Gloria Steinem on Her Emmy-Nominated Viceland Series, the ‘Swift-Boating’ of Hillary Clinton, and Young Feminists

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Photo: Brian Ach/Getty Images

The 2016 Emmy race is underway, and Vulture will take a close look at the contenders until the awards on September 18.

Were it not for Gloria Steinem, we wouldn’t have Lena Dunham’s Lenny letter, a Netflix comedy about sexually active women in their 70s or — maybe – a female candidate for president. The godmother of the modern feminist movement — and onetime columnist on women’s issues for New York Magazine — can add another Emmy nomination to her résumé for her stirring and at times deeply disturbing eight-part Viceland series, Woman With Gloria Steinem, which is contending for an Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction trophy at this year’s awards. Steinem, the series’ host and executive producer, spoke with Vulture about Woman – which explores the violence toward and oppression of women from Pakistan to the executive offices of the United States military – the “swift-boating” of Hillary Clinton, and the pride she feels watching young feminists today.

Why did you choose Viceland as the home for this show, and why now?
Violence against women is something I’ve been talking about for decades, but two years ago I was at a meeting in Sicily held by Google— a “camp” in which people sit around and discuss ideas — and I was saying for the umpteenth time that violence against females around the world is now so varied. Honor killings, child brides, domestic violence, sexualized violence in war zones, and cultural preferences that have created a so-called “daughter deficit.” All of this adds up to a world in which there are now fewer females than males, according to the United Nations. [Vice founder] Shane Smith, who was at the gathering, was shocked by this information. Vice has had a very guys-only image up until now, but Shane said he needed to do this project because he has daughters. I told him, “I’ve said this stuff to a lot of people who have daughters and they haven’t responded in the same way!” By the way, there were about 40 people involved in making these eight episodes, including many women, and we had a wrap party in my apartment and made buttons that said, “I put the V in Vice.” (Laughs.)

Are women around the world in crisis now more than ever, or are we more aware because we have finally have the technology, access, and wherewithal to tell their stories?
I don’t think we know. History hasn’t been very inclusive, so we actually have a very limited view, even of the recent past. In some cases, these things have been going on for decades, but now we understand that they are changeable and unnatural. Other cases are relatively new. For instance, the “son preference” in some countries has become easier with technological advancements that help determine the sex of a fetus while in utero. And even though India and other countries have passed laws against this practice, people still do it because so many women’s livelihoods and marriages hinge on producing a son. We have to look at each form of these injustices to better understand better what contributes to them.

Something a lot of us struggle with — and that your show also addresses — is trying to understand cultures and religions that seem to subjugate women. How do we reconcile our Western sense of equality with these perceived injustices?
The question we must ask is: “Did a woman make that decision or was she told that she had to behave in a certain way?” Also, I think it helps to acknowledge that we call what happens to men “political” and what happens to women “cultural.” And such, it may all be quite political. Religion, or monotheism, is relatively new. There are the other spiritualties, many of them still with us, that believed there was “godliness” in all living things. And this was opposed by monotheism and called “pagan.” And “pagan” just meant nature! So the idea that God is a man is another way of making man into God. I think we can treasure our various religious traditions — music, gathering together every week — while questioning and trying to change the practices that devalue people.

Of all the stories you told in Woman, which was most shocking to you?
First I want to say what I value about this series is that the female correspondents ask questions in ways that do not predetermine the answers. They’re good journalists, but they don’t pretend not to have emotions. I don’t think I can choose in terms of injustice because they all are riveting, however the one that I wish we had been able to get more into historically is the episode about rape in the Congo. We need to know the history of the place to understand that it was the center of destructive colonialism. King Leopold owned the Belgian Congo as a nation, and while they were plundering ivory and rubber, half the population was slaughtered. They put men and women in camps and forced the men to work. It was unspeakable. So the current violence there didn’t come out of nothing. But one of the great sources of hope is gynecologist Dr. Denis Mukwage and the hospital he is running. To me, he is to violence against females what Nelson Mandela was to apartheid. There are compassionate people everywhere, and these episodes simultaneously show us both the best and the worst.

What’s unique about the show is, as you mentioned, how openly moved and emotional the Vice correspondents allow themselves to be while telling these stories.
I wonder if journalism schools are still teaching the idea that there are only two sides to every question because, in fact, there may be six or ten! Dividing everything into only two part is due to the genderizing of our thoughts. Sometimes I think the world is divided into two kinds of people: Those who divide everything into two and those who don’t. [Laughs.] And it’s actually a problem with journalism today because we tend to think if we’ve told the “pro and con,” then we’ve told the whole story, which we haven’t.

