The narrative

20th Century Women underscores how “history” is not an impersonal, objective text but rather a series of cultural icons and memories that reinforce a political ideology. Movies, of course, play a key role in that creation. On a trivial level, Abbie has dyed her hair red upon seeing David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). More significantly, in reply to Jamie who has asked whether Dorothea was ever in love with her husband, Dorothea admits marrying him only because she had believed in the myth that she was supposed to fall in love. The movie Casablanca signifies that expectation. Thus, early in the movie we watch with Dorothea and Jamie the celebrated airport scene in which Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) renounce their romantic love for the sake of the latter’s conventional marriage to the wartime hero Victor Laszio (Paul Henreid). As Julie elaborates one night to Jamie:

“Love is supposed to be a feeling that you feel. People say that they’re falling in love, but they’re not actually falling in love. It’s a fake connection that you feel with someone, and marriage should never happen.”

Thus, there is poignancy in how Dorothea late in the film imagines her “next life” with Bogart who supposedly “knows what I’m thinking. He makes me laugh and he really sees me.” Dorothea stubbornly – and sadly — clings to this cultural icon and her understanding of history as defined by 1940s Hollywood.

Dorothea is not alone in this cultural entrapment. Jamie, Mills’ surrogate, “grew up with a meaningless war, with protests, with Nixon, with nice cars and nice houses, computers, drugs, boredom.”

... or President Nixon. Of course, there were also nice cars ...
... nice houses ... ... advanced computers
(now obsolescent) ...
... drugs ... ... and boredom.

A series of TV images illustrates the common childhood for Jaime's generation – napalm dropped on the Vietnam countryside, U.S. anti-war protests, President Nixon, an outdated personal computer and a group of bored kids. Not surprisingly, the then-adolescent Jamie seems lost and untethered. Trying to find a mentor for her son and echoing the narrative of Susan Faludi’s best-selling Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (1999), Dorothea surely speaks for Mills’ discomfort when she observes, “I think history’s been tough on men, they can’t be what they were, and they can’t figure out what’s next.” Thus, she enlists Julie and Abbie, not William, in her effort to help Jamie develop an understanding of what it means to be a “man.”

Yet skateboarding, Jamie is also free to choose his way. The older generation raises the younger one so that the younger one may one day leave the older. That’s equally sad and comforting. There are only moments of grace, such as when mother and son briefly come to understand one another and Jamie skateboards while holding on to Dorothea’s car door. “It was never really like that again,” Jamie observes. In the epilogue that follows we learn how his mother died of cancer from smoking.

William is as inappropriate a model for Jamie as he is the inappropriate lover for Dorothea. William fixes things[22] — from his retooling of a 1940s car for Dorothea to his renovation of Dorothea’s house – and he attracts women. [open endnotes in new window] Nevertheless, as he concedes, he doesn’t know what happens next in a relationship with women. Historically imposed cultural roles too often define our gender.

In contrast, Dorothea, asking Jamie to be there for Abbie, who’s about to receive her cervical cancer test results, observes how Jamie’s mere presence, his empathy, suffices, adding an implicit critique of William.

“Men always feel like they have to fix everything for women, or you’re they’re not doing anything. But some things can’t be fixed. Just be there. Somehow, that’s hard for all of you.”

A medical test defines Abbie. She is pleased to learn that she has no malignant cells.
The doctor’s surgery, however, has resulted in her “incompetent” cervix. The doctor explains that Abbie probably may not give birth to children.

Dorothea argues for – and the film endorses — empathy in place of the male insistence in contemporary Western culture of an unbounded male authority.[23] Jamie’s effort to absorb emotionally the radical feminist writings to which he is introduced is, of course, fraught with failure insofar as he can never fully understand the cultural oppression of women. Notwithstanding that he later engages in a fight with one of his male friends over the source of women’s sexual pleasure and reads to Dorothea from Zoe Moss’ It Hurts To Be Alive And Obsolete: The Aging Woman, Dorothea implicitly rejects his claim that maybe he’s a feminist. While in the script Dorothea openly rejects his claim, observing that “that’s easy for men to say,” the movie instead enacts a scene filled with discomfort and awkwardness on the part of both mother and son.

