20th Century Women:
gender and the politics of history

by Robert Alpert

Mike Mills scripted and directed 20th Century Women. It is both a personal “love letter” to Mills’ mother and sister who had raised him[1] [open notes in new window] as well as an examination of gender inculture, an examination that Mills had already begun in his autobiographical Beginners (2010) about his terminally ill father.[2] For those aware of its autobiographical elements, the movie sounds a personal note, teasing the viewer to differentiate between what’s “real” and what’s “fiction,” even as it examines broader cultural issues. For those unaware, it both possesses the emotional appeal of the classical Hollywood melodrama as well as evokes the independent, innovative filmmaking of such “women’s films” as Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), Antonia’s Line (1995), and Certain Women (2016). The movie avoids the escapism of contemporary Hollywood fiction, and Mills has instead sought to partake of the independent New Hollywood cinema of the 1970s in which male directors, such as Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, transcended through formal innovations the constraints of a conservative Hollywood. Like all of these independent, innovative film directors, Mills in 20th Century Women portrays a personal drama that is simultaneously political.[3] The movie entertains even as it seeks to enlighten its audience about gender.

The movie depicts its characters through a series of separate but interconnected stories – childhood, adolescent rebellion, adulthood and death – and collectively these stories reenact a U.S. cultural history in which the options seem increasingly narrowed, eventually pivoting at a particular historical moment – 1979. Reenacting how he was raised, Mills dramatizes a cast of characters with a wide range of ages – from the central character Dorothea (Annette Bening), who was born in 1924, to her androgynously-named son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), who was born in 1964  — and the decades in between – 40 year-old William (Billy Crudup), 28 year-old Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and 17 year-old Julie (Elle Fanning). Even the house in Santa Barbara, California, within which this communal group of characters is living, spans the last century. Built in 1905, this multistory, sprawling house was occupied until World War II by a family that then lost all of its money. Thereafter, the house passed through a series of hands, until Dorothea, who “completely fell in love with it,” came to own the house, renting rent rooms to Abbie and William, with the latter helping her renovate. As we learn from the epilogue, beginning in 1983 until she dies in 1999, Dorothea continues to live in the house with Jim, a character whom we never meet.

The result is a movie that surveys 20th century U.S. history. It recounts the past lives of each character before he or she joined Dorothea’s communal house as well as projects forward, including into the next century with the birth of Jamie’s son following Dorothea’s death. While the family home in U.S. movies has often represented an American ideal, seemingly depicted, for example, by the extended Smith family in Vincente Minnelli’s musical Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Hollywood’s family dramas in such genres as melodramas and musicals, including, too, Meet Me in St. Louis, consistently offer an underlying criticism of the home. They simultaneously critique romantic love, the institution of marriage and the all-American family. Such widely disparate Hollywood films as Trouble in Paradise (1932) Dance, Girl, Dance (1944), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), All that Heaven Allows (1955), American Beauty (1999), and Rachel Getting Married (2008) put the lie to these myths, including the “happily-ever-after” ending of Hollywood films.[4]

20th Century Women follows in that tradition. It offers hope in its brief portrait of the seeming disappearance of patriarchal hierarchies. Nevertheless, it also depicts an increasing transience and fragmentation no less disturbing. The movie assumes that its contemporary audience of 2016 knows what’s coming so as to place in context its narrative. It centers upon 1979 in order to arrive at an understanding of how political history informs gender in 2016. Indeed, the 2016 election in the United States of a President who openly bragged of his groping of women and the disclosure in 2017 of how a major movie producer for decades had sexually harassed women with impunity underscore how gender remains central to an understanding of the U.S. political system.


Contemporary Hollywood filmmaking relies heavily upon clichés that reaffirm the status quo. Beginning in the 1980s with the U.S. presidency of Ronald Reagan, Hollywood films, such as Back to the Future (1985) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), promoted a nostalgia in which history was replayed and often corrected to better conform to a conservative social agenda. Time itself was infinitely malleable so that anything seemed possible, thereby affirming neoliberalism with its promotion of individual achievement at the expense of communal social values. Films such as Aliens (1986) and Working Girl (1988) reinforced that agenda by incorporating women within the ideal of the U.S. film hero, conflating in the process independence with progressiveness.

