HBO’s Gloria Steinem Doc Glosses over Race, and Fails to Assess the Second Wave’s Legacy

HBO’s Gloria Steinem Doc Glosses over Race, and Fails to Assess the Second Wave’s Legacy

HBO’s Gloria Steinem Doc Glosses over Race, and Fails to Assess the Second Wave’s Legacy

Gloria Steinem and Second Wave feminism deserve a far more sophisticated and critical treatment.


On Monday evening, HBO will debut Gloria: In Her Own Words, a documentary about iconic feminist leader Gloria Steinem. I caught a sneak peak of the film at the Time Warner Center Tuesday, and while it’s an interesting, often moving look at Steinem’s life, it has very little to tell us about her actual legacy: about how issues ranging from reproductive rights to the pay gap have evolved over the past forty years, or about what kind of women’s movement Steinem has helped build and argue for.

Though there are interviews in Gloria about how upper-middle-class, straight feminists came to embrace lesbian rights and economic justice for poor women, there is no explicit discussion of an equally enduring and arguably more fraught issue: the relationship between feminism and struggles for racial equality. The film does feature archival footage showing 1970s white feminists arguing that men’s only bars are the equivalent of Jim Crow lunch counters. Doesn’t that contention cry out for debate, for analysis—for something? We see Steinem appear alongside her 1970s “speaking partners,” the black feminists Flo Kennedy and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, but we don’t hear much about how these women (who were so often overshadowed by the more famous Steinem) navigated their dual identies as women of color within the feminist movement.

Steinem notes that her own brand of feminism was more radical than that of her elders, women like Betty Friedan, who were concerned mostly with the plight of white, college-educated housewives. Yet there are no interviews with either Steinem or other movement veterans that reflect explicitly on the relationship between feminism and civil rights. We hear about how Steinem’s sexy good looks helped propel her to prominence, but not about how her whiteness helped make feminism seem less threatening. We also learn nothing about the sophisticated set of critiques women-of-color, such as Angela Davis and bell hooks, have long made regarding mainstream feminism: that its focus on abortion detracted from their own struggle for maternal rights and that the assumption that women represent a united interest group often downplayed the struggles of non-white women in overcoming racism.

Gloria’s lack of an open dialogue on race is especially regrettable given the role Steinem played in the 2008 Democratic primary, a subject that, surprisingly, never even comes up in the film. A Clinton supporter, Steinem declared in a New York Times op-ed, “Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House.” Such claims became known as engaging in Oppression Olympics: counterproductive argument over whether racism, classism, or sexism is more pernicious.

During a discussion with Candy Crowley following the film Tuesday, Steinem repeated her condescending claim that many young women supported Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton not because they were inspired by Obama’s rhetoric against the Iraq war and in favor of racial healing but because their boyfriends told them to. I myself was very sympathetic to Hillary, but this argument always struck me as absurdly offensive, especially given what we know about Generation Y’s policy preferences, and the fact that we are the most racially diverse cohort ever to reach voting age.

The best parts of Gloria tell the story of Steinem’s transition from glossy magazine journalist to committed feminist activist: she’d had an abortion after college and nearly a decade later, was activated by the New York City legalization movement. The segments on Steinem’s parents are also especially poignant. Her mother was an Ohio newspaper reporter who had a breakdown after leaving her job to become a stay-at-home mom, and suffered from mental illness for the rest of her life. Her father was a traveling salesman who divorced his wife. Steinem has deep regrets about letting her relationships with both parents falter in the face of her overwhelming role as a movement spokesperson and organizer.

Gloria is an enjoyable gloss on the life of a feminist heroine—but it’s not the sophisticated and critical film retrospective that Steinem, and the Second Wave feminist movement, really deserve.

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