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20th Century Women

December 25, 2016
20th Century Women

There’s no way that Mike Mills could have known, when he was writing the script that would become 20th Century Women, how resonant it would become in the wake of the 2016 election. What started as a tribute to his own mother has become an elegy for the greatest period of progress we made as a nation, while the jackals circle, waiting to strip it down to its very bones.

Jimmy Carter is often mocked as weak and ineffectual as a president, more accomplished in his later career as a statesman-at-large than he was in office. In retrospect, we can see him standing at the end of the regime started by Roosevelt, and repudiated by the rise of Reagan. The Democratic agenda of social progress started by the New Deal and shored up by the Great Society dominated the 20th century. But after years of social upheaval it began to run out of steam, culminating in what Carter identified in his televised address in July of 1979 as a “crisis of confidence”. Primarily addressing the ongoing energy shortages, Carter was also trying to restore a weary nation’s confidence in the ideals that had formed the backbone of what many people now look back on as “the good old days”. And into that fading light comes Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), learning to make his way in the world, guided by three women.

His mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), is somewhat older than the bulk of feminist activists, though her career as a draftswoman — like Mills’ own mother’s — puts her just outside the traditional gender roles that the movement had worked to break down. Abbie (Greta Gerwig), one of Dorothea’s borders, is closer to that age, and provides Jamie with one treatise after another from feminist writers like Steinem, Dworkin, Brownmiller, and so on. Julie (Elle Fanning) is Lucas’ age, and like him is coming of age in the wake of the feminist groundswell.

And that groundswell was passing its high-water mark at the time. The feminist movement had come within three states’ ratification of passing the Equal Rights Amendment, before Phyllis Schlafly and the rise of the Religious Right kneecapped it. There have been successes since then, of course, but never so much concentrated effort to establish political power. As a movement, feminism has dispersed itself into the culture to the point that, on the one hand, what used to be radical is now considered practically mainstream, while on the other, many young women have forgotten what hard-won victories now form the background of their daily lives, and how easily they could be lost.

These three modern Fates mark the rise and fall of the feminist movement through the Rooseveltian era. Dorothea spent much of her life just getting by within the status quo. Depression and war raged in the background of her youth, and then she had to support a family on her own. Abbie embraces the new freedom to define her own sense of herself as a woman and a person. It’s especially poignant to her as a young survivor of cervical cancer, which upends any possible reliance on traditional roles of biological motherhood. Julie, with her rebellious narcissism, seems to embody a very early postfeminism.

But we look back on them with nearly forty years’ worth of hindsight, and we know what’s coming. The friends watching Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” address can see that he’s foundering, but do they sense the imminent fall of the Rooseveltian order and the Reaganite ascendency? And we, so deep into that same new order, facing down the presidency that so embodies the rot at its core, trying desperately to cash out before the modern Republican coalition falls apart; has it become so much our water that we can no longer see how much we’ve lost?

With 20th Century Women, Mills takes us back to that time and reminds us how much possibility lay before us, and how fabulous we really looked. I despair to feel so keenly how far we’ve fallen, but something in Mills’ film also makes me feel like it wasn’t so long ago, and we may yet get it back.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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