On Thursday, Sports Illustrated revealed its latest swimsuit issue. In the black-and-white photos shared by the magazine, models nod to the #MeToo movement while posing nude, their bodies covered in descriptive terms that they chose themselves, like “mother” and “nurturer,” “powerful words, positive words that represent them and their beliefs and their passions and their messaging,” according to editor MJ Day. But she was sure to clarify that, indeed, the photos in the issue, despite their feminist underpinnings, would still be sexy: “At the end of the day, we’re always going to be sexy, no matter what is happening.”
The day after this declaration, it feels apt to champion Seeing Allred, the documentary about famed feminist attorney Gloria Allred from directors Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain, as a remarkable time capsule depicting the many eras in which feminism was not sexy. In fact, it was, for a long time, disgusting, silly, crazy, stupid, nonsensical, and, to some, un-American.
Those characterizations of her politics are just a few of the things people say about or to Allred herself in the archival footage that comprises much of Seeing Allred, which debuts on Netflix today. For those who did not live through it, it seems impossible that only a few decades ago, some of the men and women in the film would feel comfortable voicing such opinions on gender and sexuality on national television, where much of Allred’s feminist antagonizing took place in the ’80s and ’90s. But it’s vital to acknowledge how quickly the status quo has evolved, if only to see how fragile the progress we’ve made truly is and to figure out how to actually sustain the momentum of the movement in which we now find ourselves, in which women’s empowerment has been sublimated into the mainstream, epitomized by its latest red carpet iteration, Time’s Up, or incorporated into the art direction of a Swimsuit Issue famous for models not wearing much in the way of swimsuits. Seeing Allred is a reminder that revolutions are always at their most radical when they are at their least popular, not the other way around.
For some, the documentary will be a recollection of how bad things used to be; for others, it will illuminate Allred with the legal history of the feminist movement, rather than purely through the celebrity sex harassment trials for which she has become something of a cultural touchpoint. The filmmakers loosely follow Allred’s defense of Bill Cosby’s accusers in civil court, during the 2016 presidential election and through the Women’s March in 2017. But this most recent footage presents the Gloria Allred that we know, the famous one, the butt of jokes on SNL and The Simpsons: clad in her pink and red St. John suits with her pearls, appearing on CNN, reading statements at press conferences while teary and shaking women clutch tissues in the seats next to her. It’s the lesser known story of Allred’s life as a young mother and lawyer that give a bigger picture of her feminism—both its politics and its public face.
Allred was largely a single mother to her daughter, Lisa Bloom, now a lawyer herself. Raised in Pennsylvania, Allred moved to Los Angeles at age 25 with a 5-year-old to teach in Watts after becoming interested in the civil rights movement. It was in California that she met William Allred, her second ex-husband, whom she all but refuses to talk about in Seeing Allred. What she does discuss, reservedly, is being raped at gunpoint in 1966 on vacation in Mexico, which resulted in an illegal abortion that almost killed her.
You can see how Allred’s personal trauma imbued her fierceness as a young lawyer after she went to law school in L.A. and began to advocate for landmark pieces of legislation like the ERA. In those television clips on mustard-yellow talk show couches, tiny Gloria, with her drastically short haircut, blinks and smiles sardonically through men telling her to shut up and laughing at her—then fights back, shouting over them. It was during this time that she also honed her aptitude for publicity stunts, a prescient harbinger of the televised court cases to come. We see her describing strutting into a men’s-only sauna at the Friars Club, singing “Is That All There Is?”
The earliest of Allred’s cases now carry the parodic tones of a Portlandia sketch: She sued Sav-On Drugs for having separate aisles for girls’ and boys’ toys, and Los Angeles restaurant L’Orangerie for having special menus for women that did not include prices. But we forget that, rather than the provenance of entitled millennials or college students, these smaller battlefields were the ones upon which the larger ones—Roe v. Wade, and later, Title IX—were won. Gloria Steinem serves as both a supporter and a foil in the talking head commentary in Seeing Allred. If she is the cultural face of the women’s movement, Steinem tells us candidly, then it’s the other Gloria who was down in the trenches.
Seeing Allred does not attempt to hide its filmmakers’ desire to reclaim Gloria Allred’s feminist mother status. There has certainly been a sense of a renewed relevance around the lawyer in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which has pushed court cases like the ones that Allred has always pursued to the forefront of popular culture. Accordingly, we don’t hear much from Allred’s current detractors—even Alan Dershowitz, the conservative trial lawyer and Trump defender who first encountered her as a prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson trial, in which Allred represented Nicole Brown Simpson’s famil, says that, despite their political differences, he respects her tactics. So the documentary’s celebratory tone makes Allred’s work feel finished (not only because it ends at the L.A. Pride Parade, with Allred on a float, set to Laura Branigan’s iconic ’80s song, “Gloria”).
But the reason that sexual harassment and abuse lawsuits and scandals have been thrust into the limelight, is that, surely conditions for women in the United States have not changed enough. Postelection, Allred attends the Women’s March, where Grossman and Sartain show her joining thousands in the capital, confronting angry male counterprotesters shouting insults (“Do even you believe in God?”) that could have been lifted from the 50-year-old archival footage that opens the film. I found myself itching to know what she thought had gone wrong, aside from the very obvious. Instead, the footage echoed the numerous ERA marches that had come before it—and that we still have yet to pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women in the United States.
In this respect, Seeing Allred feels more vital than ever as a microcosm of all of the complexities and contradictions of the current state of feminism in the United States, during a time when forces seem to be conspiring to paint it in large, monochrome brushstrokes. There’s the figure of Allred, who pioneered the idea that women deserve the attention of public opinion for redressing wrongdoing. There is her daughter, Lisa Bloom, who inherited the world her mother pioneered and who benefitted from a televised, spectacle-driven legal world, to her detriment: Only lightly does the documentary address Bloom’s short-lived defense of Harvey Weinstein (whom she was apparently beholden to because he had agreed to produce a TV series for her). Similarly, Megyn Kelly appears in footage of her talk show as her own brand of Gloria, passionately denouncing sexual harassment at her old workplace, hoping the viewer will forget that it was Fox News.
The moment that stuck with me the most was a story told by Allred’s high school best friend, Fern Brown Caplan, who spoke of Allred in mostly worshipful terms, barring one incident. As young mothers, Caplan and Allred had a conversation that turned to politics, in which Caplan expressed that she simply didn’t have time, with work and her children, to worry about the plight of other women. Allred would not budge and would not mince her words in telling Caplan that caring about other women was her duty. The women didn’t speak for seven years after that. This is the example Allred and her tenacity serve in 2018: feminism not as a marketing ploy or a branding opportunity, but something material, something with stakes so high that it could save lives and ruin friendships.