U.S. political history
20th Century Women opens with a title card that announces that we are in Santa Barbara, California, and that it is 1979, the year in which the Iranian revolution and the overthrow of the U.S.-supported Shah of Iran resulted in both a hostage crisis and a further energy crisis. That same year the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which Congress had passed in 1972 with a ratification deadline of 1979, failed to achieve passage by the requisite number of ratifications by state legislatures. Thus, incredibly, U.S. culture denied women an express acknowledgement of “equality of rights under the law…. on account of sex.” Of course, during that same era women also achieved a partial measure of control over their bodies, a right that the U.S. Supreme Court had first recognized in 1973, when, as depicted in the film, home pregnancy tests were introduced to the United States. The promise of the “second wave” of feminism that began in the 1960s seemingly teetered between cultural acceptance and rejection in 1979.
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|Jamie reads from The Politics of Orgasm.||He opens the anthology Sisterhood is Powerful.|
|He later reads about the “ageing woman.”||Dorothea in the meantime discovers Oui in Jamie’s drawer.|
The scene of communal watching of — and the divided reaction to — then President Carter’s televised speech on July 15, 1979, underscores the film’s view that U.S. culture rejected feminism as a result of its broader ideological acceptance of neoliberalism. Carter spoke about the energy crisis but more broadly identified a “crisis of confidence.” Dorothea, William, Abbie, Julie, Jamie and their friends sit gathered together in rapt attention around the image of the President’s TV broadcast from the White House, a broadcast in which Carter observed at length:
“We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy… In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close‐knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning…
We are, at turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is the path I've warned about tonight — the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.
All the traditions of our past...point to another path: the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves. We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problem. Energy will be the immediate test of our ability to unite this nation.
Let commit ourselves together to a rebirth of the American spirit. Working together with our common faith, we cannot fail.”
|Carter speaks of the disappearing meaning of our lives ...||.... our growing self-indulgence and consumption of material goods ...|
|... even as we discover that owning things doesn’t satisfy our longing for meaning.||We had always believed that we were part of something.|
|We are, in fact, at a turning point in our history.||Down the path that we’re then going — and will continue to go — lies a mistaken idea of freedom found in self-interest.|
Carter’s speech represented a candid acknowledgement of the anxiety and fragmentation then enveloping the United States. From the perspective of 2016, with the increased divisiveness and ever more elusive sense of common purpose and values, Carter’s appeal to rational choice seems almost quaint. Following Carter’s speech, several young men unthinkingly respond, “Wow, he is so screwed” and “It’s over for him.” In contrast, Dorothea instinctively reacts, “I thought that was beautiful.” She, however, like Carter (who was also born in 1924) is a member of a prior generation, namely “our fathers and mothers...who shaped the new society during the Great Depression.” She continues to believe in collective enlightenment. Everyone else, however, is silent and looks at Dorothea uncomprehendingly.
Earlier in the film listening to and observing with some incomprehension a punk band, Dorothea not only foresees her own death before the end of the millennium but also observes, “They don’t know this is the end of punk. They don’t know that Reagan’s coming.” Carter’s broadcast thus represents a turning point in U.S. history, and its communal viewing in the film is a backward glance at a social culture that soon disappeared. Where, for example, Santa Barbara in 1979 was “worn out,” today it is far wealthier such that Mills could not even document that earlier time through filming 20th Century Women only in Santa Barbara. For Mills 1979 represents the “beginning of now.” While it was a time of recession and boredom, it also possessed an “unmonetized quality. In fact, the United States failed to solve its “energy problem,” and suburban, gas-guzzling SUVs became the norm. One year later, in 1980, B-movie actor Ronald Reagan soundly defeated Carter for the U.S. presidency, and in 1984 with his “morning in America” TV commercial, which offered the nostalgic-infused image of a white and male United States, Reagan likewise overwhelmingly defeated Carter’s Vice President, Walter Mondale. As many have noted, U.S. culture has only increasingly fragmented, particularly with the Internet that pervades all aspects of our lives, and self-interest is now praised as furthering an expansion of a “free market economy.” U.S. President Trump, a reality-TV personality, has extended Reagan’s vision of a U.S. culture in which individual ownership and consumption, not common purpose, are paramount values. In contrast to 1979, 2016 consists of an “aspirational culture”  in which we continue to obsessively seek “owning things and consuming things.”
