At the end of the new movie The Glorias, after we’ve seen four different actresses play Gloria Steinem at different stages in her life, we get news footage of the bonafide Gloria at the Women’s March in January 2017. “I’ve been thinking of the uses of a long life,” she says from the podium before a sea of bobbing pink hats, “and one of them is you remember when things were worse.”
It’s a nice tip of the cap to the priceless value of older women as keepers of memory that I really appreciated, and it sums up the work of this film: Showing how things were worse for women and how Gloria and a group of equally motivated activists made them better.
But that description of the plot doesn’t capture the ingenuity with which it is manifested. Julie Taymor, who brought The Lion King to life on stage, directs the film, giving us a visual feast. A scene where Gloria stares down a creepy male interviewer becomes as frenetic and menacing as the tornado scene from The Wizard of Oz. To demonstrate the idea behind the first cover of Ms. magazine, a figurine of Parvati comes to life and then becomes the illustration of a multi-armed American woman, juggling domestic and professional balls, that introduced the publication to the world.
The film is based on Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road, and it takes that title quite seriously. Every other scene shows one of the Gloria characters staring out a window of a car, bus, train, even a donkey-drawn cart, or engaging with other fellow travelers in some sort of conveyance.
I get the point that Steinem is always moving, progressing, that she got herself from nowhere to the world’s most famous feminist, and that she brought others along to her destination of a more female-friendly world. But an unfortunate message of all that window-staring is that it suggests she’s always a passenger, when we know good and well that she did the driving.
In some scenes (curiously these take place mainly in buses) the different Glorias interact with one another. The school-aged Gloria (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) asks the teenage Gloria (Lulu Wilson) if the ERA passed. The 20-something Gloria (Alicia Vikander) jokes with the older Gloria (Julianne Moore) about getting married. “What happened to you, Ms. Feminist?” she teases.
It’s an unusual device, but I felt it worked well for a bio-pic. I imagine a lot of us contrast our younger selves with our older versions, and this was an effective visualization of something that normally only takes place in our minds.
The Gang’s All Here
My favorite part of the movie showed Steinem working with a band of brilliant, courageous women including Bella Abzug (Bette Midler), Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monae), and Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero). That sisterly camaraderie is the soul of the movie. We see the support, love, admiration, and humor they showed each other, even when they disagreed. (Though she is never shown in the film, we do hear about Betty Friedan’s petty jabs and criticisms.)
As we are at risk of moving backwards on Roe v. Wade, the film shows us how tied reproductive rights is to the women’s movement and the heat Steinem and the other women had to endure to put access to safe abortions on the national agenda.
The Glorias is a perfect movie to recharge your feminist batteries in this time when women’s advancement and autonomy feel under siege. It’s a reminder by working together we can look forward to a time when things are better, much better.