The System Is 'Still Crazy,' Gloria Steinem Sees Change
I was listening to Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware the other night after having just watched “Gloria,” and I felt a kinship between you two, in terms of how you both confront hypocrisy in society.
I think it’s the use of humor. Now here’s something I’ve been thinking about: how laughter comes out of seeing two things coming together and unexpectedly making a third. Laughter is said to be the only free emotion. You can compel fear. You can even make someone feel they’re in love if they’re isolated and dependant for long enough. But laughter is free. And that’s very important to me because I’ve grown to only trust places where laughter is alright. If it’s a place full of false solemnity, you know you’re in trouble.
One of the interesting aspects of the film is the way in which you expand the definition of the feminist movement by speaking to everyone who’s experienced inequality, not just women.
Well, that’s it. That’s the key. I mean, you can’t go on thinking half the human race is somewhat unequal to the other half, and not have a wrong worldview of everything else. It starts the hierarchy, and then you’re cooked [LAUGHS].
Why is it important to question hierarchies?
What I’ve learned is that unless it’s an emergency, like a fire or brain surgery, hierarchy is not necessary, and may be damaging. If you have a hierarchy, you’re repeating the strengths and weaknesses of one person without allowing for the accumulative strength of a group. And you’re also not learning from each other’s stories. What’s so valuable about HBO is they tell stories. We learn from stories. We do not learn from statistics. If you hear a statistic, you will make up a story to go with it, because our brains are organized on narrative. And you may very well make up a wrong story because you only have one fact, which is a statistic. If you hear a story, you learn and retain it.
Speaking of stories, you’re quoted as saying, “I made feminists older than myself feel uneasy as I wandered around in the ‘70s in miniskirts and boots, with a button that said ‘Cunt Power.” Why did you do that?
It’s what movements do! In lots of different ways, we take words that are used against us and use them in a positive way. ‘Black’ was a negative word, and the Civil Rights Movement took it and made it positive. ‘Gay’ was a negative word, and the movement made it positive. Today, young women are doing ‘slut walks’ because in Canada police officials told girls that they wouldn’t get sexually attacked in the street if they didn’t dress like sluts, which is like blaming the victim. So there are like 45 cities now in which there have been slut walks. In London, young women were carrying signs that said, “A Dress Is Not a Yes!” It made me laugh out loud!
It’s taking a negative and saying, you call me that? Okay, I’ll take that and make it positive. And, you know, pre-patriarchy, “cunt” was not a bad word; it has the same linguistic origin as the word ‘country;’ because the idea was ‘a mother country.’
You’ve said, “I wasn’t crazy, the system was crazy.” Is the system still crazy?
In a general way, the system is still crazy. But thanks to social justice movements, and years of hard work, there has been positive change. The system is less crazy because there are more accurate laws, and terminology; you no longer have to have somebody standing there watching you get raped, and willing to testify, in order to be credible. There are laws about sexual harassment which didn’t even exist as a word; it was just called “life.” There certainly has been progress. But we still are in an overall structure that punishes invasion of private property more than invasion of people’s bodies. We still think you can reach a peaceful end by a violent means, which is rarely the case. People’s fate is still way too much determined by group of birth, and too little by uniqueness and individual talent.
Where do you think we need to get to?
Well, if we go back to what we were saying about hierarchy, if we try to think in a circle rather than in polar opposites, that’s a help. The media is too likely to think that only conflict is news. Much of the reason that people are fed up with the media is because it’s too full of conflict. And yet news organizations still pretend there are only two sides to every issue. There may be thirteen sides to an issue, or six, or only one. Would we, for instance, cover a concentration camp guard and an inmate equally? No.
What do you mean when you say, “Love is not about power”?
When I was writing Revolution From Within, I wrote a chapter about the difference between romance and love. It dawned on me that love is about wanting what’s best for the other person; it’s two whole people. Romance is about wanting the other person; it’s two fractional people trying to become whole. Nobody else can be the rest of you because you’re unique. Romance is often about power and possession. It may turn into love, but it has different characteristics. Some say it’s the most intense form of curiosity and exploring — which is why it burns out. Someone else cannot be the rest of you.
You said you learned so much from your husband’s illness, and his passing. What did you learn?
Well, it was the ultimate reality. There’s no question of options or leaving — you’re just a hundred percent living in the present with someone who’s mortally ill. And you never really know when is going to be the last moment. So you’re always intensely in the present. I had never lived that way before. I tend to live in the future, in my mind — or I did. That was a big learning. And also, in a more peculiar-to-me way, it was learning that I could be in the same situation I was in as a child, but now I could handle it. Because obviously now I’m a grown-up, so I could handle it in a way I couldn’t when I was taking care of my mother.
One of the many surprising things you speak about in the film is the naiveté you all had in the '70s, at the start of “the movement”, and how things were anything but plotted out.
No, the big thing that’s wrong about conspiracy theories is that, it’s not that people don’t want to have conspiracies. It’s just that it’s almost impossible to have any here, because so many things are accidental.
Some of the most revealing moments in the film come from stories you share about your private life.
Good. Because I was being asked questions, I tried to and treat them like trees. I tried to figure out how this individual tree really looks, honestly; because if we tell the truth to each other, we empower each other. It helps us understand that there’s no such thing as perfect. There’s unique, but not perfect. So I just tried to answer each question in that way, as honestly as I could. But it was the filmmakers who created the forest, which I could not possibly see. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s very hard to see the forest of one’s own life. You’re just too absorbed with the trees you’re trying to see, understand and love. It’s up to people who see this film — or look back from the future — to see the forest.