The communal living room scene shifts to the dining room where, tellingly, the generational divide persists in a conversation about the word “menstruation.” At Dorothea’s request, Jamie tries to “wake up” Abbie, whose head is down on the table. Abbie refuses to stir, instead announcing to everyone, “I’m menstruating.” To Dorothea’s embarrassed consternation, Abbie is relentless in her insistence that everyone, including Jamie and all of the men at the table, acknowledge her state by saying the word “menstruation.”
“If you ever want to have an adult relationship with a woman like if you want to have sex with a woman’s vagina, then you need to be comfortable with the fact that the vagina menstrates. Just say menstration. It’s not a big deal."
|“It’s not that big a deal,” Abbie replies.||She encourages Jamie to say the word “menstruation” to Dorothea’s consternation.|
|Julie therapeutically confesses how she experienced her first period.||Dorothea abruptly ends the dinner. “Let’s call it a night.”|
Everyone joins in and repeats the word as a kind of mantra, including Julie, who recounts the first time that she menstruated and as a result missed the ending of the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.William, in turn, reveals to her the movie’s symbolic ending in which “the big Indian guy” broke “free.” If second-wave feminism discovered that “the personal is political,” then Abbie is furthering that agenda.
Yet that progress is arguably disquieting in the face of the historical shift that Abbie and others have just witnessed. It is as though Abbie has substituted a collective, but private gain for an historical change that’s been openly articulated and is about to be set in motion. Arising out of the 1960s counter-culture, Abbie’s feminism focuses on a politics of white privilege, not addressing class economics, let alone race. The film hints at that privilege in describing how the working-class William suffered in his unsuccessful, romantic pursuit of the “better off” Theresa. Her commune friends “made him feel old and uneducated and poor.” Indeed, 20th Century Women, like most films, elides these economic and racial issues. The film only casually observes how Dorothea is financially secure as a result of her daily, early morning management of her investment stock portfolio, a ritual that she passes on to Jamie. Moreover, the film never acknowledges how Dorothea’s renovation of her house in the “worn out” area of Santa Barbara surely resulted in its gentrification — the disappearance of lower and middle class housing and the contemporary influx of housing for the wealthy that filmmaker Mills bemoaned. In fact, however, Mills chose not to introduce economics and race in his film, as evidenced by his deletion of a scene that might have underscored, if briefly, these issues. Thus, too, Abbie, a photography artist of white middle class privilege, in her insistence in speaking the word “menstruation” emphasizes the individual at the expense of the social and communal. More broadly such a focus on the individual will later align feminism with the coming of neoliberalism, an efficient, economic system but with a regressive distribution of benefits to the few at the expense of the many.
As the central figure of 20th Century Women, Dorothea represents an idealized counter-point to that development. As Jamie apologetically explains to Julie, whom Dorothea has enlisted in her efforts to raise Jamie as a “man,” Dorothea “was raised in the Depression. Everyone helped everyone. The whole neighborhood raised the kids.” Instead, we now rely upon professional therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists. Thus, for example, Julie resents and rebels against her therapist mother, who includes Julie in a group confessional session of teenage girls, and flees to the more open, less structured setting offered by Dorothea’s house. Not surprisingly, therefore, Dorothea, in contrast to everyone else, remains embarrassed at openly and therapeutically speaking the word “menstruation” and hence abruptly ends the communal dinner. Raised under Roosevelt’s view of culture as a social contract, only Dorothea acknowledges the beauty of Carter’s vision, and her acknowledgement as the film’s central character underscores the film’s view of the succeeding generations’ failure, including the failure of feminism, to offer a meaningful alternative to that historical, cultural shift. If the personal is political, then it is equally the case that the political is personal.
Jamie’s voiceover initially observes that when his mother was his age “people drove in sad cars to sad houses with old phones, no money or food or televisions but the people were real.” Depicting nostalgically Roosevelt’s era through a series of black and white photographs, Mills’ movie places Dorothea within an openly mythical, simpler time from which Mills’ surrogate, Jamie, is excluded. A child of the Great Depression and World War II, the semi-fictional Dorothea is defined by the daredevil exploits of the androgynous Amelia Earhart as well as the cinematic romanticism of Humphrey Bogart as Rick in Casablanca. Like Mills’ film, however, Dorothea is sufficiently self-aware to know that such romanticism is not of this world, even as she enjoys the pleasure of its fantasy. “This is no time to be rational sweetie, can you just go with this?” she asks her son as she fantasizes an afterlife with Bogart. Thus, too, the film ends on the utopian image of Dorothea flying in a biplane, which her companion Jim rents each year on her birthday, with the song “As Time Goes By” playing on the soundtrack. The film self-consciously leaves us with this image of a woman who was an unconscious feminist, the first woman in the Continental Can drafting room whom the men categorized as a lesbian, as though the term were a curse.
