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Is “20th Century Women” a Feminist Must-Watch?

By Panagiota Katsaveli,

The 20th century brought significant changes in people’s lives around the globe: two world wars, movements for the rights of different communities, different movements and styles, the start of modern technology, merely to name a few. Women were part of the population who was greatly affected by the developments, and they were required to adapt to society’s newly formed expectations and advancements. This is exactly what the movie “20th Century Women” deals with; the development of the female sex in combination with the gap of generations which remains a concern even in our day and age.

The movie “20th Century Women” is a 2016 American comedy-drama film written and directed by Mike Mills, starring Annette Bening as Dorothea Fields, Elle Fanning as Julie Hamlin, Greta Gerwig as Abbie Porter, Lucas Jade Zumann as Jamie Fields and Billy Crudup as William. The story is set at a boarding house in Santa Barbara, California in 1979. The protagonist, Jamie, a 15year old high school student lives with his mother Dorothea, a divorcee and owner of the house where the other characters are tenants: Abbie is a photographer dealing with cervical cancer and William is a carpenter and mechanic who had lived in a hippie commune. Jamie’s best friend, Julie, is a frequent visitor spending nights at the house with him but does not want to pursue a sexual relationship with him and who has a complicating relationship with her mother. In her attempt to raise her son properly Dorothea asks Julie and Abbie for assistance and Jamie then starts rebelling while developing deeper connections with them. Quickly the five characters become a complicated family and help each other develop into the person they are meant to be till, eventually, their roads part ways.

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The movie is also an autobiographical work since its plot is partly based on the Mike Mills’ childhood. As the director has stated he took inspiration from his mother and sister to create the figures of Dorothea and Abbie in the movie; “It felt like I was raised by my mom and sisters, so I was always appealing to women in the punk scene or women in my world. I always leaned to them to figure out my life as a straight white guy. So, I wanted to make a movie about that”, he confessed. He developed Jamie as a reflection of his own experiences and maturation process, but with Julie the recruitment of one of his friend’s experiences was required. This is a love-letter written by him and devoted to the women who raised him, and it perfectly combines autobiographical elements and fictionalized material. The narrative revolves around the real person and human character with its unique and multidimensional aspects.

One of the important themes, peeking through the intriguing storyline and the various cinematic devices utilized to make the story stand out, is the difficulties of growing up and the various influences playing a role on someone shaping of their personality. To be specific, Jamie the protagonist is a teenager who is being raised by his mother initially and the two other female characters from whom Dorothea asks assistance in the complex task of preparing a teenage boy for society. Dorothea was born and grew up in the Depression era of the American society and led a rather independent, non-conventional life for her time before settling down and following a family lifestyle. However, since her time many aspects of life have changed and the American 20th century was marked by women and men trying to reorient themselves in a less rigidly defined society. Abbie is a young independent woman who is a cancer survivor and is the one to introduce Jamie to second wave feminism, who is at peek at the time. She tries to help him assimilate in the modern social scene by taking him to clubs and teaching him how to approach ladies. Lastly, Julie his best friend is liberated teenager who is fully transparent with him and they openly discuss all kinds of topics. All three women have a different point of view and approach regarding Jamie’s upbringing which is exactly the point made by the writer; different perspectives have different benefits to offer to a person’s character. Asking for help in the attempt to raise a child is never a bad thing to do and it should be better normalized in our contemporary reality. Jamie is confused and in need of assistance to figure himself out, so the immediate connection with his mother and their generation gap might get in the way but in the end people who care about us will always be there!

Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures via cornellsun.com

The most prominent element in this story are its female icons, with the story itself being an indie anthem to the feminist values. The writer-director portrays three unique female personas all declaring to be feminists, though each in its own way. Dorothea comes from a different generation and no matter how progressive and open-minded she claims to be, she still appears to present some obsolete views, for instance the indecency of discussing matters about the female body with male conversers. In her time, she had the opportunity to acquire much independence and liberties that women of previous generations would exclusively dream about, so she shows a certain degree of empowerment and freedom being exhaled by her. Abbie, on the opposite end, is the personification of the second feminist wave who struck America at that time. She expresses new ideas and full equality between genders; nothing should be explicit to men or women and men of all ages should be exposed to the feminist worldview and fight for female rights in order to better behave and understand the world from a distinct perspective from the male dominated one. Lastly, Julie is mainly liberated in the sexual domain and expresses the idea that women should have the chance to be free sexual beings and explore their sexuality in the same way men are able to. All these figures exercise different power and influence on the protagonist in a unique way, clearly manifesting that different kinds of feminists exist each with its undisputable value.

Overall, “20th century Women” is a semi-autographic film worth watching for the variety of social messages it has the capability to convey. The movie evokes strong emotions and I personally felt a bit puzzled after I watched it. But this is exactly its appeal, it makes the viewer take into deeper consideration the hidden elements of the characters and situations portrayed and it dares us to think more about the development and importance of feminism in the 20th century and our time alike.


  • The New Yorker, Mike Mills’s Too-Sweet “20th Century Women”. Available here.
  • New York Post, ‘20th Century Women’ is a feminist comedy for the ages. Available here.



Panagiota Katsaveli
She was born in 2001 and was raised in Kilkis. She was an undergraduate student in the department of English Language and Literature at AUTh. Her passions include learning foreign languages and travelling both inside the country and abroad. In her spare time, she enjoys watching movies and reading literature.