While not overtly nostalgic about times past, contemporary franchises, such as Captain America (2011-2016) or commercially popular movies, such as La La Land (2016), routinely avoid the present tense or acknowledge that time matters. Instead, they engage in a mythmaking that offers escapism from social discomfort as well as celebrate a non-existent, fantasy landscape of clear good and evil. Such movies are ahistorical. While audiences enjoy a critique of capitalism at the seeming expense of the corporate producers, they simultaneously identify with its authority and power – and contribute financially to its bottom line. In much the same way that classical Hollywood movies presented through editing, lighting and other techniques a seamless narrative that masked the means of their production, the animated effects through digital CGI of contemporary movies result in audience disengagement from history. Significantly, while classical Hollywood openly acknowledged the divide between fantasy and social reality, creating a formal distinction between the color photography of the Land of Oz and the black and white photography of Kansas, contemporary cinema erases the distinction. The onscreen fantasy replaces and thereby defines the audience’s social reality. Thus, in Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski’s The Matrix (1999) the villainous Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) prophetically cautions the heroic Neo (Keanu Reeves), who is soon to learn “the truth” by leaving the matrix, to “fasten your seatbelt, Dorothy, ‘cause Kansas is going bye-bye.” This reversal of Kansas and Oz announces how the comforting and entertaining illusion of a seemingly cohesive social matrix (the AI’s duplication of a clean, bright urban United States in 1999) has largely supplanted for audiences the grim reality of having to work at the creation of community (symbolized by the rebels’ dark craft named Nebuchadnezzar where the rebels eat gruel for breakfast). In this respect, The Matrix anticipated the contemporary Internet where algorithms determine our available choices and social networks replace face-to-face relationships.

Mills in 20th Century Women adopts a different approach. Resisting the contrivance and manipulation of plot-centric films and instead wishing to create a portrait of and meditation on persons from his past,[5] his film consists of a non-linear, episodic style that is evocative of the early 1960s French New Wave, the inspirational source for the New Hollywood films of the 1970s. Mills has, in fact, cited such directors as Francois Truffaut and Alain Resnais as well as others of the period, such as Federico Fellini, as his source.[6] Interestingly, he has characterized 20th Century Women as a cross between a Howard Hawks movie, with its equivalent rendering of genders measured by “professional competence and social awkwardness,”[7] and a Resnais movie, with its obsessive focus on time, memory and the material present.[8] An admirer, too, of the filmmaker Jean Luc Godard,[9] whose Brechtian disruption of film narrative was once revolutionary but has since become commonplace as one of the traits of postmodernism, the film continually disrupts its narrative.

The movie is tightly scripted, however, as reflected in the screenplay’s inclusion of both dialogue and images[10] as well as the movie’s frequently close adherence to that screenplay.[11] Nevertheless, Mills has also insisted upon the importance he places on tailoring the movie to the actors themselves.[12] Thus, he films in sequence. “Shooting in order, I really believe in that.”[13] Like such “women’s film” genres as the melodrama and the musical, 20th Century Women simultaneously draws us in as well as distances us from the story. When combined with its often-episodic story, it makes us self-conscious of a contingency, namely our own presence in history and the arbitrariness of gender. It largely lacks a clear beginning, middle and end, let alone in that order.[14] Moreover, through a variety of formal techniques, the movie shifts the focus from the story to the raw material of the narrative construction, thereby resulting in a meditation upon its fictional characters within the context of an openly reconstructed history.

The movie adopts numerous strategies that disrupt the classical narrative arc, including:

Breaking the fictional “fourth wall” through actors theatrically projecting their fictional futures, Twentieth Century Women makes us acutely aware of that wall.

The movie openly examines how the media inform our perceptions:

Given the playful teasing of our expectations and the insistent disruption of the conventional narrative, we cannot fully identify with the movie’s semi-autobiographical characters. These unexpected disruptions, however, enable us to perceive the fictional nature of our culture’s history, and, as such, 20th Century Women is a political film. It self-consciously reenacts the past in order to enable us to understand the present. It examines gender in the context of the pivotal shift in 1979 of U.S. 20th century culture, including feminism. As Mills has observed when asked about the film’s “intertexuality,” that is, its reference to other works of art,[20]

“The way that we construct our identity or a story of ourselves through the culture that we’re living in and the different texts, the books, the music, the films that sort of support the narrative of, ‘What is the world we’re living in?’ Then, on a deeper, more personal level, ‘Who am I in that world?’

My last few films are really interested in that, and how do we build the story of ourselves, and in this film, it’s a lot about in relationship to these other people, sometimes unlikely allies.”

While the movie is arguably autobiographical insofar as Mills is recollecting events about his past life, with Dorothea and Jamie as surrogates for his mother and himself, the movie also reflects an understanding of how historical reconstruction is impossible given the imperfection of memory and the cultural processes of time. As Mills has also observed,

“All portraits are failures, because people are just so much more paradoxical and crazy and impossible to contain. But it’s a worthy failure.”[21]