20th Century Women is a generous mixtape, like the one that Abbie presents to Jamie, and, as such, is ultimately optimistic. While Dorothea initially refuses to respond to Jamie who has asked whether she’s happy, she also observes that suffering, “having your heart broken,” leads to learning about the world, a kind of wisdom. She doesn’t consciously know the source of her unhappiness – perhaps the growing doubt about the meaning of her life, as President Carter had identified, or her conformity to gender expectations that Casablanca and other movies had imposed. Sadly, Dorothea’s husband didn’t turn out like she’d envisioned him, since the best that she could say about him was that he was left-handed. On the other hand, surprisingly, Abbie finds happiness by settling down with husband and children in her hometown that she had sought to escape. As Abbie observes to Jamie, “Whatever you think your life is going to be like, just know, it’s not going to be anything like that.” There’s a joy in Abbie’s expression of this historical uncertainty. There’s optimism in that she and others may still be fortunate enough to experience that uncertainty.
In the film’s most confessional scene, Jamie lovingly observes to his mother, “I thought we were fine, though, just me and you.” The moment passes, and we watch Dorothea driving her VW as Jamie hangs onto the car door and skateboards down the highway. The uncertainty of each moment is redemptive, and such generosity is exhilarating. Writing in mid-19th century England about “the history of man,” the feminist author “George Eliot” could have been describing Mills’ Dorothea when she concluded Middlemarch:
“[T]he growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Feminism has sometimes seemed too narrowly focused. Personal economic advancement has trumped empathy for others. Such feminism focuses on gaining a greater share of the commercial pie, without asking who baked that pie and why. Thus, for example, Amy Schumer in Trainwreck (2015) represents gender equality in her replacement of Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), but both characters reinforce the regressive perspective of “geek comedy” in which anarchy barely conceals the enshrinement of the patriarchal family.
In depicting what it means to be a woman in the 20th century, 20th Century Women envisions a broader, more progressive view of gender. It seeks to define “man” and “woman” so as to underscore a common humanity in an historical process that increasingly excludes that commonality. Dorothea’s decision to enlist Abbie and Julie in raising Jamie — “He likes you and you. He likes you a lot.” — focuses on the emotional connection that defines our relationships, not the culturally defined characteristics of “man” or “woman.” While Dorothea views Jamie as “all men,” she also acknowledges that he is not. Gender, a form of cultural mythology, does not – and need not — wholly define us. The film’s depiction of gender depends upon its creation of a sense of history, drawing upon our awareness of the present so as to openly place within that context our past. Our relationship with one another, including gender, defines our body politic, our culture, but history informs both. Mills’ film generously adopts a collective – and optimistic — view of humanity insofar as we may evolve in our understanding and development of gender. His film is clearly autobiographical. “Like the kid in the film, I grew up with a strong mom, two older sisters, and mostly with women.” Yet it’s also self-critical. “I’ve spent most my life trying to figure out women from an outsider’s perspective…” It thereby lays the foundation for possible future understandings and political progress.
Highlighting the connection between the upcoming election of President Reagan in 1980 and the Internet in 2016, 20th Century Women engages in a dialogue with its audience that seeks to raise questions about how and what we value by looking backward, not nostalgically but rather by a modest examination of how we may have come to our present state of affairs. It favors progressive cooperation over Darwinism with its supposed myth of the survival of the fittest. It is feminist in promoting an optimistic faith in the possible humanity of politics. Opening with an overhead shot of the Pacific Ocean near Santa Barbara and closing with Dorothea’s expression of excitement and happiness as she flies high above the Santa Barbara coast as “Time Goes By” plays in the background, 20th Century Women looks both backward and forward in articulating Mills’ depiction of relations no longer gendered — other than as an expression of both self-identity and common humanity. It’s a film both of the moment, documenting our cultural crisis, and outside of time, offering hope in its loving tribute of an aging son to his long-deceased, independent mother — who at least momentarily on film could achieve her utopian dream of piloting her own plane and becoming her cultural icon, the aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart.