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Idle Worship

In a new HBO documentary, Gloria Steinem is treated like the icon she is. But efforts to praise and eulogize her feminism don’t do the subject—or the liveliness of the movement she helped inspire—justice.

Eryn Loeb
August 15, 2011
Gloria Steinem in the 1970s.(Jason Laure/HBO)
Gloria Steinem in the 1970s.(Jason Laure/HBO)

The new documentary Gloria: In Her Own Words, which airs tonight on HBO, treats its subject, Gloria Steinem, like the icon she is. Produced and directed by Peter Kunhardt, a filmmaker who has turned his lens on such august subjects as the Kennedys, Gloria depicts Steinem in the requisite soft light, with its subject sitting on a sofa in her New York City apartment as snippets of her own sentences float across the screen and images of her in earlier years fade in and out. Driven by archival photographs and footage, the hour-long film is a cursory walk down memory lane. It’s a gently reverent look at one of the more significant figures of the past 50 years—and one unlikely to inspire much following in her footsteps.

Steinem’s life has been full of glamour and intrigue and controversy and historical weight. Here, though, she’s reduced to a generic person of interest, someone whose life has yielded anecdotes featuring other notable figures, including Richard Nixon, George Burns, and Helen Gurley Brown, bits of quotable wisdom, and lots of photographic evidence of her presence at important events while wearing era-appropriate outfits. The film covers Steinem’s famous undercover Playboy Bunny piece, her ambivalent relationship with her mother, her feminist “click” when she realized that the abortion she had at 22 was more than just a personal experience, her fierce independence, her breast cancer, and her tap-dancing skills.

Despite this encyclopedic approach, Gloria never alludes to the fairly well-known fact that Steinem—like many other prominent second-wave feminists, including Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, and Andrea Dworkin—is Jewish. The concentration of Jewish women in the movement has been variously attributed to Jewish women’s tendency to embrace progressive causes, our inherent love of arguing, and our relative comfort with being seen as outsiders. As Steinem herself told the Jewish Standard last year, “I think the emphasis on social justice … has probably created a situation where Jewish women may be disproportionately represented in the women’s movement.”

Liberal Judaism and feminism have always seemed obviously wedded to me: Both emphasize asking questions and taking responsibility for the state of the world. In different ways, they both involve having faith. And if you want to be reductive about it, sure, Jews and feminists are stereotypically loud and opinionated. In my experience, they’re identities that complement more than complicate each other. I’d call them inextricable, except that while I can’t imagine being Jewish without being a feminist—or being compelled by a form of Judaism that wasn’t feminist-flavored—it’s less of a stretch to think of things the other way around.

Maybe this is because feminism is the broader of these two worldviews. It’s more flexible, with fewer rules. It’s also an identity that people choose rather than inherit (though there’s undoubtedly a hereditary element—my copy of Steinem’s book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions was handed down from my bubbe, who along with her sister was involved in a Jewish feminist study group they irreverently called the “Minyan of Crones”).

Though Gloria is not particularly nuanced—nor concerned at all with Judaism—there’s a moment in the documentary that suggests a more subtle parallel between Judaism and feminism is possible. It comes not from Steinem but in her quoting of a non-Jewish icon of an even earlier feminist wave, Susan B. Anthony. Anthony, Steinem paraphrases, “said our job is not to make young women grateful; it’s to make them ungrateful, so they keep going.” It’s a line that distills something essential about feminism and Judaism: their shared commitment to remembering their history, as well as a dedication to moving beyond it.

Anthony was calling for young women to continue the work of their mothers, to push on to accomplish what the older women couldn’t. But the line also points to the fact that feminists’ goal all along has been for their daughters’ lives to look different—less burdened—than they’d had to fight to achieve. Speaking “in her own words,” Steinem is happy to talk about the past, but she looks determinedly to the future. She insists on the importance of trusting younger generations, of passing down knowledge and experience but not resenting your children for not making your experiences the center of their own.

Jews and feminists alike care about remembering because they know there is danger in forgetting. If we don’t take careful stock of why things are different today and how we got here, we risk returning to a past that we worked so hard to get beyond. And yet to never forget, to be constantly remembering and re-remembering, can be a kind of paralysis.

This is not at all the point of Gloria, even though it’s probably one of feminism’s prevailing themes, and it’s admittedly something of a stretch to zero in on it amid what is otherwise a general, well-meaning overview of Steinem’s life and legacy. But without some extrapolating, the film risks putting you to sleep. This is partly due to the filmmaker’s apparent uncertainty about who he thinks will be watching: On one hand, Kunhardt seems to presume a certain familiarity with the basic facts of feminist history, because they are glossed over. At the same time, the film never really moves beyond those basics, failing to capture the urgency of second-wave feminism and the spirit of the women, including Steinem, who helped lead it. It’s a soothing, feel-good portrait that is likely to be celebrated by the same people who celebrate Steinem off screen—who know she’s got more dimensions than she’s allowed to show in this film but will be gratified to see her getting her due.

Given the complexity of all that Steinem represents, that means Gloria is a missed opportunity. But there’s also something honest about it. Steinem is 77 years old, and her legacy is coalescing. Though she’s still vocal and visible and shows no sign of slowing down, the history in which she played such an important role is receding, and this documentary is part of an understandable—and worthwhile—attempt to solidify her significance.

But significance and boilerplate are easily confused. Steinem continues to be relevant despite efforts to pin her down and praise her, to write her eulogy and feminism’s along with it. In recent years, she’s shown a determination to be part of feminist debate without defining it, to let her ideas evolve, and to acknowledge the relevance of feminism beyond her own generation in ways that many of her peers have been unwilling to. In 2004, she cheered the overwhelming turnout by young women at the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, and, to its credit, the film does include a clip of this. During the 2008 presidential election, she weighed in on the blazing debate over whether a white woman or a black man was more “electable.” She contributed an essay to an anthology of women’s writings about getting their first period. Just last week, she called for a boycott of the upcoming NBC drama The Playboy Club—frustrated by the way it romanticizes a job she knows firsthand was anything but glamorous—and published an op-ed about the militarization of Jeju Island, South Korea.

I wish that this standard-issue film about the life of one of our great heroines had been better, juicier, truer to the spirit of the movement she helped lead—and to which she continues to be a model of ingenuity, grace, and perhaps most important, a much-needed provider of perspective. I wish it could have been a rallying cry, something more than a validating if disappointing hour of programming for people who already know how important she is. Luckily, Gloria will not be the last word on Gloria Steinem.

Eryn Loeb, a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine, is a freelance writer and editor in New York.

Eryn Loeb, a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine, is a freelance writer and editor in New York.