copyright 2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018

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]

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

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.

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’s 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.

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,[29] 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.[30]

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:[31]

“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’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.”[32] 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.[33] 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.[34] For Mills[35] 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,[36] particularly with the Internet that pervades all aspects of our lives,[37] 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” [38] in which we continue to obsessively seek “owning things and consuming things.”[39]

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."

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.[40] 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.[41]

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,[42] 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.”[43]


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.[44] 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.[45]

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…”[46] 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.

Go to Postscript for this essay, version for printing


1. Ben Dickson, “Mike Mills' New Film Is a Love Letter to the Women in His Life,” Elle, December 20, 2016, http://www.elle.com/culture/movies-tv/reviews/
[return to text]

2. Mills both scripted and directed Beginners. It tells of the emotional reconciliation of a son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), with this father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). The latter divorced Oliver’s mother, has already died of cancer when the movie opens and late in life openly came out as gay. The movie It explores not only gender but also ageism.

. Both Altman and Scorsese often directed movies that focused upon seemingly independent women, such as, for example, Altman’s 3 Women (1977) and Scorsese’s Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974). That such directors adopted forms that rejected classical Hollywood is not to say, however, that their movies were always non-sexist. For example, Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) romanticizes male friendship, views as tragic the suicide of its defeated male novelist (Sterling Hayden as Roger Wade), and depicts as castrating the novelist’s rich, unfaithful wife (Nina van Pallandt as Eileen Wade).

4. For an early, insightful examination of how selected directors and genres have exposed Hollywood’s myth of the happy ending, see Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (New York: Penguin Books, 1974).

5. Christopher McKittrick, ’What guides me is the real person.’ Mike Mills on 20th Century Women.” Screenwriting, January 19, 2017,
and Matt Grober, “’20th Century Women’ Director Mike Mills On Honing Material From His Own Life: ‘I Don’t Want To Make A Memoir,’” Deadline: Hollywood, January 4, 2017,

6. Mike Mills, “Audio Commentary,” 20th Century Women, DVD (March 28, 2017). Admiring how the French New Wave had “broken open film language,” Mills cites, for example, Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), as well as Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 ½ (1963) as his inspirations. He also cites Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) as a source for his nonlinear narrative. Moreover, in seeking to recreate a “period piece” about the late 1970s, Mills acknowledges imitating the style of 70s filmmaker Woody Allen, citing Annie Hall (1977) and Stardust Memories (1980), as well as Allen’s cinematographer, Gordon Willis, in particular.

7. Haskell, From Reverence to Rape,137.

8. “I feel like sometimes this movie is a weird combination of Howard Hawks meets Alain Resnais,” says Mills in Grober, “’20th Century Women’ Director Mike Mills On Honing Material From His Own Life: ‘I Don’t Want To Make A Memoir.’”

9. Mills has described Godard’s influence as follows:

“….The way I use historical stills to tell part of the story, but also to disrupt my film. I think it both makes my film and my fictional characters seem more real, because it contextualizes them, but it simultaneously points out that my thing is a fiction and there’s a neat frisson there. That gesture of both bolstering my film and pointing a finger at its construction is a very art school kind of move

"It’s mostly that, and just also if you’re an art school student, I don’t know if it’s a law, but Godard is your favorite filmmaker. [Laughs] Godard is such a multi-disciplinary, non-linear, non-narrative centric filmmaker, so that was one of my main points of entry.”

Grober, “20th Century Women’ Director Mike Mills On Honing Material From His Own Life: 'I Don’t Want To Make A Memoir.’”

10. Mills deliberately writes his script so as to include both dialog and images. Speaking about the “documentary-like constructions, with photos, archival footage, and voiceover narration” in both Beginners and 20th Century Women, he has observed,

“That’s all in the script, and even a lot of the exact visuals are put into the script. I went to art school, so thinking of objects of design, culture, books, texts, movies, is part of my toolkit and comes very naturally to me.

