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Defining Womanhood Is Almost Impossible, but '20th Century Women' Tries Anyway

Mike Mills's new film has been praised as a rare feminist story from a man's perspective. But while it's a lovely look at a small group of characters, it fails to acknowledge the fact that the 20th century hasn't worked out so well for us.
Screengrab via YouTube

The female characters in the new film 20th Century Women are all a little bit dazzling. Although the story takes place in sunny Santa Barbara in 1979, the title indicates they are representative of a broader type: women of their time, of an era passing, decade by decade, into nostalgia.

Dorothea, played by Annette Bening, was born in 1924, raised during the Great Depression, and is a feminist success story (even if she is occasionally wary of the movement); after becoming the first and only woman to work in the Continental Can Company's drafting room, she had her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), at 40 and raised him basically alone. Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is a second-wave feminist in her mid-20s with bright red hair and a love of photography and punk; when we meet her, she is living as a boarder in Dorothea's house and about to learn that her cervical cancer—caused, they think, because her mother took a certain fertility medication—is officially in remission. Julie (Elle Fanning) is a scowling 17-year-old who understands everything about the world and therefore has a lot of sex—except when she sneaks into Jamie's room at night to lie in his bed and talk. The chain-smoking Dorothea is witty, charming, and straightforward, but she immediately bristles when it's time to engage in emotional soul-searching or heart-to-hearts. Abbie is earnest and thoughtful, but also the kind of person who will make everyone at a dinner party repeat the word MENSTRUATION until they seem to be comfortable with the concept. (This happens in the movie.) Julie is rebelling against her mother, who got remarried and makes Julie attend group therapy sessions, which Julie's mother leads herself.


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There isn't really a plot, but they all orbit around Jamie, a blank slate of a 15-year-old boy whose adolescent foibles and vague journey to "become a man" provide the film's forward motion. Besides the anonymous boys Julie has sex with and the bullies who harass Jamie for demonstrating sensitivities (he likes the Talking Heads and lectures a skateboarder about the complexities of the female orgasm), the only other masculine presence in the film is another of Dorothea's boarders, William (Billy Crudup), an aging hippie who has tentative, understanding relations with both Abbie and Dorothea.

The whole thing has a whiff of a bohemian Real World, with a cast entirely made up of mid-century Californian archetypes, but it's really about Dorothea. This is partly because Annette Bening is brilliant in the role and partly because the director, Mike Mills, conceived of 20th Century Women as a semi-autobiographical homage to his own mother, Jan, who also had Mills late, wanted to be a pilot, and was intellectually generous but emotionally closed off. ("All my therapy was about my mother," Mills told the New Yorker's Tad Friend.) Jamie, who alternates between being sweet and thoughtful and being typically bratty, is Mills's stand-in, and together he and Dorothea pull strangely on the viewer's attention—as perhaps her child does, you want to get more of Dorothea, but the slight drama of the film mainly comes from her struggle to relate to him. After Jamie passes out for 30 minutes and has to go to the hospital—he was playing one of those teenage pass-out games—she enlists the younger women to help teach him how to "be a good man."


The hinge of the film is here. Julie is uncomfortable with the request—"I don't want to be his mom," she says, before asking, "Don't you need a man to raise a man?"—but Abbie takes it on with gusto. She quickly becomes a sort of punky godmother to Jamie, sneaking him beers at a club, teaching him how to talk to girls, and introducing him to what Dorothea calls "hardcore feminism stuff." Later, when Abbie's doctor tells her that, because of her surgery, she has an "incompetent cervix" and may not be able to carry a pregnancy to term, we get some insight into her motivation—she wants to become a mother and struggles with the fact that she may not be able to.

20th Century Women is certainly enlightened, and it wants to be approved of by the smart feminist women it depicts.

The hardcore feminism stuff causes problems. Jamie learns about the female orgasm, which is underscored as complex and beautiful and cannot be achieved by penetration alone ("Never have sex with just the vagina—have sex with the whole woman," William tells Jamie at the dinner table); when he tells a fellow skateboarder, Matt, that the girl Matt was bragging about having sex with had probably faked her orgasm if he hadn't stimulated her clitoris, Matt beats him up. Shortly after that, Jamie reads a passage from Zoe Moss's 1970 essay "It Hurts to Be Alive and Obsolete: The Ageing Woman" aloud to his mother. "I think stripped down I look more attractive than my ex-husband, but I am sexually and socially obsolete and he is not," he recites, as Dorothea becomes increasingly angry at what her well-meaning son is implying. "So you think you know me better because you read that," she responds, and then goes to the beach to smoke. Shortly after that, she tells Abbie that she needs to cool it with the gender studies lessons. It's "too much" for a high school kid.


