THE REAL REEL | "20th Century Women" Is As Relevant As Ever

This film allows for a portrayal of sexuality that is both fumbling, innate, and statement-less.


This movie evokes meaning in so many ways. All at once it strikes a political chord, a sensual and tactile aspect, and having been released a year before the omni-present #metoo movement, allows for a portrayal of sexuality that is both fumbling, innate, and statement-less. In today's climate, sexuality is separate and segmented from one's identity, it is labeled, it is named safe or unsafe, feminist or not feminist, right or wrong.

What the #metoo movement is often unable to allow room for, due to the very imminent need to inspire change around an unquestioningly misogynistic sexually repressed culture, is that outside of very clear cases of assault, women and men often don't know what they want, what is safe or exciting, what is causing a loss of self esteem, what is imitation and what is a cash-in on power and privilege. 20th Century Women does us the favor of merging sexuality with intellect, desire with confusion, boundaries with a gentle curiosity. Oh, and this movie is about so much more than sex… sex, is just portrayed as another, natural biological process that integrates with life. In this film, sex is not something that is hidden, shamed, or blamed. It just is.

The characters in this film are sturdy, without hiding their clear uncertainties. These characters are given permission to portray strong identities, while clearly searching, yearning, and experimenting. Annette Bening as the mother is just awesomely floundering, yet so steady at the same time. She has clearly had her own discursive identity experiences, being an older mother, divorced, still single, living with roommates, and raising a teenage son. Just by couching the story in the 20th century, there is no real model for this type of "family." (It's unprogressive and intolerant of me to even use quotes when typing the word family in that sentence).

Even today, a young white man being raised in a home made up of a single mother and her boarders is considered a "broken" family, unusual, and alternative at best. The best part about this little family that Bening's character has created, is her clear intentionality around its construction. These people are here on purpose. Sure she can use the money, but she could have boarded anyone. She clearly picks people she thinks will have a remarkable affect on her son, offer something she can't, make up for her single parent-ness.

The other characters in the film played by Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning give us fairly hetero-normative portrayals of sexuality, but with a flexibility not always portrayed in popular culture. There is a scene where Fanning explains why she has casual sex with men who she knows don't know/love/ her. She is explaining this to the teen boy Jamie who is of course madly in love with her, played by Lucas Jade Zuman. Fanning tells Zuman's character that '50% of the time she regrets sleeping with these guys' and when he asks why she does it then, her response is 'because 50% of the time she doesn't regret it'. Here, the film names a concept that seems over politicized in todays climate, that of "regrettable sex."

Had this film been made in 2018 rather than 2016, the space for viewers to sit with Fanning's statement, without political regard would have been much less present. Watching this film now and analyzing this discussion about sleeping with men, regretting it, but doing it anyway, is so impossibly evocative of political debates. Even if we want to, we are unable to separate this scene from say, the Aziz Ansari incident. How can I not think of all of the grey areas of the recent sexual assault "revelations" and the messy Hollywood scandals that have gained so much attention?

Can women have regrettable sex without it being sexual assault? Of course they can. But can they separate their choice to have sex with anyone, at anytime, without the voice of "the patriarchy" in their heads, clinging and defining all of their choices? Have we removed their entire agency? Does this matter? In 20th Century women, we are frozen in a time that is both political and a-political. The women and men in this era haven't yet swallowed up all of the "liberal agenda," (that people like me hand out like candy) and are still allowed to live within the socialized confines of their gender while simultaneously pushing its boundaries. The women in this film are both accepted as they are, but also, for instance, called a lesbian when society can't quite put them in the box that "most straight women" fit themselves into.

The best part of this movie is it's compassionate, almost voyeuristic look at how feminism affects men. As an avid feminist and lover of all things gender studies, the movement towards dismantling all parts of patriarchy has clearly left some giant holes in our available, positive models of masculinity. We keep adding to what women are "allowed" to do, what spaces they are "allowed" to occupy and now women are overwhelmed with options. All these options are mostly a good thing of course and yes, I know much more work to be done here still... but there is also a palpable "overwhelmness" of freedom in the air that women breathe. The "can do it all" quickly can bleed into "should do it all" and no one wants that. Particularly my friends who have advance degrees, are mothers, and are the bread winners of their families. YAY feminism.

But men… men seem to now be waiting to be told what space they should be relegated to. Is the only positive formation of hetero-masculinity a space in which it is hardly noticed and minimized to the full extent? Maybe? And maybe that's fine. But like a diet made up of foods you are not supposed to eat…men may need a meal replacement kit. We now have heard what masculinity can't be… but the world is wondering what it can be?

20th Century Women also gives us a glimpse into some 20th century models of masculinity. These men occupy an elastic space, a world where for the most part, masculinity has yet to be lumped together with patriarchy and all of its shortcomings. It's a beautiful space to view. The men in this movie are like the men in your life…they are just people, not parodied representations of masculinity, not there to make a point. These men just want to connect, and there are no car chases, explosive devices, or elaborate stunts set in place to justify that desire for human connection. No one is welcoming them home after heroic efforts…they just want to be loved, because they are alive. Unlike today's discourse around gender, sexuality, identity, parenthood, teen-hood, ect… this film sits us in a flexible, uncertain questioning time. It doesn't try to convince us of anything. It simply gives us the opportunity to grant ourselves permission to not be sure about anything. WHAT a gift.

By Rachel Hall, Rachel has a Masters in Cultural Gender Studies, and a BA in Communication & Culture, and works with all kinds of people to improve their ability to work with all kinds of people. She can often be found hiding in her laundry room from her two children. More about her on her website.

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