Forgive us, Gloria, for we have sinned. It has been 20 hours since our last confession. In that time, we have visited the Playboy Mansion with dozens of local “party girls” wrapped in tight attire and shuttled in as eye candy for a group of TV critics. What is our penance?
Nothing, at least according to pioneering feminist Gloria Steinem.
Critics recovering from the previous evening’s Playboy Channel party seemed almost ashamed to be in the presence of a figure who first raised headlines by going undercover at a Playboy Club and exposing its sexist practices. But Steinem, the subject of a new HBO documentary, “Gloria: In Her Own Words,” refused to chastise.
“My question to the young women you’re describing is:
Is she doing it because she wants to?” Steinem said. “Is she body-proud? Is she sexuality-
proud? Then I say, 'Great.’”
Talking about sex with a 77-year-old woman should be extremely uncomfortable. But Steinem has built a career on frank, intimate conversations that have made her an icon, the most visible figure in the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and ’70s, and the co-founder of Ms. magazine.
Not that she’s ready to give Hugh Hefner a big smooch. She’s proud of the fact she helped bring down the original Playboy Clubs, where being a sex object was part of the job description, and she considers the Hooters chain a disaster.
Steinem hasn’t seen any of the upcoming NBC series “The Playboy Club,” set in the ’60s, but she’s wary of its intentions.
“Is it aggrandizing the past in a nostalgic way, or is it really showing the problems of the past in order to show that we have come forward and continue to come forward?” she said. “I somehow think the Playboy show is maybe not doing that.”
In person, she’s so funny, charming and disarming, she could make Archie Bunker rethink a few things.
“I haven’t met anyone who’s met Gloria who doesn’t say, 'I love her,’” said Sheila Nevins, HBO’s president of documentaries.
It was Nevins who convinced Steinem to cooperate with the film, which has Helen Gurley Brown, Larry King and Barbara Walters gushing over her. Steinem was won over by the idea that her story could inspire others.
It’s been quite an adventure — a child who grew up in the trailer of a traveling antiques dealer; an aspiring journalist who couldn’t land work after her Playboy article appeared in Show magazine; an antiwar activist who refused to pay taxes during the Vietnam War; an early supporter of abortion rights; a breast cancer survivor.
There have been many other leaders in the women’s movement, but none connected better with TV audiences and rally participants.
“People look at somebody who has done something and they think, 'Well, I couldn’t do that because they’re different than me,’” Steinem said. “So it seems very important to tell our personal stories so that other people feel empowered by that. My hope for this documentary is that you’ll see an imperfect person and they’ll say, 'Maybe I can do that, too.’”
Steinem readily admits that current and future feminists have their work cut out for them.
“If you think of the suffragists, the abolitionists and other movements, they really had to last about 100 years to be real­ly absorbed into a culture,” she said. “We’re only 40-some years into this. I don’t know how to break it to you, but we have, like, 60 years to go. I’m old, but the movement is young.”
njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431 • Follow Justin on Twitter: @nealjustin