“A lot of those lyrical essays I do as dual dialogue, and on the left side of the page I do the narration and the right side I list all the visuals because they go by quickly. It’s all part of the plan.”

McKittrick, “’What guides me is the real person.’ Mike Mills on 20th Century Women.”

11. The 20th Century Women script, which was nominated for the Academy Awards’ Best Original Screenplay can be found at the following site:

12. Mills has described the filmmaking process as follows:

“Definitely. I really like to customize the script for the actors. It’s not by much, but little tweaks.

"More than changing it, it’s usually adding stuff. My rehearsal process involves a lot of improvising with the backgrounds of the characters, kind of like a Mike Leigh process, but obviously not as intensive. We spend two weeks focusing on everything that led up to the story, and try to find different ways to experience that.

"Sometimes I interview the actors in their characters. You often find out very interesting things that really galvanize your actors and get under their skin. That’s a part of my process, in not just making a personal movie but also a well-acted movie that hopefully can speak to other people.

"On set we do a little improvising here and there, or I’ll ask the actors to do a certain line differently in each take just to make the scene come to life. Then the actors don’t know what’s being said, and the person who’s looking doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. It sort of turns all the lights on very brightly. So there are little changes all the way through.”

McKittrick, “‘What guides me is the real person.’ Mike Mills on 20th Century Women.”

13. Grober, “’20th Century Women’ Director Mike Mills On Honing Material From His Own Life: “I Don’t Want To Make A Memoir.”

14. Godard is, of course, well known for the following aphorism: "A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order."

15. Mike Mills, “Audio Commentary,” 20th Century Women, DVD (March 28, 2017).

16. These still photographs were taken during the 1970s, and Mills has said that he sought to reproduce the 1970s “clean” look of photographer Stephen Shore. Ibid.

17. André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” What is Cinema? trans. Hugh Gray (Los Angeles: University Press, 1967)

18. Mills claims that his actors during rehearsals familiarized themselves with their characters and that he then allowed them to improvise. According to Mills, about 20% of the film resulted from their improvisation. Mike Mills, “Audio Commentary,” 20th Century Women, DVD. To the extent accurate, the participation by the actors in the creation of the film’s dialogue would add to the sense of a narrative that is both fiction and documentary. Given how closely the film hews to Mills’ screenplay, however, it’s questionable the extent to which the actors did participate.

19. See, for example, the following passages:

“Marx reproached philosophy for only trying to understand the world rather than trying to change it. Photographers…suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world and instead propose that we collect it.”

“Our oppressive sense of the transience of everything is more acute since cameras gave us the means to ‘fix’ the fleeting moment. We consume images at an ever faster rate and…images consume reality. Cameras are the antidote and the disease, a means of appropriating reality and a means of making it obsolete.

The powers of photography have in effect de-Platonized our understanding of reality…”

Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux,1978), 82, 179.

Sontag rejected Walter Benjamin’s viewpoint set out in his celebrated essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936). Where Benjamin criticized original artwork as elitist and praised photography for its reproductive aspects and movies for its democratization of art, Sontag viewed photography as enslaving us within Plato’s Cave.

20. Grober, “’20th Century Women’ Director Mike Mills On Honing Material From His Own Life: ‘I Don’t Want To Make A Memoir.’”

21. Elise Nakhnikian “Interview: Mike Mills on 20th Century Women, Memory, and Collaboration,” Slant Magazine, December 20, 2016,
Mills’ surrogate, Jamie, acknowledges that inevitable failure when in voiceover he tells us, “I’ll try to explain to [my son] what his grandmother was like  — but it will be impossible.”

22. Fixing things is an obsession of the U.S. movie male. A classic example may be found in Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008). The film admires its main character, Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), because he has filled his garage with household tools and is skilled at fixing things with these tools, a skill that he successfully passes on to his surrogate son, Thao Lor (Bee Vang).