Dorothea: So, you think that’s me?
Jamie: I don’t know.
Dorothea: So, you think you know me better because you read that?
Jamie: No.
Dorothea: Then why are you reading it to me?
Jamie: I thought it was interesting.
Dorothea: Ok, well, I don’t need a book to know about myself.
Jamie: Sorry.

Regardless of whether Jamie is a “feminist”, it’s a scene in which both characters express pain and will only relieve, if momentarily, that pain near the end of the movie when Dorothea openly acknowledges her feelings and Jamie comes to accept and empathize with those feelings. Jamie’s education during the course of the movie consists of his learning to empathize with another person, in this case his mother, and his empathy is the beginning of his maturity into adulthood. Thus, Abbie observes (to a skeptical Dorothea) that she’s helping Jamie become a man, possibly a “good man,” by learning about a female orgasm, a miracle in that men historically haven’t cared. It’s enough that she’s developing within him the beginnings of human empathy.

Abbie tells her prognosis to the young, uncomprehending Jamie who has chosen to accompany her to her appointment. Even Abbie’s supposed friends in NYC can’t deal with the early test results from Planned Parenthood.
Abbie later learns the source of her cancer. Her mother took DES, a drug recommended by the male medical profession for treating pregnant women. Mother and daughter don’t speak again. Rejecting the male medical advice, Abbie years later becomes pregnant and gives birth to two sons.

Mills’ film expresses that same empathy. Thus, for example, it mournfully depicts the moment in which Julie confesses that she’s never had an orgasm nor have any of her friends. Julie sexually satisfies boys but is herself never satisfied. She speaks of how she enjoys how they look at her, how they get a little bit desperate and the little sounds that they make, and claims that she does it because half the time she doesn’t regret it. Nevertheless, the sorrowful music on the soundtrack makes apparent her suffering. Sexually active early in life, mistakenly thinking that she’s pregnant from one of her encounters, and implicitly accused by Jamie of being a “slut,” the film’s epilogue discloses that Julie later falls in love with a new boyfriend, Nicholas, and moves to Paris, the cinematic city of romance. Yet she and Nicholas choose not to have children. It’s a choice — but a poignant one given Julie’s sexual history. The film endorses her choice but empathizes with her pain. Jamie’s education – and that of the audience — results from a developing sense of empathy for such pain.

Dorothea, too, feels the painful constraints that a male culture has imposed upon her and all women. Thus, Jamie quotes from Zoe Moss’ It Hurts to be Alive and Obsolete: The Aging Woman:

”Don’t pretend for a minute, as you look at me that I’m not as alive as you are, and I do not suffer from the category of which you are forcing me. I think stripped down I look more attractive than my ex-husband, but I am sexually and socially obsolete and he is not.” [24]

A member of the generation of women that was largely uncomfortable with acknowledging such feelings, both sexual and emotional, and, therefore, consistently closing herself off to her son, Dorothea later chastises Abbie for teaching him this “hardcore feminism.” Yet frustrated in that she never achieved her dream to become an Air Force pilot when World War II ended before she could finish flight school, later isolated by the men in her department at Continental Can Company as a result of her being the only woman, and now largely overlooked sexually because of her age, Dorothea represents how gender compels women to adopt roles of behavior that don’t coincide with their desires. While skilled as a result of her Air Force training and thereby able to obtain as well as keep a well-paying job, unlike many women who following the ending of World War II were replaced by returning male veterans, she experienced the cultural isolation of women who don’t conform. Dorothea only momentarily becomes self-aware of the inhumanity of these cultural myths about gender when she speculates to Jamie how she chose to marry her co-worker at Continental Can Company, Jamie’s father:

“Or maybe I felt I was just supposed to be in love. Or I was scared that I’d never be in love. So I just picked the best solution at the time.”

