By Valerie Complex
Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women is set in California, 1979 at the height of the feminist revolution and on the heels of punk rock. Dorothea Fields (Annette Benning) is a single, middle-aged mother raising her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Zumann). She realizes she can’t help him through his growing pains, so she enlists the help of Jamie’s best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) and Dorothea’s current tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig). This is all in the hopes that they will help guide Jamie on his journey to manhood.
Dorothea is trying to be the ‘cool’ mom by letting her son skip school, smoke cigarettes, and hang out in 18+ punk rock clubs. She has no filter and says exactly what’s on her mind. She chain smokes and misses the good old days when cigarettes were romantic. She has trouble admitting to herself that aging has caught up with her, but recognizes that she’s clueless on how to raise a teenager. She’s so far removed from his age group that she realizes her child rearing tactics are insufficient.
What happens next is a series of hilarious scenes showing the discomfort of men in the presence of women and vice versa. The most important thing is that Jamie gets to see these women exhibit full autonomy over their lives and bodies. It’s feminism through (Jamie’s) male gaze.
Julie is a young teenager with hormones raging out of control. She is exploring sex and sexuality by sleeping with whomever she wants because she can. It isn’t about male pleasure for her, rather it’s the pleasure she derives from the power she has over men. She loves Jamie but only as a friend and agrees to join this unholy alliance of mother and peers raising Jamie and teaching him how to be a man.
Abbie is the Bowie-esque, new-age feminist looking to find her place in the world. She’s an artist, an idealist, and also a cancer survivor. She’s rebellious and angsty when spreading her vision and imposing that onto Jamie. She wants to be a mother, but she is unable to give birth. Thankfully, women’s rights have advanced or she would be up shit creek as far as women’s health is concerned.
Jamie is forced to grow up in the shadow of women, but he’s trying to find his own way. What he doesn’t know is how much his experiences with these women will shape his future. There are many comedic scenes showing the discomfort of men in the presence of women. There is a particularly hilarious scene where friends of Dorothea are sitting around the dinner table, and Abbie expresses that she doesn’t feel well because she’s on her period and has painful cramps. Hearing about this puts everyone in a state of disgust, but Abbie makes it known that neither women nor men should be mortified by hearing about menstruation. It’s a natural part of life.
Then, Julie suddenly feels liberated enough to speak on losing her virginity and starting her period. Dorothea vocalizes that this behavior is classless. But what does she know? She was born during the depression, so her sense of expression about women’s issues is vastly different than her younger counterparts. Abbie forces Jamie to say the word ‘menstruation’ over and over until he feels comfortable, which he eventually does. This scene shows a pretty endearing moment between friends.
The problem with 20th Century Women is that it’s all over the place as it tries to cram in the origin stories of four different, yet equally important characters in just under two hours. At first, the film appears to be a coming of age story for Jamie, but then it shifts to Dorothea and bounces back and forth between Abbie and Julie. It’s a struggle to keep up.
Also, the film is lacking in the diversity department. It’s called 20th-Century Women, but the audience only sees people of color when they are referred to as sexual partners or extras at an abortion clinic. How can you talk about women of the twentieth century and not include women of color who were clearly instrumental in the feminist movement? There is a persistent ‘white feminist‘ vibe to the movie and, god is it unsettling.
Also, feminism seen through the male gaze– no matter how intimate– is still uncomfortable to watch. It provides a very narrow point of view.
Truth be told–when a male child grows up around women, he tends to appreciate them a bit more. Some may think it customary for a man to raise a man and a woman to raise a woman. That’s not true. Dorothea does an exceptional job raising Jamie. I just wish the audience would have gotten a varying perspective across racial boundaries.
Valerie Complex is a freelance writer, and professional nerd. As a lover of Japanese animation, and all things film, she is passionate about diversity across all entertainment mediums.