23. This god-complex is most common in science fiction stories, beginning with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). More recent science fiction movies, particularly movies about AI, carry this complex to its logical, if dystopian, conclusion. See, for example, Ex Machina (2015) and Alien: Covenant (2017).

24. Jamie underscores that observation when he reads to Dorothea the following from the Sisterhood Is Powerful anthology:

“I have a capacity now for taking people as they are, which I lacked at twenty; I reach orgasm in half the time and I know how to please. Yet I do not even dare show a man that I find him attractive. If I do so, he may react as if I had insulted him. I am supposed to fulfill my small functions and vanish.”

25. Mike Mills, “Audio Commentary,” 20th Century Women, DVD.

26. Manohla Dargis, “1 Teenage Boy and 3 Mothers in ‘20th Century Women,’” The New York Times, December 27, 2016,

27. Mills has explained why he opened 20th Century Women with the shot of the burning Ford Galaxy.

“I needed to say ‘Dad’s gone.’ That was a way to get into that story: As they start talking, you learn that. I needed to establish this as a man-less world. And then, of course, ’79 is kind of the beginning of the end of American industrial strength. The beginning of the end of the unions and the end of Detroit. The beginning of the end of the big car. And that’s a big Ford Galaxy, which my mom had and loved… Anyway, I thought it was a good and funny way to talk about the end of masculinity. Carter’s such a non-patriarchal president, and the ’70s can be thought of as one of our more feminine decades. Cars are male to me.”

Nakhnikian, “Interview: Mike Mills on 20th Century Women, Memory, and Collaboration.”

28. Mike Mills, “Audio Commentary,” 20th Century Women, DVD. Leigh’s personal dramas are simultaneously, of course, highly political. Moreover, his films, too, sometimes evoke the same whimsy that threatens to upset Mills’ films. See, for example, Leigh’s High Hopes (1988), and Life Is Sweet (1990).

29. The U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade (1973) held that a woman’s constitutional right of privacy extended to her right to choose to have an abortion. The Court, however, qualified that right, noting that it must be balanced against a state’s right to regulate health and potential life. As the United States has turned increasingly conservative, the Supreme Court has increasingly tiled in favor of a state’s right to regulate. For example, in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989) the Court upheld a state’s right to deny state funds, facilities, and employees connected with abortions. Thus, a woman’s right to abortion remains bitterly contested.

30. The second-wave of feminism in the United States obviously included many historically important events, including theGovernment’s approval of the Pill in 1960, the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963, the passage of Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act (barring gender discrimination) in 1964, and the march in NYC of thousands of women in 1970.

31. Not surprisingly, the film depicts only excerpts from the broadcast of President Carter’s speech. The quotes in the text represent a lengthier excerpt. A complete transcript may be found at

32. President Carter’s complete quote from his speech was as follows:

“Our fathers and mothers were strong men and women who shaped the new society during the Great Depression, who fought world wars and who carved out a new charter of peace for the world. We ourselves are the same Americans who just 10 years ago put a man on the moon. We are the generation that dedicated our society to the pursuit of human rights and equality.”


33. By way of example of how far U.S. social culture has come, who today could imagine as inalienable rights the “four freedoms” – freedom of speech, of worship, from want and from fear – articulated for “everywhere in the world” in the 1941 State of the Union address delivered by Dorothea’s President Roosevelt? When Roosevelt delivered his speech, World War II had begun in Europe and Asia, but the United States had not yet entered the war. A complete transcript of Roosevelt’s speech may be found at

34. Mike Mills, “Audio Commentary,” 20th Century Women, DVD.

35. Mike Mills, “Making 20th Century Women,” 20th Century Women, DVD. While claiming elsewhere in this special feature that 1979 could be anytime, Mills acknowledges his nostalgia for this particular moment.

