Gloria Steinem is eighty-seven now, and she’s still dynamically talking as a feminist civil rights advocate. She discusses how from the very beginning she spoke with great black women leaders, and that they were always part of the movement. And now, in her elder years, she’s become, to me, an American hero who travels, does college campus talks all the time with good energy, bon mots, and ways of being. I think these people all become the philosophers, kind of like Whitman in his time: public figures who are known for what they did as political leaders, but also as life coaches.
Not only is Steinem alive and well, but so are the issues she has been fighting for. The fight for the ERA is still ongoing, and tragically, Pro Choice, and the struggle for women’s rights more serious than ever–as I write this Row vs. Wade is threatened to be finally overturned within months. Steinem of course was on the contemporary vanguard and leaders of these movements, and as publisher of MS. Magazine, gave birth to a watershed movement that has grown with Me Too, Black Lives Matter and more. While painting this, I listened to all her audiobooks, and every YouTube video I could find of talks and panels, in addition to watching the streaming Ms. America tv series, and much more. As with all these figures I have painted in the show, I have grown up with them, they helped to shape my consciousness, none the more so than the great Gloria Steinem.
Her face is so intense. I worked on it for over a week. I normally bring it up all at the same time, but then I was going to leave them kind of loose and Andrew was like, “Come on, it’s such a balance of textures, and I bet it could be even better.” So, I forced myself to go into it over and repeatedly. I was worried about losing the painting if I went into the rest of it as much as I did the face. That would be too much.
Obviously, Manet’s barmaid us-looking-at-her-looking-at-us paradigm comes into play here because she’s looking at us so intensely, but because she’s such a dynamic woman. I would talk to students about what is—especially with talking about anime and manga in my comics class at SVA or my USC comics and fine art classes—we talk about what is “feminine power”, as a representation in the same manner we discuss the symbolism and power of what can be perceived as butch representation and presentation. Gloria Steinem, to me, is totally feminine in her way, but she’s also incredibly powerful. And genderfluid. Early in the 60’s and 70’s, she talked about genderfluidity and how codified gender is as a societal conditioning. Steinem was part of Marlo Thomas’s celebrated children’s show and book Free to be You and Me, which was also about genderfluidity. But I wanted her to have a power where you weren’t looking at her fashion as much as you were looking at the intensity of her face even though she’s giving you this whimsical look–I think she’s exhaling smoke from her cigarette. In one of the panels—she doesn’t talk like a sailor, but sometimes she has wonderful moments—she was saying something to a woeful audience member, “Oh, just tell the bigots to fuck off.” Z And then the student in the audience replies, “What if I can’t say to fuck off because they’re my boss or something?” if they’re saying something egregious or misogynist or whatever. Then she says, “Well, what I do is I say, ‘Are you serious?’” Or “You can’t be serious.” This seems to be what she is saying in this work, demanding her agency and that of all women and oppressed people—with eloquence and whimsy and great understated power, fighting the good fight for us all.