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On HBO, "Gloria: In Her Own Words"

Two weeks ago, Gloria Steinem, the icon of the feminist movement, dropped by Television Critics Association summer press tour in Beverly Hills to chat with reporters about HBO’s one hour biography of her life – so far.

Gloria: In Her Own Words airs tonight, Monday, Aug. 15 at 9p.

Her appearance was juxtaposed against an earlier Playboy Channel event held at the Playboy Mansion for the press, featuring playmates conducting tours of the mansion, and minglers - young women in skimpy outfits and cheap high heels hired to populate the crowd. (Click here for a few photos on Twitpic.)

So, amid this surreal backdrop - together with a broadcast network jump into the Mad Men pool with several new shows this fall capitalizing on 60’s nostalgia (Playboy Club bunnies and Pan Am stewardesses); and the fact that Steinem herself went undercover in 1963 as a bunny to report on working conditions in a Playboy Club - Steinem took the stage to talk to critics.

Steinem, at age  77, still has a lot to say and she has an uncanny ability to reframe the debate - that much was clear during the wide-ranging discussion.

The Playboy Mansion party still weighed the minds of critics who asked Steinem if the “women who dress like hookers” trend in music videos etc. signaled a rejection of feminism by young women.  Steinem turned the question on its head. “My question is,” she said,  “Is she body proud?  Is she sexuality proud?  Then I say great….cultures that make women cover up their bodies are more restrictive for women than those that uncover, that contain women who feel good about uncovering their bodies.”

When asked her opinion of the newest exercises in tv nostalgia like Pan Am and Playboy Club, Steinem didn’t condemn the trend.  Instead, she reminded the critics that the “real question is ‘what is the attitude of the film or series?’ Is it aggrandizing the past in a nostalgic way or is it really showing the problem of the past in order to show that we have come forward and continue to come forward.”

As for the so-called “fascination with Hefner’s sex life” as one critic put it, Steinem seemed amused.  “I would like people to hold up their hands here,” she replied, “How many people are fascinated by Hugh Hefner’s sex life?”

Laughter ensued, especially when not a single critic raised their hand (at least that I could see from where I was sitting).

In Her Own Words is a sympathetic, gently honest portrait of Steinem, a pioneer who once defined and continues to enliven the women’s movement.  Using a combination of interviews and archival footage, In Her Own Words is also a quick overview of the battle for women’s rights through the latter half of the twentieth century, trailing Steinem as she moved through many of the significant events of the time.

When I said above, Steinem’s “life - so far,” I meant that she seems to have no plans to retire any time soon.  She’s as vibrant and witty as ever.  Steinem is the leading edge of the boomer pack, redefining what it means to age.  When asked if she felt there’s been enough change in the “image and opportunities for older women,” Steinem replied: “I’m trying. Every place I go I tell my age because I figure it’s like a form of coming out.  I’m 77…age is still more of a penalty, generally speaking, for women than for men.”

“So, I don’t know how to break it to you,” she told the room, “but I would say we have, like, 60 years to go.  I’m old, but the movement is young.  So I hope people take encouragement from this documentary.”