While then retreating to her fantasy of an afterlife with Bogart, a Hollywood star who substitutes for the lover whom she’s never experienced, she and Jamie momentarily enjoy a “new relationship.” Significantly, there follows a scene in which Dorothea, Abbie, Julie, Jamie and William enjoy a communal dinner of take-out food in a motel room where they also briefly dance together to the soundtrack of oldies from the 1930s and 1940s. It is a moment “of grace…and connection,” according to Mills,[25] in a film that treats its characters with gentleness but in which such moments of grace and connection are rare.

On the one hand, the movie is generous in its portrait of its characters, exemplified by the film’s metaphoric use of music. Jamie, who was born in 1964, dances wildly to – as well as believes in — punk. Abbie, who was born in 1955, does not wholly understand but still she’s just a part of such music. And even the middle-aged Dorothea, who expresses discomfort with the disharmonies of punk music, acknowledges how she, like William, is overthinking it, and comes to enjoy, if momentarily, its sounds. The film’s generosity consists in portraying these generational, musical icons along a continuum in which no character is excluded. Presenting a mixtape to Jamie as thanks for his accompanying her to the doctor, Abbie generously extends the best of her generation to Jamie:

“These are a bunch of songs that I think my life would have been better if they’d been around when I was a teenager. So, I’m hoping that if you listen to them now, you’ll be a happier and more realized person than I could ever hope to be.”

Notwithstanding that history imposes cultural differences upon these characters, they find in music a common, shared ground. Reflecting Mills’ background, the movie offers comfort in the ineffable sounds of music.

Of course, too, the film is hardly rosy-eyed in its view of history. There is a consequence as a result of each character’s seemingly arbitrary place in history, and some are not pleasant. Raised in the 1930s, Dorothea grew up during the Great Depression when the United States, under President Roosevelt, believed in a social contract between its citizens and at times seemingly reflected a more gender-neutral, certainly less libertarian era. Nevertheless, both her fierce independence and her incessant cigarette smoking historically define Dorothea. If Mills mythologizes his mother by his adoption of the name Dorothea for his character, which he claims he based on the 1930s-documentary photojournalist Dorothea Lange,[26] and by underscoring throughout the narrative her uniquely independent life style, he also introduces her as the smoker of Salem-branded cigarettes ostensibly because “they’re healthier.” A product of her culture, she smokes incessantly, because cigarettes were “stylish and sort of edgy.” Listening to a punk band, Dorothea empathetically observes mid-film, “It’s 1979. I’m 55 years old. This is what my son believes in.” Abruptly, however, and matter-of-factly, her voiceover adds, “It’s 1979 I’m 55 years old. And in 1999, I will die of cancer, from the smoking.” That same evening, she explains how she will prepare for Y2K – canned food, water, gold coins – but also reiterates how she will die from lung cancer before the New Year.

Describing the 1965 Ford Galaxy that’s in flames during the film’s opening scene, Jamie observes that it “smelled like gas and overheated all the time, and it was just old.”[27] Dorothea could readily have been describing herself when she replies, “Well, it wasn’t always old. It just got that way all of the sudden.” As depicted in the films of director Mike Leigh, whom Mills has acknowledged as a source for his respect for the everyday,[28] history consists of the passage of individual lives, and culture is the collective mythology of those lives. Mills’ film focuses upon the cultural, ideological trajectory of history, and 20th Century Women makes plain that that future augers poorly for its fictional characters and hence for its then contemporary audience.

The male pharmacist doesn’t know what to make of Jamie and his purchase. Jamie, too, enjoys a moment of liberation, skateboarding home to Julie with his purchase.
Not knowing what to make of this off-the-shelf medical test, Julie tries it. She waits two hours and joyfully learns that she’s not pregnant. Julie will later go on the pill with Abbie’s encouragement, stop talking with her mom, fall in love with Nicholas, move to Paris, and choose not to have children.