Yesterday morning I woke up to the news that Helen Reddy had died. And I suddenly realized that while of course I knew who she was and that she was responsible for the unofficial anthem of 1970s feminism, it occurred to me that I didn’t think I had ever heard that song, 1972’s “I Am Woman.” Which is bizarre, because I grew up listening to 70s and 80s pop and rock, and have been interested in feminism since the 80s, when I was a girl teenager getting shat on by the world. I was familiar with the key lyric “I am woman / hear me roar,” because it’s become a cliché, but how is it possible that the song itself had escaped me? (Hear Reddy sing — well, see her lip-synch to — the song in this vintage TV clip.)
This is what was running through my mind as I watched I Am Woman, a new film about her rise to stardom. And what a stardom it was! “I Am Woman” wasn’t her only song to go global. She won a Grammy and was the biggest-selling female artist on the planet for two years running in the 1970s. And while it would be untrue to say that she has been forgotten, she certainly has not had the sort of legacy in the pop-culture hivemind that her male peers of the day have enjoyed in the decades since.
Now, I Am Woman, the movie, is a pretty rote rags-to-riches story, but not too deeply buried in it is the obvious reason why Reddy’s brand is so niche. Can you guess what it might be? I won’t keep you in suspense for too long…
As the film opens, single-mom Reddy (a winsome Tilda Cobham-Hervey: 52 Tuesdays) arrives in New York from Australia in 1966. She is there with no money and her three-year-old daughter in tow, purely on the promise of a recording contract… an opportunity that is instantly laughed off by the (male, natch) record-company executive she meets with, as if she were a fool to have believed she’d actually get such a lucky break. This kind of dismissive, diminishing sexism — you silly girl, no one cares what you think or wants to hear what you have to say — will be a regular motif in her rise to fame, as told by screenwriter Emma Jensen and director Unjoo Moon, making her narrative feature debut. Reddy will struggle as a lounge singer in New York, where the male band members are getting paid more than she, the singer, is. Later, she will have to push her new manager-husband, Jeff Wald (Evan Peters: X-Men: Dark Phoenix, The Lazarus Effect), to actually perform his professional management job in the sharkish waters of the Los Angeles music industry. Even he, initially her champion, readily gives in to the bullshit of the big labels, which insist that only male musicians can gain an audience and make money. Even her husband, not so secretly, doesn’t really think a woman is worth hearing.
Disappointingly familiar I Am Woman may be in the broad scope, from Wald’s cocaine abuse once the money starts rolling in to Reddy’s neglect of her vital friendship with pioneering rock journalist Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald [Dumplin’, Lady Bird], as brutally fab as always) once the singer’s fame skyrockets. And honestly? Reddy comes across as a too-tame protagonist next to the actively contrarian and much more aggressively feminist Roxon, who desperately needs her own story told. But the steady undercurrent of sexism that is an unwelcome narrator of a woman’s life — of all women’s lives — is a villain here that all women will recognize. And not a lot has changed since the 1970s.
Reddy has left fame and public life behind by the end of the film, when she is invited, and agrees, to perform “I Am Woman” at a 1989 women’s march in Washington DC. (Beyond her own experiences as a woman, she was originally inspired to write the lyrics by a big feminist march in New York in 1970.) In 2017, women marched again for the basic right to be seen as fully human. (Though it’s not mentioned in the film, Reddy also appeared at one of those marches, too.) This is not what women want, to have to rise up again every couple of decades because the work of our mothers and grandmothers is still unfinished. But it’s what we have had to do.
So. The goals of feminism are still thwarted, even in 2020. That’s why Helen Reddy isn’t as big a name, as much a pop-culture touchstone as, say, John Denver or Elton John or Johnny Cash (never mind all the rock gods of the era!), musicians who spoke just as eloquently as Reddy did of the often hard realities of their lives. That’s why her simple, lovely, really quite mellow song merely asserting the humanity of women doesn’t sound dated today. And it’s why this movie needs to be seen, even if it’s not quite the rousing tribute Reddy — and the feminist movement — deserves. Because, as with all the other paltry bones women are thrown and expected to thrill to, at least it’s something.