Enter a feminist superhero … without the catfights and ass-kicking | Gloria Steinem

The film industry has long been criticised for its stereotypical depictions of women, from damsels in distress to the love interest of a male protagonist. But the drive for equality in acting roles has led to screen portrayals of female characters who are empowered by physical toughness rather than intellectual prowess, according to a leading director.

“Women’s equality in film recently has been about women kicking ass,” said Julie Taymor, whose award-winning productions include The Lion King. “It’s about women in skimpy clothes, but being able to fight, to do karate, use weapons, to be a superhero.

“It’s not with their intellect,” she added. “Or with their positions of power in politics or in business. And, if it is, it’s usually a kind of hard-assed woman who does something that makes her unlikable.”

Julie Taymor, left, and Gloria Steinem
Julie Taymor, left, and Gloria Steinem at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Photograph: John Salangsang/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

In 1998, Taymor became the first woman to win a Tony award for best director of a musical, for her Broadway staging of The Lion King, a production that has been seen by 100 million people worldwide. Her features include Frida, a biopic of the radical Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, starring Salma Hayek, and an adaptation of Titus Andronicus starring Anthony Hopkins.

Her latest film, The Glorias, is a “non-traditional biopic” of Gloria Steinem, the pioneering American feminist and political activist, a key champion of the women’s liberation movement who spoke out on everything from civil rights to violence against women.

Last year, Steinem was one of the central characters in Mrs America, a television account of 1970s feminist history which had Cate Blanchett in the lead role as Phyllis Schlafly, a prominent conservative activist.

In The Glorias, Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander are among several actors who depict Steinem at various stages of her life, intertwining with each another. It also stars Timothy Hutton and Bette Midler, and draws on archival material.

Based on Steinem’s 2015 memoir, My Life on the Road, it is released on Sky Cinemaon Sunday, ahead of International Women’s Dayon Monday.

Steinem, now 86, was inspired by Taymor’s handling of her story. In contrast, she dismissed as “ridiculous” last year’s glossy TV account of 1970s feminist history, Mrs America – in which she was played by Rose Byrne. Taymor said: “Almost every movie about women has to do with either a boyfriend, wannabe husband, wannabe lovers, abuse this or that. It wraps around the man. This is a love story about women loving women – and not sexual. It’s about women who get together, enjoy sharing their work together, their dreams and also their mission in life … It’s not women fighting women, which is what Mrs America was.”

Referring to the series Desperate Housewives, she said: “An entire genre of television is about women being nasty to each other. My movie has very little violence in it and it doesn’t have catfights. So perhaps Hollywood or producers will think ‘there’s not enough blood’. I just don’t think that’s what we all want all the time.”

Alicia Vikander, left, and Janelle Monáe
Alicia Vikander, left, plays the younger Steinem in The Glorias, while Janelle Monáe portrays fellow activist Dorothy Pitman Hughes. Photograph: Sky Original Film

She struggled to get The Glorias made. Independent film producers turned it down, even though it is “not just for women”, and men “like it equally”.

The film follows Steinem as she travels across America and India. Taymor describes it as a road picture about “an incredible life”, rather than a feminist film: “If you use that word [feminist], it’s broccoli. It’s like eating something that’s good for you … I never use that word anyway. Am I a feminist? Of course. Anybody who believes in equality and likes women is a feminist. But it’s been so maligned.”

Part of the problem, she said, is that the industry pigeonholes everything: “In Hollywood, they ask are you a thriller? Are you a chick flick? Are you a Quentin Tarantino shoot-em-up? What are you? This just doesn’t go with The Glorias.”

The money that she was offered paled against budgets for films about male heroes, she argued. Funds eventually came from anonymous philanthropists for women’s causes, and any profits from the film will go to those causes.

Taymor, who co-wrote The Glorias with Sarah Ruhl, sought Steinem’s approval and was relieved that she loved it. “How often do you do a movie about a living hero? Working when your lead character is alive means that you get to call up and ask questions … She gave me more material than has been in any other book. It was phenomenal.”

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