It’s 1979. You’re grocery shopping with your mother, and the car she’s been holding on to for decades just combusted into flames in the parking lot. You’re embarrassed, but you were expecting it. She’s embarrassed, but she was expecting it. The car was your father’s; it is one of the only things you own of his. It seems nothing of yours is related to him anymore. It’s just you and your mother. That’s the way it’s always been.
The 1970s inspired various movements of political activism. Second-wave feminism was caught in the tides of other liberation movements. A more radical way to approach women’s liberation was embraced through strikes for equality, protests for abortion rights, defining sexual assault as a crime of violence, and shattering the expectations a patriarchal society bestowed onto women. Their efforts led to the passing of various acts that legally protected women’s rights, such as Title X in 1972 and Roe v. Wade in 1973. No longer were females defined just by their femininity; they had minds, dreams, and ambitions, and worked tirelessly to become more than objects of desire and domesticity.
Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women embraces the struggle feminists embodied during the 1970s, directly and indirectly. The story follows Jamie, a young man who has been raised without a father or prominent male figure. Instead, Jamie has been raised by a collection of women; women with different experiences that shape him into the respectable man at the end of the film. Feminism is explored within each of Jamie’s female relationships; his mother Dorothea, his best friend Julie, and his neighbor Abbie. Each character gives Jamie an insight into the newly proclaimed female world. Their different lives and experiences are highlighted and are what motivates the film’s plot. In an entertaining character study, Mills is able to visually explore the impact of 1970s feminism on the growing youth while attempting to navigate the struggles of adolescence.
Lost in the radical changes in culture and politics in the 1970s, Dorothea feels a distance between her and her son. Growing up in two starkly different decades, Dorothea spends the majority of the first act contemplating the ways in which she can shape her 15-year-old son into someone admirable. What an admirable person was, of course, changed from the 1940s to the 1970s. War was no longer a defining factor of masculinity. Drugs and sex became the new frontier of recreational activities. Rock music took to the streets. Protests and anger and resentment ate at America’s core, reflecting the youth that was to grow up in its remains. Dorothea, a single mother, worries about being able to raise a reputable son without the presence of a man in the household. It becomes her mission to raise Jamie through these turbulent times through the influence of his female counterparts. “How do you be a good man?” She says to Julie and Abbie. “I don’t know how you do that nowadays.” Dorothea asks them to show Jamie how to live in a world where masculinity and femininity are changing as fast as the tides. Their varying perspectives on the world are what Jamie needs to become a fully-rounded person. She believes that can replace the absence of a father. She proposes the idea of raising a man without a man; is it possible? Can you be a man without any prominent men figures in your life?
But for the past 15 years, Dorothea has done a seemingly good job of raising Jamie. Mills indirectly showcases this through their lax relationship, their comfortability with one another, and Jamie’s general mannerisms. Throughout the film, he is curious to learn more about the world around him. He’s friendly and outgoing. He’s stubborn, but he’ll listen to Dorothea when he needs to. His rebellions are mild, and most importantly, he is interested in the notions of feminism he learns from Abbie and Julie.
Jamie’s relationship with Julie is strained by the heterosexual expectations of opposite-sex friendships. Jamie expresses sexual interest in his friend throughout the film; an unrequited feeling on Julie’s end. She doesn’t take Dorothea’s instructions literally, but Julie does speak to Jamie about her sex life, her interest in various men, the process of an intimate relationship, and her philosophical understanding of love. To her, love isn’t a feeling; it’s another expectation people feel they must meet in order to participate in some sort of relationship. She is open to discussing what are considered inappropriate subjects, visually demonstrating the gap between Dorothea and Jamie. Dorothea’s plan works in this context since she is unable to understand the youth culture of the 1970s.
However, these conversations give Jamie the impression that Julie is interested in him, though she explains her understanding of sex and love are two separate entities. Julie’s perspective of unintentional heartbreak helps shatter Jamie’s, as well as the audience’s, expectations surrounding male and female friendships. Julie is her own person throughout the film. She is strong-minded and hard-headed. She cares deeply about Jamie with no romantic sentiments attached. She has a heavy influence on Jamie’s understanding of relationships and how women want to be perceived. When Jamie admits his feelings to her, she responds; “You want your version of me. That’s not me.” Julie encompasses the feminine autonomy women were beginning to embrace towards themselves and their relationships in the 1970s. Her relationship with Jamie demonstrates its effects on the upcoming generation. Like Jamie, Julie is also learning to navigate her position in the world. She’s young and naïve, malleable to the progressiveness surrounding her life, but not old enough to fully grasp its effects. Mills is able to explore the benefits of a younger lens of feminism presented in a real, circumstantial friendship. Julie’s rejection empowers her as a character and lets Jamie learn about the expectations society has set for women in relationships.
Abbie’s character presents Jamie with a more rash and radical perspective on feminism as a whole. A survivor of ovarian cancer, Abbie is informed that having children is a dangerous, if not impossible, pursuit. Her outlook of the world becomes frustrated, and her understanding of being a female is thwarted. She seems to cope through her relationship with Jamie; her ability to teach him about radical feminism seems to fill in her anguish. Abbie lends Jamie books about the female body. He learns about pleasure, stimulation, and facets of intercourse often considered taboo in mainstream society. Abbie’s open and easygoing personality makes her a great source for understanding why women started to gear more toward a self-determining lens in the 1970s. She speaks freely about menstruation, which discomforts and enlightens the characters about the unspoken parts of the female form, as well as why they may be unspoken. She’s old enough to recognize the changes women are gearing toward without being caught up in tradition. She’s able to take Jamie to a club without feeling awkward or uncomfortable because she knows, and participates in, the progressive changes women were headed towards. Abbie is the perfect embodiment of who Dorothea wants for Jamie; a wise, sensitive, and observant woman navigating autonomy and self-determination in a time of reform and change.
20th Century Women is a study on the notions of second-wave feminism and its relative impacts on the up-and-coming generation. Each female character is dynamic in traits and range, enlightening the male protagonist in different ways. While the film was written and directed by a man, Mills uses Jamie as a catalyst for listening to and understanding what it means to embrace femininity without the restraints of hostile masculinity. Mills forefronts female voices, empowering their experiences while pushing the protagonist into educational situations. There are male figures present in the movie, mainly shown through Dorothea and Abbie’s love interests, but none leave an impact on Jamie’s growth the way the women in his life do. It’s lovely to see female potential without the reminders of sexism and misogyny, neither of which are touched upon in the movie. Instead, Mills creates a celebration of femininity, loud and unashamed, tethered by the sociopolitical conditions in which it was immersed.