Gloria loved to dance.
When she was a child, Leo Steinem—her entrepreneurial, by-the-seat-of-his-pants father—ran a swing-dance hub at the Ocean Beach Pier. He’d book all of the biggest acts, but sometimes those acts would cancel out. So Leo bought a jukebox. Just in case, he said.
That “just in case” came quickly. Shortly after setting it up, an act failed to show. Then it started raining, soaking the outdoor dance floor and dampening the mood of Leo’s customers.
No matter. Leo and little Gloria danced in that rain, smiling and laughing as the water ran down their faces, feet spinning and sliding through the puddles without a care.
Perhaps it was the last time Gloria Steinem ever felt truly free.
Leo left shortly after. Gloria’s mother, Ruth, was mentally ill—anxious, obsessed and sometimes imagining that German soldiers were hiding in the corners. Soon, Gloria was heading to prestigious Smith College, then traveling to India for a two-year fellowship. When she returned, Gloria quickly made her name as a journalist—battling, it seems, sexism at every corner—and then turned her attention to the Women’s Rights movements of the 1960s.
Her achievements and, yes, her defeats, come to her like rain. She leads the National Women’s Political Caucus and co-founds Ms. magazine. She helps spearhead support for the Equal Rights Amendment—an effort that goes down to defeat in 1977. Over her decades-long activist career, she makes thousands of speeches around the world (despite being scared to death of public speaking) and rarely spends an evening home.
What would that other Gloria—that little girl twirling on that wet Pier dance floor—have made of the woman she became? That woman, the older Gloria Steinem, would say that she fought for the freedom of all women.
But how free was Gloria? For that little girl, how could those achievements measure up to dancing with Dad in the rain?
Though her glory days are decades past, the real-life Gloria Steinem likely needs no introduction. An icon of the feminist movement and an all-too-willing antagonist for conservative- values advocates, the very name can stir up plenty of emotion.
But love her or hate her, we see elements of her character as depicted in The Glorias that are worthy of our respect: Her intellect. Her drive. Her humility. And while the movement she spearheaded came with one of society’s most grievous ills baked into its core (which we’ll talk about plenty), the movement also addressed some really important issues. And the movie emphasizes those, too.
The Glorias spends plenty of time with younger Gloria as she learns about and experiences some of these issues. Many men treat her as a sex object or someone who should fetch them coffee. She talks with women in India who experience some horrific atrocities. Gloria and her colleagues fight in this movie to give women a greater place and greater voice in society, and that’s a great thing. We should note that Gloria is briefly seen decrying pornography, as well.
But the movement (in the film, at least) also celebrates traditional roles that women have long held: Those of wife and mother and homemaker. We actually hear Steinem campaign to tell the story of homemakers and question why they’re “called women who don’t work when they work harder, longer and for less pay” than anyone. This movie lauds the intrinsic, complex beauty of womanhood.
Viewers can even see some positives that the movie, perhaps, can’t quite grasp. For instance, The Glorias doesn’t quite know what to do with Ruth, Gloria’s mother. Once a promising journalist in her own right, the movie suggests she gave it up to become a mother. The movie acknowledges that sacrifice but can’t bring itself to praise it. Gloria knows that Ruth gave up her career to have her … but if Ruth hadn’t done so, Gloria feels that Ruth “would’ve been born instead.” It’s as if Gloria wonders whether abortion would’ve been the right move for her mother, too.
That’s a pretty horrific twist of a pretty beautiful act—that act of self-sacrifice. The movie has very little regard for such selflessness, but that doesn’t wipe it off the screen. Ruth, setting aside her own desires for the well-being of the children in her care, is laudable and honorable and beautiful. And Leo’s sometimes crazy optimism is pretty heartening, too.
Gloria gives a homily at a Catholic church (though she’s berated by dozens of pro-life activists as she walks in). She tells the congregation that “original culture saw the presence of God in all living things, including women,” suggesting from the outset that Christianity has debased women.
She also argues that “patriarchal” religions have historically discriminated against women, minorities and nature, alleging that Christian rites have tried to usurp the traditional role of women as mothers: Priests wear skirts, she says, baptize people in water (a mimicry of amniotic fluid, she insists) and say they’re born again, “and then do one better by promising everlasting life.”
