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With its roster of hipster-gonzo correspondents parachuting into perilous spots around the globe, Vice often can feel like a dudes-only affair. Woman, with Gloria Steinem, seeks to correct that.
The half-hour Viceland series, hosted by the legendary feminist activist, features female journalists spotlighting women in equally dire situations. This is not light stuff: The first season tackled the use of rape as a weapon in the Democratic Republic of Congo; the forcible marrying of teen girls in Zambia; and, in a stark reminder that these issues exist in our own backyards, the startlingly high murder and disappearance rates among Canada’s aboriginal females (1,200 killed or missing between 1980 and 2012).
The show has been nominated for an Emmy for outstanding documentary or nonfiction series for an episode on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a guerrilla movement of roughly 60,000 soldiers, many of whom are women. Speaking from the Sicilian resort where Google hosts an annual summit of corporate and intellectual elites, Steinem talked about the importance of a show like Woman and — in this, the Year of Trump — the state of female empowerment in 2016.
What was the inspiration for Woman?
It came from a book called Sex and World Peace, which disclosed two things: One said violence against females is actually the more reliable indicator of all other violence — more than absence of natural resources or more than religion. Violence against females tends to be what we see first and normalizes the idea of [other forms of] violence, including military violence. It also pointed out, as the United Nations has, that now for the first time violence is so severe that there are fewer females on Earth than males.
How did it end up at Viceland?
When I was here the year before last at this same Google camp and Shane Smith was here, I was speaking about that. He was very struck by it, and that was the origin of this series. It was always clear that we were going to focus on violence against females, and we wanted to show that it was not just a problem of one part of the world but also in the U.S. and Canada as well as in the Congo and other places that might have been more publicized.
What does Vice bring to the project that a more conventional media outlet might not?
Since Vice has a unique ability to put viewers on the ground, it’s the closest I’ve seen to being there yourself, with the women correspondents asking questions in a good journalistic way that don’t presume the answer. But also they are responding as human beings, not pretending to be emotionless.
Has 2016 been a good year or a bad year in terms of women’s rights?
It’s hard to know when we’re in the middle of it. It does seem that we’ve had, in the States, two big waves of movements: One was the abolitionist and the suffragist era, and that took a century for women of all races and black men to gain an identity as human beings rather than cattle. The laws about slavery were adapted from the laws about wives, for instance. That took a hundred years to get a legal identity. Now we’re trying to get legal and social equality. That probably will take a least a hundred years. We’re maybe halfway into it. It’s hard to know, but at least now it is clearly a majority movement. In the beginning, it wasn’t a majority in public opinion polls, and now it is.
So the general population has had a shift of perception?
Yeah, and that’s good news. But the bad news is that if you have a “frontlash,” you get a backlash. We see it in Trumpism and the ultra-right wing and their control of state legislatures, for instance, and their response against reproductive freedom. Nowhere is it written that the backlash might not win, even though we have the majority. It’s still going to be a long process.
Ivanka Trump has defended her dad against claims of sexism. Her brother Eric recently said she was too “strong and powerful” to endure workplace harassment. What’s your take on this family’s views on women?
I don’t know her. I’ve never met her. I don’t know what she’s going through. As Jack Kennedy famously said, “Everybody has a father.” I can’t put myself in her shoes. But clearly, to say that someone would never put themselves in the position of being abused is blaming the person, not the abuser. It makes no sense. Sometimes people blame the individual black men or women who have been wrongly victimized by the cops, that these people put themselves in the position of being victimized. That’s ridiculous. The people who have the power are the people who have the responsibility.
“It’s not about identity politics. Had it been Sarah Palin, I would not have been happy,” said Steinem, on the prospect of Hillary Clinton becoming the first female president.
What did you make of the Hillary Clinton bashing at the Republican National Convention?
It is very uncivil discourse at a minimum. It’s quite dismaying and alarming. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such extremism as part of even the Republican National Convention before, but it is a familiar tactic. Remember swiftboating with John Kerry? That was the first time that I’m aware of that the Republican establishment invented the tactic of attacking somebody for their strength, not their weakness. They attacked the fact that he was a war hero. With Hillary — who clearly is, as all the objective, fact-checking services point out, more accurate and more truthful than any other candidate — they’re attacking her trustworthiness. It’s swiftboating.
Are Hillary’s disapproval ratings connected to her being a woman?
