I came of age in the 2010s in the United States, and as a result, there are many aspects of my life that I take for granted. I can vote. I can hold a job. I can drive a car. I can choose who to marry, regardless of their gender, and when to marry, and to divorce if necessary.
So it’s downright shocking to me when I remember that once upon a time, not too long ago, that a woman could get fired from her job for being pregnant, or evicted from her home for being pregnant and unmarried. A woman couldn’t open a credit card account unless her husband was there to sign off on it. It just seems wholly absurd to me. After all, I think to myself, a woman is a discrete entity on her own. She’s not an appendage, or an accessory for her husband to throw on and off at his convenience— she’s a person in her own right. She’s not a child, or a pet. Regardless of the status or presence of a man in her life, she’s a full person. Why wouldn’t she be able to open a credit card in her own name? After all, a woman doesn’t cease to be that discrete entity just because she’s pregnant, right? Right?
In that regard, I have a feeling that I’m precisely the target audience for a movie like Seeing Allred (directed by Sophie Sartain and Roberta Grossman), which presents us with a portrait one of the singular figures who has, through sheer nerve and hard work and incredible bravery, made it possible for me to grow up the way I did. I vaguely remember first reading about Gloria Allred in a magazine article or newspaper piece from around 2010-2011, and walking away with the impression that she was the lawyer for the women who lie about rape, the lawyer whose presence indicated that these women were looking for a hefty payday. I have no doubt that I was meant to walk away with this impression, because until about 2012, I understood “feminism” to “hating men,” and that being overt about one’s feminist beliefs, being pushy about them, was obviously bad. This mindset stayed with me for years until roughly the spring of 2013, when (mostly female) students from colleges around the United States began charging their schools with violations of Title IX. When Allred’s name began popping up in coverage of these cases, I must admit that I cringed, because I still had the impression that she was less than stalwart, less than legitimate, more flash than substance.
Seeing Allred makes it clear that she’s not—that despite the continuous smearing of her reputation and deriding of her ethics since she first became publicly known as a feminist lawyer, she’s always been rigorous and outspoken and dedicated to advancing the cause of women’s equality in the United States. As Allred herself notes early on in Seeing Allred: “I think I’m very well understood by many people, and misunderstood by people who wish to misunderstand because they have an agenda that is different than mine.” Comprised of interviews with Allred, talking-head snippets with colleagues and news anchors, and interwoven with archival footage and images, Seeing Allred shows us a view of the woman underneath the smart, colorful jackets and pearl necklaces. For all the access given and allies and foes consulted, however, Seeing Allred does come across not as a true investigation or critical look at Gloria Allred’s life and career, but rather more hagiographic.
The ostensible narrative is “how Gloria Allred became Gloria Allred,” and Seeing Allred does get into those details—her childhood in Philadelphia, her work as a teacher, her life as a single mother of daughter Lisa Bloom. Yet the more subtle story the movie leaves you with is about Allred’s development into the public figure she is today. There is apparently no shortage of clips of late-night talk shows where Allred is mocked, either to her face or behind her back, for advocating causes that seem perfectly reasonable to this millennial woman writer—such as supporting the Equal Rights Amendment (still unratified in 2018), or insisting that women shouldn’t have to perform sexual favors for their bosses to get a raise (still an issue in 2018). (The Los Angeles Times has a “Gloria Allred Scorecard” from 1987 that presents her lawsuits on behalf of women’s equality as a fun little game of wins and losses.) South Park, that erudite source of commentary, caricatured Allred in 2001; The Simpsons called her a “shrill feminist lawyer.”
The most striking parts of the movie depict Allred’s impeccable, downright admirable composure in every combative situation in which she finds herself—and, as Seeing Allred makes clear, there have been many. While she’s certainly not winning any popularity contests (in the words of interviewee Greta Van Susteren), the Gloria Allred of today comes across as incredibly media-savvy. Early on, when the documentary shows the rumblings of legal movement in 2014 around the Bill Cosby assault allegations, Allred admits that her goal is to hold Cosby accountable—as seen in the small protests outside his performances—even if the women she’s representing have no legal recourse due to the statute of limitations.
Yet in the bits of 1980s and 1990s footage shown in Seeing Allred, her presentation is different from the Gloria Allred you see on television or in recent news: she’s sharper, more direct in challenging her verbal sparring partners, her frustration with the misogynistic comments thrown her way less veiled; her closely-cropped hair and wide-collared suits are a marked turn away from the more composed, almost professorial attitude she projects in her more recent press conferences. Perhaps it’s the benefit of having won enough cases, and establishing that she’s not going anywhere, that lends her the confidence to calm in the face of occasional screaming vitriol. Perhaps it’s a more calculated, almost resigned side effect of having been a media fixture for so long that she knows no one wants to listen to an angry woman on television. The sharpness is still there, but it’s been sanded down considerably.
A remarkable scene near the end of Seeing Allred shows Allred’s poise and patience with a counter-protester at the 2017 Women’s March. In a tightly-packed composition, Allred comes face-to-face with a burly, bearded man in sunglasses who taunts her: “For four years, you’re going to be very depressed, aren’t you, Gloria. You’re going to be very depressed, aren’t you? You’re gonna be giving eulogies because all your gay friends committing suicide.” He continues to tell her that she’s going to hell. It’s nothing she hasn’t heard before. Yet where even the most even-keeled of us might snap back or turn away, Allred regards the man calmly, and thanks him for expressing his free speech, before telling him, in all sincerity, “I want you to know that you matter.” When the man then challenges her love of God over her support of same-sex marriage, Allred replies thoughtfully: “The God that I know respects all of us.”
images via Netflix
Seeing Allred is streaming on Netflix now
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