Gloria alleges that cultures didn’t have “elaborate concepts of heaven and hell” before “patriarchy,” and then speaks of how these cultures said their dead simply joined their ancestors or embarked on a cycle of reincarnation. (She later reads a newspaper article declaring that non-Catholics can no longer give homilies in Catholic churches, according to the Pope—a move the film suggests as yet another heavy-handed example of patriarchy.)
One prominent women’s leader nearly breaks from Gloria’s group because of its strong pro-abortion stance, which violates her Catholic beliefs. But when she considers how little the Catholic Church has done to support unwed and impoverished mothers, she reconsiders. Someone suggests that if men could get pregnant, “abortion would be a sacrament.”
Gloria speaks to many women in India who are abused because of the caste they’re in. (The caste system has its foundations in Hindu belief.) She’s given a statue of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death, as an apartment-warming gift—a gift that (the movie suggests) inspired the first cover of Ms. magazine. (The cover depicts a many-armed goddess-like woman, her hands holding everything from frying pans to typewriters and the image of a baby in her womb.)
Gloria gets married in a Cherokee ceremony, and we hear a bit of a Cherokee myth. “God may be in the details, but the goddess is in connections,” the real Gloria Steinem says during a rally.
We see someone in a nun outfit during a fantastical, Wizard of Oz-like sequence.
As Gloria and her women’s rights movement gain traction, a satirical tabloid publishes a full-page image inviting readers to “Pin the [penis] on the feminist.” Viewers see the pictorial—a realistic cartoon of a fully nude Gloria, along with four male sexual organs that the tabloid apparently wants the reader to cut out.
It’s the most graphic representation of the objectification Gloria is subjected to in the movie. We hear one pundit (apparently in a clip pulled from real life) say that he doesn’t know whether he wants to kiss Gloria or hit her when he hears her talk. She’s also the subject of several unwanted advances as well.
After Gloria spurns a New York Times editor’s advances on her (he asks her to mail some letters for him and invites her up to a hotel room in the same sentence), the fledgling journalist takes a job as a “bunny” in a Playboy Club. We see her and several other women in traditional, revealing Playboy bunny outfits, and her co-workers teach her the ropes—including how to stuff the outfit to give the allusion her breasts are bigger than they are and how to bend over just so to look appealing for the club’s mostly male clientele. (One customer slides a card or hotel room key across the table toward Gloria by way of invitation; she slides it right back.) When she asks why, after two weeks, she hasn’t gotten paid, one fellow bunny tells her that the management is making sure she doesn’t have any venereal diseases. Gloria later writes an article based on her experiences that launches her career.
Gloria’s cover-girl looks draw a great deal of attention from the mostly male journalists who interview her, who often ask her sexist and demeaning questions. One asks her if she’s being disingenuous by campaigning for equal rights by dressing “sexily.” (The movie gives little, if any, attention to real-life critics within the women’s right movement who criticized Steinem on the same grounds.) When a journalist asks her what her own relationships have looked like over her own career, Gloria tells him that while she’ll fight like crazy to give women the right to have one-night stands, her own love life has been a series of “little marriages,” suggesting multiple partners but monogamy within those relationships.
The inaugural Ms. magazine and the early women’s rights movement (at least the branch represented by Steinem) championed rights for lesbians. We hear several jokes and references—mostly by the movement’s opponents—regarding same-sex female relationships. During a rally, for instance, someone from the crowd asks if Gloria and her co-speaker, Florynce Kennedy, whether the two of them are lesbians.
We hear plenty of references to male and female body parts. In India, Gloria hears a young girl describe how she was attacked by classmates who, in her words, tried to rip off her clothes. (Another young mother recounts the rape of her daughter.)
As a young woman about to head to India, Gloria apparently gets pregnant, presumably by her fiancée. And that leads her to …
… a doctor in London who performs an illegal abortion on Gloria, allowing her to pursue her career.
Abortion is perhaps the defining issue of the film’s version of the women’s right movement. Naturally, we hear some grisly stories of illegal abortions gone wrong. One woman talks about a friend of hers who was impregnated by her high school coach—who threatened to kill her if she told anyone. She died after trying to use a coat hanger to abort the baby. An activist laments how often sports scores are played on the radio but no one ever mentions how many women have died from illegal abortions. Gloria and the other leaders of Ms. publish a story filled with names of people who’ve had abortions. One advocate suggests that there would be safety in numbers through its publication. “If one person does it, it’s illegal. If thousands do it, it’s a movement.”
