The first Gloria Steinem we get to know in Julie Taymor’s The Glorias is the famous feminist-movement leader at 40, played by Julianne Moore. This is, by the looks of it, Rockstar Gloria: with the founding of Ms. Magazine behind her, her face half obscured by those trademark aviator glasses she wears, her hair long and casual. It’s the look of a woman who’s equal parts hardworking and above the fray. Confident, but not vain. A celebrity in the skin of a normal person. Which is what makes it funny when a husband-and-wife pair of leathered-up bikers approaches her at a bar. You think: Here we go. A confrontation, right out of the gate. Instead? “We love your work, Ms. Steinem.” And that’s just from the husband.
The next Gloria we meet, played by Ryan Kiera Armstrong, is a young girl with a dog named Dammit and a family that’s always on the move. Gloria’s mother, Ruth (Enid Graham), would prefer the family to stick around in one place for awhile, and try to live something approaching a normal life. The man of the house, Leo (Timothy Hutton), responds with something like a mantra: “Traveling is the best education. It’s the only education, really.” Later in Steinem’s life he’ll say: “Us Steinems like to move.”
What can certainly be said of the Steinem depicted in Taymor’s movie — and of the movie itself, really — is that it’s always on the move. This being a Julie Taymor movie, we should know better than to expect the straightforward biopic treatment. We can expect a little weirdness, some flights of fancy, both effective and not, and clear efforts to push the genre beyond the typically linear hagiography that so often defines it.
So it’s no surprise that The Glorias has not two Steinems at its center, but four (the others are played by Lulu Wilson and Alicia Vikander), and that these snapshots of the famed activist and journalist at multiple interludes in her life are delivered to us out of order, jumbled together with an overt sense of meaning and connection. A straight line runs through it all: dreamy interludes in which these four Glorias, riding a bus to who-knows-where, get to commingle and encourage each other. These moments don’t really work, but the idea behind them resonates. The movie feels like a conversation a dreaming Gloria Steinem might be having with herself, about herself.
The strange thing is that for all its tricks — even that odd detour through The Wizard of Oz Taymor manages to serve us midway through — The Glorias still falls prey to the problem of making a movie out of a life far too vast for a movie. Which is to say, a deeply political life. These types of biopics are traditionally a tough bargain. The individuals at their center only rarely come off as individuals, much less lived-in, fully flesh-and-blood humans. Unlike the audience, they don’t know what the future has in store, or already know how their lives ties in to the broader fates of the people of they’re fighting for.
It seems we can only ever tell these stories through a shimmering veneer of 20/20 vision. And that vision obscures the minutiae in favor of bigger meanings, broader takeaways, and even, at times, a bit of preaching to the choir. Rather than the world-shaping events they must have been, many of the challenges in Steinem’s life — her mother’s illness, her own abortion — feel minimalized by a story that just has to keep moving. In every scene, a lesson. In every lesson, a fixed line drawn from the qualities we see of the Gloria onscreen — her creative spirit, her humble curiosity about other cultures, her hungers to travel and write — and the avatar of mainstream American feminism well-known to the rest of us. Ideas planted in the scenes of Gloria’s early life have their echoes in the consequences of her character, with little room for a real sense of tension or the inconsistencies that, more than the stuff that biopics force to make sense, tend to define a person.
Just look at that moment in the car, with the family on yet another trip to yet another home. We can’t just leave it there: Someone says travel, thus the film proceeds accordingly, shuttling us forward in time to Gloria in her 20s, in India, this time played by Vikander. We don’t yet know how or why she’s here; we find out eventually, but that’s not the point of the scene. Steinem is talking to a seatmate on a train about leaving New Delhi to “get out of the big city, see the villages.” Like Gandhi, she says. She’s traveling in third class — to which women are restricted, in this instance. But she has the option of a private car, like the rest of the rich Americans. She would rather sit in third class, among the people.
Scenes like these do their share of work, but the work feels almost too easy, too cause and effect. When teenage Gloria learns that her mother, who was once a writer, had to use a male pen name, Ruth responds: “That’s the way it was.” Even the mere fact that her mother isn’t writing anymore — that she’s home and visibly sick while her husband is off in Argentina — has immediate meaning. From this, we sense the clear seeds of Steinem’s career as a writer being born. As does Ruth intoning later, after Steinem publishes a juicy cover story: “You’re a writer. You have a real byline.”
The source material for The Glorias is Steinem’s own My Life on the Road. The movie adheres to that road, but makes it way more of an uphill climb. The scenes build, and build, and build — threatening, always, to arrive at the mere statue of a person, whose value is in the way she accrues the insights and experiences of others and, in her own politics, becomes some amalgam of them all. It’s a good thing that the film makes a point of including other women, who bring their own ideas, rooted in their experiences of class and race in addition to gender. Bette Midler gives us Bella Abzug. Janelle Monáe appears as Dorothy Pitman Hughes. A fiery Lorraine Toussaint appears as Florynce Kennedy. Monica Sanchez and Margo Moorer play Dolores Huerta and Barbara Jordan, respectively. And names like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer do not go unmentioned.
Sometimes there’s an odd sense that the Steinem of this movie has less of her own imagination: She often has to see and experience through other people to move forward. Which makes sense as a vision of communal politics predicated on the sharing of ideas and skills. But how do we square communal politics with the biopic genre’s emphatic sense of exceptionalism? A black woman at the March on Washington says, “You white women. If you don’t stand up for yourselves, how’re you gonna stand up for anyone else?” Steinem — Vikander, in this moment — looks as if the thought had never occurred to her before: not only that she has to stand up for herself, but that she’s white.
Splitting an icon four ways doesn’t quite mitigate these odd tensions, which grow more real as the movie wears on. The Glorias rightly stacks up the everyday injustices females face in multiple realms of life, with scenes with women sharing their stories, in New York and India, discussing sexual assault, confessing to abortion. There is power in these moments. Inevitably, Gloria towers over it all, over all of the women she communes with and the lessons she learns — over even herself.