Credit: Dan McFadden / Roadside Attractions
by Chris Mello Featured Film Streaming Scene

The Glorias | Julie Taymor

September 29, 2020

The Glorias is shallow hagiography that fails to complicate the fascinating person it seeks to showcase.

In July, Harper’s Magazine published “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” a bad faith call to arms in defense of free speech ideals against the perceived illiberalism of the Left. To put it in modern parlance, the letter is a screed against “cancel culture,” that societal strawman that threatens famous and wealthy individuals’ right to be racist, homophobic, and otherwise bigoted. It’s anti-intellectualism and a call for an end to discourse disguised as the sage wisdom of people who know better than you, the angry young person. On its own, the letter would have likely evaporated from public consciousness in a matter of seconds, but its list of signatories, and especially the inclusion of notorious transphobe J.K. Rowling, gave the game away — it was little more than a list of so-called luminaries tired of being challenged on their ideology. Among the signatures was Gloria Steinem’s. While it’s entirely possible that she signed without knowing exactly whose signatures would be appending (and thus, informing) the text, the last five years have proven that grandstanding in the name of free speech is little more than shorthand for a reactionary silencing of criticism. Maybe, at 86, she’s simply ignorant of this facet of the culture wars.

This particular faux pas is not brought up as a case to cancel Steinem or diminish her years of work; she is undeniably important to, and very much the face of, mainstream American feminism over the past half century. But this latest example of Steinem’s complicated personhood serves to highlight the biggest problem with Julie Taymor’s The Glorias: namely, its version of Steinem isn’t complicated in the slightest. Steinem has, at various points, opposed and mocked academic feminists, excluded transwomen from her feminism (she has since apologized), and even worked as a CIA operative. In her autobiography My Life on the Road, Steinem writes that the CIA was “liberal, nonviolent and honorable,” which is, of course, the sort of thing you say when you don’t want your former employer to assassinate you. Taymor excises all of that and more, presenting Steinem — portrayed at different ages by Ryan Kira Armstrong, Lulu Wilson, Alicia Vikander, and Julianne Moore — as a passive and saintly figure who learns from the amazing women around her, like Dorothy Pitman-Hughes (Janelle Monae), Bella Abzug (Bette Midler), and Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero), and finds her own place in the movement.

This light decentering of Gloria Steinem in favor of amplifying the collective around her might avoid a standard, individualist biopic narrative, but the fact is that this version of Steinem is dreadfully boring, no matter who’s playing her. No internal conflict is being mined, and all the actors playing her seem to just be going through the motions. If there is conflict within Steinem, it’s almost always of the self-searching variety. In one of Taymor’s few big flourishes, the various iterations of Glorias interact with one another on a bus. Younger Gloria asks the woman she becomes if she ever marries, and the elder Gloria comforts the girl she once was about moments she didn’t have the courage to speak up for herself. The best moments in The Glorias are those instances where Taymor gives in fully to her theatricality, but even then the vividly expressed interiority is only in service of the most shallow of character beats. These scenes, like one in which an interview studio turns bright red and the walls collapse, giving way to a wild Wizard of Oz homage, are exciting and the closest the film comes to demonstrating a personality. But they’re also too cheap-looking and stuffed with mediocre VFX to actually be effective.

They’re also at odds with the rest of the film, which operates from a rote biopic template that hits all of the gratingly familiar notes. In a scene where the founders of the new Ms. Magazine decide to publish a list of prominent women who have had abortions, one of the women chimes in: “Are we really going to do this?” It’s a moment out of any number of movies that feature decisions leading to epochal moments. Even Steinem’s signature lavender shades were deemed worthy of their own moment here, as the film follows her to the sunglass store where she picks them out. Every important woman Steinem meets in her travels speaks in wooden, broad statements of ideas that build upon one another until the film becomes a didactic collage that portrays the movement as a singular (and final) vision rather than an ongoing dialectic. Lip service is paid to a diversity of ideas in small moments, such as a voting session scene where the provisions of the Equal Rights Amendment are determined, but it’s all only ever in service of furthering the hagiography of Steinem. Just as there’s no room for earnest discourse, not much time is given to any one event, even as the film runs two and a half hours, and big moments in Gloria Steinem’s life pass by as if they were nothing at all. Not only does a charismatic supporting performance like Monae’s slip away almost as soon as it arrives, but major conflicts between the feminist movement and the patriarchal establishment don’t register any impact. The ERA comes off as something that just happens, not an amendment that was fought for tooth and nail. Watching The Glorias is something like speed reading My Life on the Road and promptly forgetting all of it. There’s a good film to be made about Gloria Steinem, a complex human and a pioneer of later 20th-century feminism. This isn’t it.