Dorothea is wrong about that—as Abbie says, it's a "miracle" to create a man who cares anything about the female orgasm—but the scene represents the tension in Mills's portrait of dazzling female characters: The world is harder for women than the perpetual summer of Santa Barbara suggests. Praised as a rare feminist story made by a man, 20th Century Women is certainly enlightened, but it also has the wide-eyed quality of a well-meaning novice—it wants to be approved of by the smart feminist women it depicts, so the ending is basically happy, the characters dynamic yet still ultimately likable and empowered to take control of their destinies. (Dorothea dies of lung cancer, but it is 20 years later, long after she meets a man and they remain a couple for the rest of her life.) Mills dutifully demonstrates his knowledge of feminism, offering us many observations about the differences between the sexes as well as, in the end, many potential options for childbirth: We already know that Dorothea had one child only after achieving success in her career, and in a set of epilogic voiceovers at the end of the film, we learn that Abbie will eventually go against her doctor's advice to not get pregnant and have two boys by the time she's 30. For her part, Julie goes to NYU, moves to Paris, and decides not to have children. Women's reproductive outcomes are central to the conclusion of their stories, and uniting this with the film's other major themes under the header of WOMEN demonstrates what we think womanhood is really about: sex, childbirth and -rearing, and (since this is 20th-century womanhood) feminist texts.


Annette Bening as Dorothea in "20th Century Women." Screengrab via YouTube

The adjective "strong" is often associated with adult women—we must be able to endure both the annoyances of our particular biology as well as the challenges of a political system that often uses those annoyances against us. "I think being strong is the most important quality," Julie tells Jamie at one point. "It's not being vulnerable, not being sensitive, it's not even about being happy. It's about strength and your durability against the other emotions."

Julie, a cynical, soon-to-be college student, is reacting against the idea that women are inherently emotional—every time she has sex and doesn't feel anything, it grants her power, and she refuses to have sex with Jamie because, she says, "I'm too close to you to have sex with you. It confuses me." While many would argue that there is something innately special about being a woman, I wonder what, besides our reproductive organs and the discrimination we have long endured because of them, is supposed to make us different. Without the stereotypes, the menstruation, the struggles of motherhood, the occasionally deadly consequences of fertility, would we have our strength? And does the answer to that question even matter, since we have all those things and probably won't be rid of them for a very long time?

20th Century Women is part of a broader recent transition from a cultural focus on "girls" to an emphasis on what they become when they grow up. Early last year, NPR published an article about why so many thrillers have the word "girl" in their titles, despite the fact that these works are about, as an author interviewed for the piece said, "dealing with the sort of perils of being a woman today, of marriages falling apart, of ambivalence with motherhood, [and] the complexities of relationships among women." (Emphasis mine.) In June, Emma Cline's long-awaited novel about the Manson Family cult, The Girls, finally debuted, and of course, there's always Lena Dunham, whose continued presence in the media reminds us of her HBO series, which premiered in 2012.


But it's fitting that the show is entering its final season now. As the cover of the February 2017 issue of Glamour magazine, featuring all four stars of Dunham's series, declares, the girls are now WOMEN, and whatever that signifies—theoretically: acquired strength, wisdom, the heightened pressure to make reproductive decisions—is about to dominate the feminist conversation. I first noticed it with the release of director Kelly Reichardt's film Certain Women, which, like 20th Century Women, was a beautiful collection of ideas and feelings set in triptych, but not really about anything. There was also Angel Olsen's critically acclaimed album My Woman (which also includes a song called "Woman"), a Justice album called Woman, and a slew of shows, films, books, and miscellaneous offerings dedicated to showcasing underrepresented women in various fields. While I was working on this piece, I received an email newsletter that promised (among other things), "New Web Series MAVENS Celebrates Fierce Women." This month sees the publication of Roxane Gay's new short story collection, Difficult Women, as well as the upcoming Women's March on Washington. And many will spend their 2017 dealing with the dismal failure of Hillary Clinton, whose campaign slogan might as well have been "FIRST WOMAN."

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In an interview with the New York Times, Gerwig said that she prepared for her role by "research[ing] doctors' offices and Planned Parenthood at that time, and immers[ing] herself in feminist literature." Her comments about the experience are startling: "The crazy thing is a lot of these books could have been written yesterday—it's extraordinary…. That's why having three generations, Dorothea, Abbie and then Julie, it is such a perfect blend to view the 20th century in terms of where women were and where we're going."

I read this as Gerwig commenting on how advanced feminist thinking in the 70s was—it foretold an optimistic future. But the youngest of Mills's 20th century women, Julie, is 17 in 1979, which would make her about 54 today. Rather than represent where women are going, she represents where women stalled.

20th Century Women also includes clips from Jimmy Carter's "Crisis of Confidence" speech, which he delivered as a "warning" on July 15, 1979. "As you know, there is a growing disrespect for government," the clip begins. "The schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance. But it is the truth." It's hard not to see this and feel mad—it could have been written a year ago, if not yesterday. The progress Julie was able to take advantage of is threatened by an incoming administration that wants to roll back reproductive rights, and America is just as hostile to working women—especially mothers—as it was in the 70s. We are still obsessed with fertility, even as we swear that women (should) have the right to choose what happens to their bodies. And then there's everything else!

While Mills gestures towards this impending reality, he quickly shies away from it; from this speech, the film pivots to the funny scene at the dinner table where Abbie makes everyone say MENSTRUATION. Then we see a small emotional crisis for Jamie that is easily averted and dealt with, and the epilogues follow. Rather than acknowledging how things turned out for 20th century women, Mills has given us a lovely look at a brief period of his own life, a nice vision of people having problems and overcoming them that doesn't have much to do with the sweeping title, except in soundtrack. It's perhaps not super empowering to admit that the particular nature of women, both those depicted in this film and those everywhere else, is often defined by the obstacles we face. But it is, unfortunately, the truth.