Yeah, I think so. It’s hard to know because nothing is a single factor. Part of it is that she is not a new face. The fact that she and Bill Clinton have been in public life for a very long time means that they are not as likely to benefit from unrealistic expectations. But I think there are other deep reasons. For instance, as children, most of us are raised by women, so we may tend to associate female authority with childhood. We see it as emotional, overwhelming, perhaps inappropriate to public life, not rational enough. You can see that in some of the media coverage from otherwise mature, grown-up men, who are saying things like, “I cross my legs whenever I see her. She reminds me of my first wife asking for alimony.” They are responding to the last time they saw a powerful woman. They feel unmanned. I don’t think it’s conscious, but I think it’s present. It’s not going to be easy. It’s a very big change.
Did you watch the Democratic National Convention?
I watched all the major speeches at the Democratic convention. The remarkable thing about it was that they wisely focused on her as a human being. She’s been stereotyped and demonized. My friend Robin Morgan, she’s a wonderful novelist and poet, says, “Hate generalizes, love specifies.” Hatred directed at Hillary generalized her; people who know her made her into a particular, unique human being, which is what she is.
Did the historic implications for women have any kind of emotional effect on you?
I just want to make clear that it’s not identity politics. In other words, had it been Sarah Palin, I would not have been happy. Had it been Margaret Thatcher, I would not have been happy. What you want is somebody who represents your majority interest and experience, not someone who’s selling you out. Sometimes the media takes it as identity politics, which it isn’t.
Do you regret saying on Real Time with Bill Maher that female Bernie Sanders supporters are looking for boyfriends?
Well, I would if I said that. I was interrupted mid-sentence. I wasn’t talking about dates. I was talking about power. I had just talked about the massive college debt and that women will get a million dollars less over their lifetime to pay it back. So I was on my way to saying when you’re young you think that power is where the men are. It wasn’t about dates, but he stopped me in the middle and I confessed that it was so far away from what I meant that I just didn’t get it.
Has that incident altered the way you express yourself in the media?
Well, I thought perhaps we should call for all Twitter posts to have three dots at the end to remind ourselves that there’s context. It’s very hard to understand that people think you mean what you never meant. I’m sure it’s happened to lots of people, where half of your sentence becomes a tweet and it would have been different had it been the whole sentence.
What are your feelings on the verdict in the Stanford rape case?
It is a circumstance in which there were actual witnesses, which is rare. Still, the judge seemed to take into consideration more the professional future of the criminal than the experience of the victim. I think the anger at the judge was understandable.
Has the culture surrounding sexual assaults on campus changed over the years?
I think the bad news is that it’s happening; the good news is that we are reporting it now. I’m not sure that it’s increased — I don’t have a way of knowing for sure. I think that it’s different now, the people are coming forward about it.
Is it getting better?
Yeah, but remember that through the ‘60s, rape, as it was then referred to rather than sexual assault, was the only crime that you had to have someone standing there witnessing and willing to testify because the testimony of the raped person was not believed. You had to have a third party, which ironically in the Stanford case you did have. And it incidentally happens to men, too. Not to the same degree, but men on campus also have been sexually assaulted.
What were these young women advised to do in the 1950s and 1960s?
It was clearly the shame and fault of the victim, as was domestic violence. There wasn’t even a phrase “domestic violence.” If the police were called, their idea of success was getting the victim and the criminal back together again. At least now we’re seeing the scope of the problem and beginning to deal with it. In the beginning, say in the 1970s, when I was on campus, there was really no way of reporting it. Women were going out at night and putting big black Xs on the sidewalk with a sign that said, “A women was raped here.” There was no process.
You made your mark going undercover for a 1963 expose on the Playboy Club, “A Bunny’s Tale.” Have you ever crossed paths with Hugh Hefner since?
Yeah, I did, I interviewed him. If I had written a novel and created him people would be furious. He’s a parody of himself.
At one point didn’t he surround himself with intellectual people?
No, it was always, at least among the writers I knew, they were there because they needed the money, they had to pay their alimony. Nobody was proud of this. It was always something of a joke. He had laid out rules: There could never be fiction or an article in which women won. He actually commissioned an article about the women’s movement early on in a memo that a woman who worked at Playboy leaked, which started out, “These chicks are our natural enemy.”
What did you discuss in your interview with Hugh Hefner?
For instance, I had reported that what the Bunnies were told while I was working there was that it was a requirement of New York State law that women have an internal exam in order to serve food, which is a lie of course. I reported this and they stopped doing it. His way of dealing with it was saying, “Well, we could see this might be misunderstood.” It’s hard to take any of it seriously. He’s gifted at self-parody.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.