Seeing Allred and RBG: A Tale of Two Feminist Documentaries

Image from RBG via Sundance
Image from RBG via Sundance

Gloria Allred’s frequent use of her outside voice—in old footage, speeches, and at press conferences spanning decades—becomes a running theme in Seeing Allred, a documentary available on Netflix this Friday. Directed by Roberta Grossman and Sophia Sartain, the film charts Allred’s career as a civil rights attorney and activist whose visible outrage made her both an emblem for women’s rights and a caricature to critics. “I hate conflict. I think that [Allred] enjoys conflict,” Gloria Steinem, stating the obvious, notes in her interview for the film.

In similar deference, RBG portrays its subject, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as a conflict-free beacon of stillness and a pop culture icon. Intimate and measured, that documentary, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, shows Ginsburg as a quiet legal force and, like Seeing Allred, uses her court wins as a narrative anchor. Both films (separately produced) premiered at Sundance in January, serendipitously designed as companion portraits of women whose adverse personalities—Allred’s sonorous impact and Ginsburg’s reserved presence—informed their careers and helped them in turn break through systems.


Where Seeing Allred focuses largely on Allred’s professional course, RBG benefits from a deeper dive into Ginsburg’s persona and her yin-yang relationship with her late husband, Marty Ginsburg; it’s an emotional pull that grants RBG a more stylistic edge, though both films ultimately conclude there’s more to these women than we’ll ever be granted access.

Image from Seeing Allred via Sundance
Image from Seeing Allred via Sundance

Both documentaries reinforce that Allred and Ginsburg made their biggest impacts in court, from the 1970s and on. Running through Allred’s numerous legal battles, Seeing Allred recounts her 1979 case against the drug store chain Sav-On’s gender-discriminate toy sections, her representation of Nicole Brown Simpson’s family in 1994, and her role in extending the statute of limitations for rape in California. Lili Bernard, a Bill Cosby accuser and one of Allred’s clients, appears as a supportive voice who corroborates Allred’s history of confronting men like Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, and Donald Trump.


In showing the fury of Allred over the years, the filmmakers make sure to tread through criticism as well, incorporating footage of her televised verbal spars with male colleagues—and audio of Charles Barkley advising her to “shut the hell up”—along with old clips of TV shows like The Simpsons, which mockingly attributed Allred as “Shrill Feminist Attorney” in an episode. The critical context is valiant, necessary for editorial balance, but it’s clear that Allred has the last word here.

Reluctantly, Allred makes space to open up. As she explains how being raped as a young woman fueled her outrage, the difficulty of the subject shows in her face. But when asked about her relationship with her ex-husband, William Allred, she shuts down on camera, denying an opportunity for a deeper contextual view of her life. There’s also not much revelation about her relationship with her attorney daughter, Lisa Bloom. While this does the documentary a bit of a disservice, the lack of personal disclosure may be more telling than it is disappointing—Allred is a lawyer in every sense, only open to an extent, which makes the film more of an educational resource than a visual memoir.

Like its subject, RBG (produced through CNN Films and picked up post-Sundance) takes a subtler approach to storytelling and wound up being more enjoyable for me—I dare even say #inspiring. There are no fiery clips of Ginsburg because... there are no fiery clips of Ginsburg. Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen present her as a brilliant legal mind (the lone woman among Ivy League men and the first woman member of the Harvard Law Review), as well as a reserved, workout-obsessed cultural star with a love for opera (and a weird friendship with Antonin Scalia). Information that’s already public knowledge is still fun to watch because of Ginsburg’s modest affability on screen. There’s a moment where her children, Jane and James, recall how they lovingly kept a notebook that chronicled the times their mom laughed. “Mom laughed,” they would write, along with the date. There weren’t many entries.


When Ginsburg herself cracks a huge smile while watching Kate McKinnon’s impression of her on Saturday Night Live, it’s another moment of levity that makes RBG warm and charming. The film essentially works to accent Ginsburg’s superstar status, with segments on her “Notorious RBG” nickname and shots of engrossed fans at her speaking engagements—a rocket could be approaching Earth and people would still be glued to her words. But again, the emphasis is on her social impact, evident in recaps of Ginsburg’s work with the ACLU, her notable legal battles, and her famous dissents as a Supreme Court Justice. There’s something riveting about watching her argue the simple logic of equal rights before a panel of men. More than a popularity contest, though, it’s fitting that these two films about two big feminist figures can exist in unison, as evidence that women of all types have long been doing the work.

Culture Editor, Jezebel

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It might be useful to provide links, dates and other information on how we, the plebes, may be able to view the RBG film. It was bought by Magnolia. Great. How and when do I watch Magnolia channels/partnership/stream/whatever?

You may have also said the Netflix show on Allred comes out TODAY. When you say “this Friday” on the day it comes out seems awkward and made me think it was not out until next week.

Love your work, but I am particularly picky today about clear, concise documentation.