36. See, for example, Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011).

37. For some this fragmentation by the Internet represents a form of individual empowerment. See, for example, Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman, Networked: The New Social Operating System, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012). For others such fragmentation has resulted in an unprecedented sense of personal loneliness as well as a corporate consolidation in the production and distribution of “things.” See, for example, Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2011) and Susan Crawford, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

Mills agrees with the latter view. Thus, his film is also a “love letter” to a “physical era” when you needed to travel to physical locations, in contrast to the contemporary, online digital era. Mike Mills, “Audio Commentary,” 20th Century Women, DVD.

38. Mike Mills, “Audio Commentary,” 20th Century Women, DVD.

39. The United States in 2018 with President Trump in the White House often seemingly reenacts such Frank Capra films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Where, however, Capra was satirical in his depiction of populism, today the irrationalism of American Madness (1932), the racism of The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) and the materialism of It Happened One Night (1934) apparently represent simply different options with “moral equivalence.” Michael D. Shear and Maggie Habermanaug, “Trump Defends Initial Remarks on Charlottesville; Again Blames ‘Both Sides,’” NY Times, August 15, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/15/us/politics/trump-press-conference-charlottesville.html

40. Mills’ original script includes the following scene that’s been deleted from the film as released and in which Jamie is wandering outside after he has left Julie following her refusal to have sex with him in a motel room:


Jamie, strung out and tired is walking down a dirt road next to an agrarian field. As he walks, a group of 30 or so Latino migrant workers cross the road and the frame. They’re heading to work, some are as young as Jamie it seems, he stops as they all cross him, none of them look at him. Two different worlds.”

Mike Mills, “20th Century Women” screenplay, 91,

This shot would obviously have underscored, if briefly, the economic and racial divide in the United States in a film focused almost exclusively upon its white, middle class characters. Mills has seemingly authenticated this screenplay in Kevin P. Sullivan, “20th Century Women writer-director explains the script's unusual format.” Entertainment, February 22, 2017,

41. For an analysis of how neoliberalism has impacted supposedly feminist films, see, for example, Hillary Radner, Neo-Feminist Cinema, Girly Films, Chick Flicks and Consumer Culture (New York: Routledge, 2011)

42. The second-wave feminist slogan “the personal is political” originated apparently in an essay by Carol Hanisch published in 1970 and the text of which can be founded at

43. George Eliot, Middlemarch (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1977), xiii and 578.

44. That women are discriminated against financially and otherwise is surely clear. In the movie industry alone there are numerous recent studies documenting how women remain undercompensated, their relatively few lead roles, and their overwhelmingly stereotypical roles. See “Inequality in 800 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race/Ethnicity, LGBT, and Disability from 2007-2015,” Annenberg Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative, September 2016,

“It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: Portrayals of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2016,” Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, San Diego State University,”

and Irene E. De Pater, Timothy A. Judge and Brent A. Scott, “Age, Gender, and Compensation: A Study of Hollywood Movie Stars,” Journal of Management Inquiry (2014),

45. The conservative message of both films is most explicit in their endings. The 40-Year-Old Virgin ends with Carell losing his virginity so that he may marry and bed his true love to the satiric tune of "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In," an anthem for the 60s counterculture of “free love.” Schumer in Trainwreck puts the lie to her divorced father’s warning that monogamy is not realistic, and the film ends with Schumer performing with the all-women cheerleaders of the NYC Knicks basketball team to the delight of her true love, a sports doctor.

Interestingly, Judd Apatow, the director of both films, has expressed admiration for 20th Century Women.

“Judd Apatow told me that he was ‘wrecked’ by a scene, near the end of ‘20th Century Women,’ when Jamie skateboards while holding on to Dorothea’s VW Bug…Apatow said, ‘Mike’s films make me think of my late mother, and how I handled that relationship, and—how can I do better with the people around me?’ He paused, choking up, and finally said, ‘Mike’s films make me proud to be a human being.’”

Tad Friend, “Mike Mills’s Anti-Hollywood Family Films,” The New Yorker, January 7, 2017,

46. McKittrick, “‘What guides me is the real person.’ Mike Mills on 20th Century Women.”

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