This summer has certainly proven that this kind of thinking is also at the core of so much of what is dividing us in America.
Well, police violence — like violence against women — has also always been around. It’s just that now thanks to iPhones, Black Lives Matter, and Twitter, we are made aware of it. And I think that’s a step forward. As for politics, this is the most bifurcated election I’ve ever seen. But it’s important to remember that most Republicans don’t agree with the Republican candidate! The Republican party, in my memory, was better on race and sex than the Democrats, and it was really after the Democratic party passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that the old Southern racists began to leave the Democratic Party and take over the Republican Party. So if this election causes true Republicans to return and take the party back from the extremists, it will have been a good thing.

How do you feel about Twitter and social media in general?
I think it’s a good thing. Back in the day, we had to do it by fax. [Laughs.]

We’ve also seen the power of hateful feedback in the way that the Ghostbusters reboot and star Leslie Jones were attacked on Twitter, for example.
Yes, sometimes it does worry me that women are way more likely to be threatened online than men. It magnifies bias rather than going the other way. We all need to be thoughtful about how we use social media. The problem with dealing in generalities is that people will invent their own stories as to why they are true. Our brains are naturally organized that way.

What recent films or TV shows have you loved?
The Good Wife
was show that I thought was very accurate in its subtleties, which is very difficult to do. I thought Spotlight was a really important film in terms of showing what investigative journalism can do, and also that it takes awhile!

And also showed that victimization has no gender.
Well, it does have a gender to those who buy into the idea that to be a masculine human being, you have to dominate. Grown-ups cannot dominate each other to the degree that this type masculinity requires. The film also showed that if you repress sexual expression, you pay a penalty.

Along those lines, your series highlights another sad truth, which is that the majority of violence precipitated around the world and here in the U.S. is by men, whether they are terrorist acts and sexual violence in the name of religion, or sexual assaults against women in our own military. Are men in crisis too?
The idea that anyone has a right to control or dominate another human being is absolutely rooted in sexism because of reproduction, racism, and all the crazy hierarchical ideas that have created a fertile ground for all this violence. I hope we’re beginning to realize these things are all connected. Sexist and racist crimes are supremacy crimes. That is, you don’t get money from them. There is no benefit. You are only asserting control and dominance. George Zimmerman had been violent toward women before  — and after — he murdered Trayvon Martin. If we had recognized and taken that seriously, Trayvon might be alive today. Name it whatever you want — male dominance, patriarchy — it’s what has been normalized for so many people because of the way they were raised, so they think it’s true. And now they’re outraged when it turns out not to be true, and also because we’re winning! I mean if we didn’t have a front-lash, we wouldn’t have a backlash.

What are the biggest differences you see in the battles that feminists in the U.S. are fighting today versus when you started?
Today, issues of shared humanity, of equality, are now majority issues. This was not true in the 1960s and 1970s. There were only a few voices speaking out against against male dominance or the idea that women should earn less because they needed less money. Equality wasn’t a majority concern. Now, it’s a majority belief that we should be equal, so the people who were raised in the culture of hierarchy are feeling insecure and threatened.

Is this why the presidential race feels so painful? That Trump is inherently so antithetical to everything so many of us celebrate?
Yes. In no way are any of his views the norm. If you look at opinion polls as opposed to his political affiliation, he is way off in his own specialized view of the world. What’s tragic is that he has been more a betrayal to white, working-class men than anyone. He inherited power. He didn’t earn it himself. And, as someone from Wall Street pointed out, if he had just invested the money he inherited, he would be so much richer than he is now. He’s not a successful businessman. He’s a successful con man. The views he’s expressing are born of resentment.

Another unfortunate part about all of it is that Clinton doesn’t have the opponent she deserves as a worthy contender.
Yes — there is no dignity to the content. He’s just attacking her. And the ultra-right-wing invented this tactic; the so-called “swift-boating” aimed at John Kerry when he was running. Attack the opponent’s strength, not their weakness. And that’s what they’re doing with Hillary because all the fact-checking services confirm that she is the most truthful. 

How do you think our country would be different with a female president?
It wouldn’t just be that she’s a woman president because remember, we could’ve had Sarah Palin. [Laughs.] It’s not all about biology. It’s about consciousness.

Did you ever consider a run for office yourself?
No, I never did. I’m already too distant from my nature just by speaking in public. I started out as a writer because I didn’t want to do that! What happened was [New York Magazine founding editor] Clay Felker understood that something was happening and it was important. He had a great news sense when he saw the beginning of the women’s movement, but he thought if women just had more domestic help, they wouldn’t be so rebellious. [Laughs.] This was one of the reasons why we realized we had to start another magazine, and to his credit, Clay helped us start it. He put a portion of the very first issue of Ms. magazine in New York. But the truth is, I started to speak in public because I couldn’t get published what I wanted to write. I have to say it is so rewarding, satisfying, and such a joy to see what young feminists are able to do now. The people I work with on the show are younger than me by decades, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I just had to wait a long time for some of my best friends to be born.

This interview was edited and condensed.