It’s probably a drag being a liberal, always boycotting things. A Progressive friend who was surprised by my politics once asked me how I could like Radiohead so much, considering its front man Thom Yorke is such a leftist. It seemed a logical error (the “moralistic boycotter’s fallacy”?). I don’t judge songs by the artist’s favorite color, either. The fact is, conservatives can’t afford to discriminate merely to maintain moral cleanliness. I wonder whose music my friend might allow me to enjoy. Kid Rock? (Blah.) Rush? (Eye roll.)
And anyway, even if an artist’s politics do affect his art, what a spiritual poverty to entertain, or be entertained by, only what confirms one’s convictions! As a psychological fact, for many the private determines the political; must we also allow the partisan to constrict the personal?
Mike Mills’ laugh-out-loud drama 20th Century Women reminisces about the politics and music and, most of all, the mood of 1979 America. “Can’t things just be pretty?” Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening, a great at her best) asks upon hearing a punk record. Her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) responds: “Pretty music is used to hide how unfair and corrupt society is.” While the political recurs as a topic, don’t let that distract you. Human life — its folly, its sorrows, and its beauty — shines through in this touching, if inflated, film. That the human transcends the political may even be the point.
Divorcée Dorothea enlists the help of two young women, Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning), in raising the 15-year-old Jamie, whose father went AWOL years ago. “Don’t you need a man to raise a man?” Julie asks. “No, I don’t think so. I think you’re what’s going to work for him,” Dorothea replies.
Abbie responds to the assignment by having Jamie read Our Bodies, Ourselves and Sisterhood Is Powerful, standard texts of 1970s feminism that move the young man and instill a concern for women, even as his peers engage in bull sessions about their conquests. When Jamie deflates a braggart’s big fish story by explaining the female orgasm, the boy beats him up for his trouble.
In twenty-something Abbie, we have a representative of the private-is-political style of second-wave feminism, which the film contrasts with Dorothea’s first-wave, more rationalistic attitude. Abbie discusses menstruation at a dinner party, training the guests politically. While viewers have the luxury of being amused, the disgusted Dorothea sends everyone home.
The foregoing might make conservatives feel like boycotting, or at least avoiding, this movie — but they should resist the temptation to allow the partisan to constrict the personal. They would only deny themselves a delight (and perhaps some sad insights).
The reviewer at the National Review dismisses the film as “a stale feminist diatribe” about how to raise “a non-gender-specific male.” Lacking here is any appreciation of the tone of this humorous, humane film — there’s nothing diatribe-ish about it. We really must allow ourselves to be entertained. Not just personal but also political health requires being able to laugh, lovingly, at human life and its types.
The film’s nostalgia for 1979 balances fondness with farce. “Your hair smells good,” the punkish, pink-haired Abbie says tenderly during foreplay. “I make my own shampoo,” whispers the hippie handyman William (Billy Crudup). “Of course you do.”
Jamie wants to know why his mother is “fine being sad and alone.” Dorothea quips, “Look, wondering if you’re happy, it’s a great shortcut to just being depressed.” The movie suggests here that jokes sometimes deflect from problems that really should be faced. Not everything can be chuckled away. At the same time, however, humor seems to be how the brilliant Dorothea adjusts to life while maintaining a consistent kindness.
Comedy staves off misanthropy. That is why a sense of humor is inconsistent with misandry. Classic joke: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? — That’s not funny. Moralistic boycotters of any stripe can’t take a joke. Old school feminism may have lacked a sense of humor about menses (and much else), but Mills displays for us the absurdity of publicizing it for political points. Conservatives should appreciate this movie both for its funny feminism and its seriousness about the side-effects thereof.
We know, for example, that boys benefit from fathering. Not just boys, but girls, too. Oh, and elephants.
When South Africa relocated elephants to Kruger National Park in the 1980s, leaving the bulls behind, the adolescent males underwent early and extraordinarily aggressive hormonal cycles (“musth”) — their sexual and violent impulses unchecked by the presence of older males. The juvenile delinquency ended when mature bulls were reintroduced into the population. Asked whether “this is a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of human intervention in the highly complex animal society,” biologist Rob Slotow explained: “When people try new ideas, there are consequences of them that we may not know about until a number of years have passed. And this is particularly so when you talk about long-lived species, such as elephants.”
We are, likewise, a long-lived, socially complex species suffering from the interventions of meddlesome humans armed with novel ideas that entail unclear consequences. Dorothea worries more about softness than about elephantine machismo, but either — or a host of other problems — can happen after the male absconds. Of course, unlike other animals, we must live according to human ideas. Reason complicates everything, including male-female and parent-child relations.
Risibility, by the way, is the first corollary of human rationality. And that is fortuitous because being ridiculous is reason’s second corollary. We occasionally make mistakes no mere animal could make, splash around in emotions over our heads, ask big questions we can’t adequately answer, and try on prêt à porter identities, all in pursuit of some meaning we feel should, at some point, just happen to us.
Of course, meaning doesn’t work that way. It can’t just happen to us.
The imperfect is the stuff of life. Some things are more suboptimal than others, though, and the movie does deal seriously with at least some of them. What chain-smoking Dorothea says about cigarettes applies to the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s: “When I started, they weren’t bad for you. They were just stylish. Sort of edgy.”
The film and its harsh lighting accentuate the sorrowful effects of sexual liberation and the divorce epidemic, trends whose costs were visible by 1979. The main characters are all rather damaged, and some viewers might not enjoy the humor because they find the facts of the film too sad. Another child of a broken home, 17-year-old Julie, sleeps around (and usually regrets it), but not with Jamie, whose friendship she values too much to spoil with something as shallow as sex as she knows it.
Notwithstanding its nostalgia for a moment marked by loss of meaning, the film unsentimentally lays out the ramifications of mistakes made only by the rational animal. The audience is shown, sans moral commentary either way, two trips to Planned Parenthood. The film perhaps seems blithe about the unintended consequences of divorce, given that Jamie turns out all right in spite of his fatherlessness. Yet Mills repeatedly shows us teenage girls, angry and sad, at a support group for children of divorced parents (the psychoanalysis doesn’t seem to help). And the no-nonsense Dorothea does recognize that single motherhood calls for a special strategy. “He’s only got me,” Dorothea worries: “Think about it. It’s not enough.”
20th Century Women deals with such troubles politically, but not in a partisan way. It serves up — both for laughs and for contemplation — a long clip from President Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech lamenting the national loss of a sense of direction. The problem may be felt more acutely by lonely midlife divorcées, by the children of separated parents, by 15-year-olds, and perhaps most acutely in 1979. But it is felt by everyone sometimes. What’s being suggested to us is that music, psychology, sex, and ideologies — as central as they were, and still are, to many young people as they fumble around trying to make sense of their lives — cannot supply what is needed for personal meaning.
The film’s main flaw — a weak plot, one not centered on a single protagonist — serves a deeper theme. In flashbacks and flash-forwards, we get the lives of the five key characters, with none merely a side-character in another’s story. It’s a rare case in which verisimilitude compensates for lack of plot, by virtue of its insightfulness: Personal meaning arises for us not on our own, but with particular other people, and not because they can supply solutions to our problems, but because by chance they are there and, by choice, we and they are willing to share part of our lives with one another.
What Mike Mills has done is show how changes in womanhood cause a crisis of manhood and how changes in parenthood cause a crisis in childhood. His movie also reminds us that these challenges are versions of the confusions belonging to all of us by virtue of being human. With such problems, boycotts are no use. We can respond to them only if we allow ourselves to see them.
This was originally published with the same title in Law and Liberty on February 24, 2017.