Some protestors take huge issue with the movement’s stance on abortion—most of whom, in the movie, look as if they’d like to commit acts of violence against Gloria herself. One says on TV that Gloria and others are advocating “the murder of young people in their mother’s womb.” And Gloria, along with fellow activist Dorothy Pittman-Hughes, are forced to vacate a meeting room because a “pro-lifer” phoned in a bomb threat. (Dorothy is exasperated by the irony of a pro-lifer threatening to kill abortion proponents.)
Gloria delays seeing her hospitalized father (who’d ended up there because of a bad car crash). Leo dies, and the doctor later tells her, when she arrives a week later, that he didn’t die from his injuries, but from ulcers. He was alone, and the worry killed him—suggesting that Gloria was responsible for his death. Later, Gloria recalls that time and literally tells herself that perhaps she just didn’t want to be trapped caring for her father as she was trapped caring for her mother.
Gloria’s mother worries about unseen soldiers. A cab driver nearly runs over several people, then berates and shakes his fist at them out of the window. We hear about how people have burned farmers’ crops in India because of their caste. Rape is described as a “very small assault.” Someone shoots a leg brace.
We learn that Gloria’s dad named the family pooch “D–mit.” Three f-words and about 10 s-words. We also hear “a–,” “b—ch,” “b—tard,” “d—n,” “h—” and “p-ssed.”
Gloria and other people smoke cigarettes. Some stodgy Harvard professors puff on cigars. Champagne is served at a birthday party. Someone asks Gloria if she’d like a drink, which she rejects.
Gloria reaches for a sick bag on a plane. Leo is something of a minor con man, and he asks Gloria to pawn a ring as an “old family heirloom.”
In a way, you could describe The Glorias as a religious movie.
It’s not that it espouses any recognized religion (though you hear plenty of references to them, along with nods to a more freeform, New Age sort of spirituality). No, here, feminism is the faith, complete with commandments and foundation myths, prophets and saints. And at the top of the heap here stands Gloria Steinem—the centerpiece of one of the most hagiographic films I’ve seen.
The Glorias takes Steinem’s life, washes away the more problematic parts and leaves her (at least for her acolytes) basically blemish free: Smart. Selfless. Determined. No crass ambition colors her story, no real flaws can be found in the film’s heroine. Apart from one questionable closing chapter involving her father, The Glorias feels just a couple of steps removed from a North Korean press release.
That’s one reason why The Glorias just isn’t that good a movie. It’s long, and it feels it. Intended as a celebration of Gloria Steinem’s life, the movie feels like a dinner party that just won’t end. When a younger version of Gloria is shown riding a bus (the movie’s visual metaphor for Gloria’s life) and asks, “Are we there yet?” about two hours in, I was asking the same question.
The Glorias rejects complex character building and storytelling in favor of a fairly rote sermon featuring fairly wooden icons. Many of the supposed conversational lines we’re given feel about as organic as a well-practiced stump speech, filled with applause lines. The score even leans hard into swelling violins to make its most inspirational points.
Of course, you’d have to buy into the notion that abortion-on-demand is the reason for those swelling violins.
Let’s not be unduly harsh: The Glorias does feature some original flourishes (most notably how Gloria at different ages essentially tells us her life story) and a dynamite cast, including Janelle Monáe, Bette Midler and Julianne Moore as the eldest of the Glorias. The film represents the injustices and inequalities faced by virtually all women at the time, helping us understand why she so passionately fought for equal rights. And while the movie earns its R rating, it doesn’t wallow in problematic content like some.
Yet here’s the thing: Gloria and the movie trumpet the freedom that comes with abortion. It’s never a plan A, Gloria admits in the movie, but she stresses again and again that it’s absolutely essential for women to become fully realized.
But as the women’s movement rightly demanded that women be seen and heard as full-fledged people, they denied that same right to the most defenseless of all people: the unborn. And they made that denial central to their drive for equality, making it a litmus test of “true” feminism.
Every religion has its non-negotiable, undebatable truths, its hills to die on. For Gloria Steinem—at least the Gloria we see in this movie—the hill for feminism is abortion on demand. Anyone who dares look at a fetus as a living thing with perhaps rights of its own is cast out—doomed, apparently, to patriarchal hell.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.