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‘20th Century Women’ and Its Lessons for Feminism After Hillary Clinton

In one of 2016’s Oscar contenders, a united, all-female coalition against misogyny eventually splinters—but somehow manages to fulfill its goals anyway.
In 20th Century Women, Annette Bening’s Dorothea marshals two other women to held her raise her son to be a “good man.”

In 20th Century Women, Annette Bening’s Dorothea marshals two other women to held her raise her son to be a “good man.”

One can always count on entertainment journalists to assess a movie within the political and social context of its premiere date—even though the average film takes three years to move from development to release. So it’s not particularly surprising that, since November’s election results came in, critics have celebrated earnest romances like Moonlight, Loving, and La La Land as essential rejoinders to the president-elect’s more inflammatory rhetoric and dismissed cynical titles like Bad Santa and Miss Sloane for glamorizing coarse, self-interested characters (especially those involved in politics). Already, the election has come to permeate entertainment of all sorts—it’s even inspired television writers to revise their approaches to screen kisses.

Even before the election, critics were calling Mike Mills’ new film 20th Century Women an antidote to the election’s misogynistic rhetoric. After it premiered at the New York Film Festival in October, The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg hailed the movie, a companion piece to Mills’ 2010 movie about his father, Beginners, as “a… rebuttal to [Donald] Trump’s one-dimensional view of women,” while Indiewire’s Eric Kohn called the film “a history lesson that couldn’t arrive soon enough.”

After watching the film several times, I confess I now count myself among the critics who can’t help but see 2016 politics in Mills’ semi-autobiographical Oscar favorite. Because, like Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign did this year, 20th Century Women sees one woman attempt to form an all-female coalition to defeat what she considers a pervasive and toxic masculinity—she brings a few women together to help raise a boy amid the 1970s counterculture—and fail. In the process, the movie reminds us that there are a lot of different kinds of feminism; that the monolithic female vote is a myth; and that, even in division, there is hope.

It’s a bit sad to look back at the 2016 election and remember that Clinton’s campaign slogan was “Stronger Together.” In the end, despite support from prominent feminists and Clinton’s symbolic appearances in suffragette white and beneath glass ceilings, 42 percent of women voted for Trump, including the majority of white women (53 percent).

A similar sense of misguided optimism also drives the hero of Mills’ film, single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), when she enlists her 24-year-old tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and her son’s 17-year-old friend Julie (Elle Fanning) to help raise her son to be what she calls a “good man.” When Jamie ends up in the hospital after playing a fainting game with his friends, capping off some behavior Dorothea finds alarming (asking her probing questions about happiness; listening to punk music), she concludes that his generation’s lack of proper male role models must be to blame. He has grown up, she explains in a voiceover, during the Nixon administration, amid drugs and Vietnam-era cynicism and boredom: “Who are your heroes these days, a bunch of drug addicts?” she asks Abbie and Julie. Rallying the village is her method of solving her grievances with the era’s bad influences.

Still, when the film opens in 1979, it’s the height of feminism’s second wave, and all three women have very different views on good men and empowered women. Dorothea, who joined the generation of women who went to work during World War II in the absence of men and kept her job after, thinks a good man should just “be there” for a woman — her big idea for teaching Jamie good values is to ask him to accompany Abbie to a doctor’s appointment. Abbie has been more directly affected by patriarchal institutions: She has cervical cancer after her mother took DES, an estrogen prescribed to women between the 1930s and ’70s to prevent miscarriages, but that has since been associated with vaginal cancer in their female children—the direct result of the medical community’s history of ignoring the results of clinical trials with pregnant women. Abbie, then, has a more radical approach: She provides Jamie with second-wave feminist theory and punk music, and takes him to clubs to teach him how to talk to women.

(Julie, a suburban teenager who has grown up amid the privilege that defined portions of the ’70s counterculture in Southern California, takes a more hands-off approach. Nevertheless, as a sexually liberated 17-year-old, she does tell Jamie all about female orgasms, how to hold a cigarette more like a guy, and her feelings on love after reading The Road Less Traveled.)

No matter how enlightened or liberated, humans will always disagree over how to raise a child, and the close relationships between Mills’ title characters buckle as their different methods of mothering clash. Though Dorothea serves as a surrogate mother to each of the women, she argues with Julie about her own role in Jamie’s unhappiness (Julie, whose mother is a therapist, tells her “it’s always about the mother”) and chides Abbie for making everyone say “menstruation” aloud at the dinner table. She gets most angry that Abbie has provided her son with an essay about an aging woman’s sexuality; Abbie, meanwhile, views her old-fashioned qualms about openly discussing the female body as remnants of the patriarchy.

For viewers in theaters this year, the divisions between these women’s views on men may recall how various other differences (including socioeconomic status, race, and party) splintered the dream of a women’s coalition against Trump this year. The unified women’s vote is long-standing myth: Research indicates that loyalty to one’s party overshadows considerations of gender, as the New York Times explained in November.

But even Democratic women weren’t totally united under Clinton’s promises for a better world for women: The majority of younger Democrat women voted for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders over Clinton in the Iowa caucus, prompting skirmishes between second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright and their intersectional peers over whether women had to vote for Clinton (he later won the greater part of their support in the New Hampshire primary as well). While the majority of young voters did end up voting Clinton in the general election, their numbers were down five percentage points from their support of Barack Obama in 2012. As Elizabeth Bruenig argued in the New Republic last February, a larger proportion of older feminists may have supported Clinton than their younger cohort because they feared they might not see another woman president in their lifetimes; younger feminists may have been more optimistic about future prospects.

20th Century Women ultimately suggests that, if feminisms are not all created equal, their approaches can at least be equally valid in raising a child. Dorothea comes to accept some of the upsides of ’70s counterculture—the film will eventually see her dance to the Talking Heads and approvingly tell Jamie after he runs off with Julie, “She’s a complicated woman”; she also comes to see that Jamie needed more mothering from her. “I thought we were fine… just me and you,” he tells her in one of the film’s final scenes. In the end, all three women made Jamie a better man on her own, even if their messages didn’t present a united front.

That’s a slightly comforting message to take home at the end of 2016: Perhaps what America needs right now is not a single leader whose campaign marketed her as a symbol as a one-size-fits-all solution for women, but many women who represent a multiplicity of backgrounds and experiences, chosen by the several factions of the female vote. Even if Trump’s cabinet is heavily skewed toward white men, November 8th saw some progress on that front: The 2017 Senate will have more women (21) than ever before, including three new women of color.For more, head to the movies for hope: Mills’ sunny film offers two hours in sunny Santa Barbara in 1979, when a diverse matriarchy is thriving.