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Reviewed by:
  • Maggie Growls
  • Frida Kerner Furman (bio)
Maggie Growls, a film by Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater. New York: Women Make Movies, 2002, 56 min., rental VHS $90, sale VHS $275.

Maggie Growls is an informative and inspiring portrait of the founder of the Gray Panthers, Maggie Kuhn (1905–1995). In detailing the long life of this remarkable woman, the filmmakers mark major twentieth-century movements for social change through Kuhn's impassioned involvements: the labor, civil rights, women's, and antiwar movements and, of course, the struggle against ageism and for the empowerment of older people. Anyone who knew or interacted with Maggie Kuhn was challenged—by the force of her personality and her trenchant intelligence—to question social stereotypes and naturalized assumptions about old age. Her charisma and calculated outrageousness are well captured in this film through footage from different periods of her own old age—after all, she continued to be politically active for 25 years following her forced retirement at age 65.

We see Kuhn in a variety of venues that reveal her visionary and lively spirit: providing testimony for the House Select Committee on Aging; reprimanding Johnny Carson on his show for his caricaturing portrayal of an old woman; discussing intergenerational shared housing with her two young female roommates; recalling the time when, as a witness to the signing of the pension bill, President Ford called on her by asking, "What have you to say, young lady?" To which she replied, "Mr. President, I am an old woman." Perhaps the most poignant moment in the film is contained in Maggie Kuhn's last words. Wracked with pain and sedated with morphine at the end of her life, she is reported to have sat up and declared, "I am an advocate for justice and peace," before lying down again and falling into a sleep from which she never awoke.

Kuhn was ahead of her time in a number of areas. She was speaking about interdependence before that became a central value in feminist thought. Her advocacy of intergenerational housing, organizing, and political work has yet to be taken up seriously in our society. She was an independent woman with an affirming attitude toward her own sexuality years before that became commonplace. She discussed the sexual needs of the old. The only time that her ability to energize people backfired on her was her suggestion that in late life heterosexual women might consider the possibility of lesbian relationships. Kuhn's creativity and vision are worth exploring in their own right, but they also serve to open up significant sociocultural and justice issues of our time.

Women's Studies as a discipline appropriately dedicates significant attention to issues of race, class, and sexuality as well as gender. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about issues pertaining to age. In recent [End Page 218] years, monographs, collections, and videos by and about older women have become available. Maggie Growls contributes to this effort and can be put to good use in women's studies courses. The film is entertaining as well as informative. It uses wonderful footage, not only of Maggie Kuhn, but of the movements she was committed to. Thoughtful commentaries by those who knew her well—from housemates to Gray Panther leaders to public figures like Ralph Nader and Studs Terkel—are interspersed throughout the chronological narrative of Kuhn's life. A surprisingly effective use of bits of animation enhances the visual quality of the film while adding a note of whimsy, intended, no doubt, to capture something of Kuhn's own playful temperament. We are directly treated to that playfulness when, early in the film, she leads a large audience in the famed Gray Panther growl. With a mixture of mild embarrassment and joy, they follow her instructions:

Stand tall and raise your arms as high as you can, high, high, high. And then we are reaching toward each other, with love and hope and compassion. And then we open our mouths, ready to cry out against injustice. Now stick out your tongue as far as you can, very out, very, very out. Now growl three times, right from the depths of your belly: ahrr...


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pp. 218-219
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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