Gloria: In Her Own Words

March 12, 2012 by staff 

Gloria: In Her Own Words, Gloria Steinem has frequently spoken about the importance of sharing stories, using the imagery of communicating oral narratives around an ancient campfire. She has done that with her own personal history in the HBO documentary, Gloria: In Her Own Words. Responding to questions asked by director Peter Kunhardt and co-producer Sheila Nevins, Steinem has added depth to readily accessible facts by opening up about the darker corners of her emotional life.

Two juxtaposed Glorias emerge. One evolves from a brunette young woman who came to New York City via Smith College. (Early on, Steinem had determined that she would get out of Toledo, Ohio — even if it had to be on the winged feet of her tap dancing prowess.) The other is a woman who has lived seven decades, delved into the journey of self-knowledge, and come up with the hindsight that the passage of time affords.

Repeatedly referenced as a “feminist icon,” Steinem often functions as a blank slate upon which others imprint their own anxieties, appreciation, disapproval or angry resentments. In a society that habitually discards its most prominent contributors when they are deemed no longer relevant, Steinem radiates resilience. Functioning as a stand-in Rorschach test for all the attributes and shortcomings of the feminist movement, her best armor has been an acute sense of humor.

I saw the documentary first on a preview DVD, and then at the Women’s Media Center screening at the HBO building. The 120-seat theater was filled with women (and a handful of men) representing a continuum of ages and a modicum of diversity. As Steinem quipped when she appeared to answer audience questions — fresh from a taping with Stephen Colbert, “For a lot of people in this room, it’s a home movie.” Archival footage of the 1972 Democratic convention (where one-third of the delegates were women) and the march in Manhattan down Fifth Avenue gained a breadth of scope on the larger screen. The experience of hearing in unison laughter when a 1960s broadcaster intoned, “Women have a problem with concentration,” lent a feeling of community. Yet Steinem’s private revelations were more intimate when viewed via television’s smaller scale.

Throughout the film, a window into the burgeoning women’s movement runs parallel to the storyline about the girl born in the 1930s who described her awareness as, “I’m not sure if I knew what feminism was. I thought if I was having difficulty, it was my own personal fault.”

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