Falling in Love With 20th Century Women

Oscar season has been and gone and probably fading into a distant memory by now. This year’s Oscars were, typically, full of controversy: Did La La Land really deserve so many nominations? In my opinion, no. The best actor award went to a man accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment. Moonlight’s well deserved win for best motion picture was completely overshadowed by mistakenly naming La La Land as winner. In the middle of all that, there was a little gem of a film that was nominated for a best screenplay at the Oscars and best motion picture at the Golden Globes that was largely forgotten among all the controversy: 20th Century Women.

20th Century Women caught my eye after the menstruation scene went viral. How often does an Oscar nominated movie include a five minute scene where the main characters mention the words menstruation, bleeding, vaginas and period sex at a dinner party? Exciting stuff!

So I finally got round to watching the film a couple of weeks ago to discover there are many other reasons to fall head over heels in love with Mike Mills’ latest offering, a refreshing, feminist, breath of fresh air, when we have the likes of 50 Shades to put up with!

So here are eight reasons why 20th Century Women is perhaps the most feminist movie of the year. Beware: spoilers abound!

1. Three Cheers for Strong Women: While the premise of the movie is a coming of age story of 16 year old boy Jamie, who is going through the usual adolescent angst, the movie really focuses on the three main women in Jamie’s life: his single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), their lodger Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and his best friend Julie (Elle Fanning). Each of these characters are strong, independent, women who represent a different phase of womanhood, from adolescence to menopause. Annette Bening is mesmerising as a single mother trying to come to terms with the need to recognise her own wishes and desires as her only child is growing up and finding independence. Abbie is a photographer, David Bowie devotee and cancer survivor who is trying to figure out what life post-cancer and post-New York bohemia might look like. Julie is a 17 year old struggling with her emerging sexuality, an overbearing mother and the distance she feels from her family since the arrival of a new sister. They all play a key role in showing Jamie not just how to treat women with love and respect, but how to be a feminist, and that starts with education!

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2. Feminism 101: Admist the crisis of adolescence and the absence of a male role model, Dorothea enlists the help of Abby and Julie in preparing her son to ‘be a man’ and so the feminist indoctrination begins. The share stories from their lives, instruct him on what women want and share key feminist texts with him. Whole passages are read from a now vintage edition of my favourite gynaecological manual Our Bodies Our Selves! Yes, really, a mainstream Hollywood film where feminist texts were read aloud! My feminist inner goddess was doing cartwheels.

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3. Rainbow families: The film demonstrates that family does not necessarily equal Mum, Dad and 2.4 children all bound by blood. There are other constellations of families and there are the families we choose for are selves. There are single mothers, there are partners without children and there are communities that can share in the raising and educating of children. It has to be said that Mike Mills’ universe is predominantly, white, hetero, middle class and privileged, nevertheless it speaks to the feminist vision that raising children is a responsibility shared by the whole community, not just mothers!

4. Sex, Sex, Sex: Jamie is a 15 year old boy and obviously is obsessed with sex. He is not alone, everyone else in the film seems to sleeping with someone, except perhaps for Dorothea, who seems to have slipped into a Nun-like existence since the separation from Jamie’s father. The refreshing thing about it is all the sex happens outside of established, traditional romantic relationships. Julie is experimenting, Abbie is looking for comfort, consolation and release and Billy Crudup’s character William is simply up for anything. It’s real life, no hearts and flower romance that ends with a trip down the isle.

5. No Means No and Yes Means Yes: Jamie is desperately in love with his best friend but she has no sexual interest in him. He occasionally crosses the line towards pressuring her to have sex but Julie never gives in to his emotional manipulation. Rather she makes it clear he cannot manipulate her into having sex. Jamie shows at least enough respect not to insist. It is clear that just because Julie might have numerous sexual partners that that does not give anyone the ‘right’ to sleep with her.

Meanwhile Julie engages in an active and experimental sex life with other boys from her peer group. She has no steady boyfriend, she is not interested in romance and she makes no apologies for it. She is the protagonist of her own choices and not a victim. In fact she willingly share the details of her first sexual encounter at the famous dinner party, Abbie already having broken the ice with the menstruation conversation.

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The complexities of consent are explored further when one of Julie’s sexual partners ‘forgets’ to pull out before ejaculating. He seems non-plussed and Julie is left alone to deal with the possibility of pregnancy. This might be shocking if it were not so familiar to so many women, who partners manipulate us into not using condoms with promises that are so easily broken. What is perhaps shocking is that this is rarely portrayed on screen.

6. Women’s orgasms! How many other Hollywood films have you seen where women’s orgasms are mentioned consistently and repeatedly? Not just that women have orgasms but that they deserve them and a good lover should take care that their partner is in fact experiencing pleasure.

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As Jamie diligently makes his way through Our Bodies Ourselves he reads about how to bring a woman to orgasm. Eager to share this vital information with his peers, he corrects a skate park friend who boasts about his sexual prowess by saying he couldn’t possibly have brought a girl to orgasm through penetration alone as “Women generally need direct clitoral stimulation.” This rewards him a swift beating. He is also deeply concerned about his ability to pleasure women, not because it is a reflection of his masculinity, but because women deserve pleasure too! Revolutionary!

This is juxtaposed against Julie’s still unfulfilling sexual adventures in which she admits to rarely ever experiencing pleasure.

7. Women’s Bodies: While there is limited or no nudity in the film women’s bodies in all their beauty and complexity are very much present. From Abbie’s menstruation conversation, to the importance of clitoral stimulation, and the realities of life after cervical cancer. Which brings me to my final point.

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8. Cervical Cancer: 20th Century Women is perhaps the only movie I have seen which addresses cervical cancer. Gynaechological cancers are often silent killers; stigma and lack of awareness means that they often go unspoken and undetected. Uterine cancers are still not ‘fashionable’ the way breast cancer has become. Cervical cancer in particular has erroneous associations with promiscuity and is therefore further stigmatised. Though as the film mentions Abbie’s cancer was caused by a drug her mother was prescribed during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage and premature birth. Though highly detectable with regular smear testing and highly treatable, there are large disparities in survival between white women and women of colour both in the West and the Global South. Cervical cancer takes the lives of on average 260,000 women a year, mostly from Africa, Asia and Latin America. My own mother died from cervical cancer at 47. It was already quite advanced when she was diagnosed and the chemo and radiation treatment failed.

There is a general perception that only older women get cervical cancer but, as is the case of Abbie, she was quite young when it was detected, emphasising the importance for any woman who is sexually active, regardless of age to get treatment.

I loved that the focus on Abbie is as a survivor of cervical cancer. Mike Mills avoids another Hollywood cliché that cancer is synonymous with family tragedy that will leave us all reaching for the Kleenex. Abbie’s wrestles with conflicting feelings of vulnerability for surviving, relief at receiving the all-clear and rage at the long term implications it might have over her future capacity to have children, if that is what she would like. It’s chaos, it’s messy, it’s tearful and it’s liberating and she shares all this with Jamie and the other members of the household.

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Have you seen 20th Century Women? What did you think? What other movies celebrating women and sexuality can you think of? Comments below!

5 comments

  1. Great piece! I shared with the Facebook discussion group I manage called Feminism is for Everyone, Miami. Please join and share your posts. Thanks for this awesome description. Where can I see this film?

    Like

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