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Interview with Gloria Steinem

Gloria in the 70s as a blonde

HBO

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.

GLORIA STEINEM

I think its the use of humor. Now heres something Ive 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 theyre in love if theyre isolated and dependant for long enough. But laughter is free. And thats very important to me because Ive grown to only trust places where laughter is alright. If its a place full of false solemnity, you know youre in trouble.

HBO

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 whos experienced inequality, not just women.

GLORIA STEINEM

Well, thats it. Thats the key. I mean, you cant 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 youre cooked [LAUGHS].

HBO

Why is it important to question hierarchies?

GLORIA STEINEM

What Ive learned is that unless its an emergency, like a fire or brain surgery, hierarchy is not necessary, and may be damaging. If you have a hierarchy, youre repeating the strengths and weaknesses of one person without allowing for the accumulative strength of a group. And youre also not learning from each others stories. Whats 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.

HBO

Speaking of stories, youre 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?

GLORIA STEINEM

Its 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 wouldnt get sexually attacked in the street if they didnt 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!

HBO

Thats fantastic.

GLORIA STEINEM

Its taking a negative and saying, you call me that? Okay, Ill 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.

HBO

Youve said, I wasnt crazy, the system was crazy. Is the system still crazy?

"... its very hard to see the forest of ones own life. Youre just too absorbed with the trees youre trying to see, understand and love. Its up to people who see this filmor look back from the futureto see the forest. "

GLORIA STEINEM

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 didnt 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 peoples bodies. We still think you can reach a peaceful end by a violent means, which is rarely the case. Peoples fate is still way too much determined by group of birth, and too little by uniqueness and individual talent.

HBO

Where do you think we need to get to?

GLORIA STEINEM

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, thats 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 its 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.

HBO

What do you mean when you say, Love is not about power?

GLORIA STEINEM

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 whats best for the other person; its two whole people. Romance is about wanting the other person; its two fractional people trying to become whole. Nobody else can be the rest of you because youre unique. Romance is often about power and possession. It may turn into love, but it has different characteristics. Some say its the most intense form of curiosity and exploringwhich is why it burns out. Someone else cannot be the rest of you.

HBO

You said you learned so much from your husbands illness, and his passing. What did you learn?

GLORIA STEINEM

Well, it was the ultimate reality. Theres no question of options or leavingyoure just a hundred percent living in the present with someone whos mortally ill. And you never really know when is going to be the last moment. So youre always intensely in the present. I had never lived that way before. I tend to live in the future, in my mindor 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 Im a grown-up, so I could handle it in a way I couldnt when I was taking care of my mother.

Gloria in the 60s with brunette hair

HBO

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.

GLORIA STEINEM

No, the big thing thats wrong about conspiracy theories is that, its not that people dont want to have conspiracies. Its just that its almost impossible to have any here, because so many things are accidental.

HBO

Some of the most revealing moments in the film come from stories you share about your private life.

GLORIA STEINEM

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 theres no such thing as perfect. Theres 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 dont know about you, but I think its very hard to see the forest of ones own life. Youre just too absorbed with the trees youre trying to see, understand and love. Its up to people who see this filmor look back from the futureto see the forest.

Gloria: In Her Own Words

HBO Documentary Films Summer Series