazine. It was my first job out of college and whenever I told anyone where I worked, the only question they had was: "Have you met Gloria?"
People who did not know Eleanor Smeal from Bella Abzug or Flo Kennedy from Angela Davis knew Gloria; as a household name, she was equaled only by Betty Friedan. But no woman of my generation wanted to be Betty, not if they could be Gloria. She was smart, witty, lovely and glamorous. She went to parties, had A-list lovers, and still was taken seriously. With that rough-around-the-edges alto, she managed to seem calm and reasonable even when she was saying things that made many people crazy.
Yes, I met her. Although at that point she did not run the magazine, Gloria showed up in the offices more than occasionally for editorial meetings. She was unfailingly friendly to the young staffers, ensuring that we were included in such a way that defied the hierarchy of a magazine, much less one run by a political icon. But as solicitous and engaging as she could be, Gloria maintained a Jackie Kennedy-like remoteness, the magazine's fabulous aunt rather than its mother. Many of the women who worked for or came through the Ms. offices were just as powerful, influential and brilliant, but no one had her talent for sheer presence.
That presence is what both illuminates and limits "Gloria: In Her Own Words."
As with his two previous "Own Words" documentaries, director Peter Kunhardt uses an interview with Steinem as the central narration of her life: the traumatic Midwestern childhood spent caring for her mentally ill mother; the early years as a writer in New York, confined to pieces on dating tips and textured stockings; the political awakening around abortion rights; the founding and surprising success of Ms.; the failed fight for the ERA, the complexities of aging and finally, her profound love of life.
The film clips alone are wonderful — including Harry Reasoner's patronizing denunciation of Ms. and Henry Kissinger's public flirtation with Steinem — and it does provide a brilliant if brief and narrow glimpse of the American women's movement. But this is Steinem's tale, not America's or even feminism's. She remains as forthright as she ever was, still lovely and glamorous (attributes she says hindered as much as helped her) and, more important, consistent in her politics. But even as she speaks about the pain in her life, her regrets, the midlife depression that propelled her into writing a book about self-esteem, the surprising marriage to David Bale that ended tragically with his death three years later, Steinem remains positive, optimistic and therefore enigmatic.
Though the fight for the ERA is mentioned, there is no discussion of its failure and what toll that took on Steinem, and beyond a brief mention of her conflict with Friedan, no mention of the inevitable personal and political tensions within the movement, or the generation gap that has widened over the years, the state of feminism now or whatever feelings must accompany waning social influence.
Steinem argues that the purpose of revolutionaries is to become irrelevant; that, as Susan B. Anthony said, she does not want women to be grateful but ungrateful so they keep moving forward. While that is admirable and no doubt sincere, it feels like only part of the story.
For the first time, perhaps, Steinem is mother more than aunt, remembering only the positive things about her brood, how they never fought with one another, spent their days engaged in only educational play and all went to bed by 7 o'clock.
'Gloria: In Her Own Words'
When: 9 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)