How Women Influence Men

From EIC Laura Kosann

This weekend I was completely floored by the new film 20th Century Women – starring Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning and Lucas Jade Zumann. The general gist of the story is that Dorothea (Annette Bening, aka our idol) is a single Mom who grew up during the Depression, and is now raising Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) a teenage boy in Santa Barbara, California in the 70’s. Dorothea recruits Abbie (Greta Gerwig) – the zany, free-spirited, punk-worshipping 20-something who rents a room in Dorothea’s house, and Julie – the adolescent girl who has grown up with Jamie – to help raise her son, suddenly coming to the realization that she can’t do it on her own.

“Don’t you need a man to raise a man?” Julie asks, at hearing Dorothea’s request.

As 21st century women, we know this is not the case (Dorothea was ahead of her time).

For some reason, this film seemed more relevant to me than a lot of things I’ve seen recently. Maybe because Josh Radnor talked to us in Monday’s interview about how there are many ways to “be a man”. Maybe it was that article in Porter on Megyn Kelly that I read four times; or maybe it’s just the upcoming inauguration. All I know is this movie struck a chord with me, and made me ponder the kind of woman I am in the world we live in. This may have something to do with the fact that we were given such a deep look into the lives of Abbie, Julie and Dorothea – three great women from very different times and places.

What struck me first was how Abbie and Julie – many times unknowingly – consistently make Jamie a better man simply by involving him in their lives (the events of which I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen it). It wasn’t really about advice they were giving him along the way – the way a parent sits their kid down for a talk – it was simply about them taking Jamie along on the journey of being a woman in a man’s world in the 70’s.

When Abbie shares a piece of feminist literature with Jamie, he discovers what actually makes a girl orgasm; resulting in him challenging a kid at the skateboard park who claims he “fucked a girl so hard, she came like three times.” Jamie – voicing what the entire audience is probably thinking – questions the notion, saying women need “direct clitoral stimulation” to achieve an orgasm. Needless to say, he gets the crap beaten out of him.

As Dorothea cleans Jamie up later, he says “I want to be a good guy. I want to be able to satisfy a woman.”

It’s not the usual definition of being a man that we’re shown in storybooks and mainstream movies, and it made me think that every woman watching this might be thinking, why isn’t that a more mainstream definition of being a man?

The same can be said for a scene when Abbie is puzzled by the fact that Dorothea doesn’t want her to say menstruation at the table.

Abbie turns to Jamie: “You want an adult relationship with with a woman, you have to be comfortable with a woman having her period. Say menstruation like there’s nothing wrong with it – menstruation.”

“Menstruation.” Jamie responds back.

Abbie continues to make the men around the table all say menstruation, and then in unison; not like they’re scared of it or like it’s a question, but rather that it’s a casual fact of life. This was – suffice to say – one of the funniest parts of the movie. Abbie has again brought up a new definition of “being a man” that is not something we see a ton of in mainstream media.

And then there’s the balance between Julie and Abbie, as Julie on the flip side gives her own adolescent definition of being a man: “I think being strong is the most important quality, it’s not being vulnerable, not being sensitive…it’s about your strength and your durability against the other emotions.”

While this is of course ironic, as Jamie is the sole male character that endures in Julie’s life precisely because he is sensitive and he listens, I also liked this definition. While many might take issue with it, I actually thought the balance between Abbie and Julie was something super important. Just because you want a man to be sensitive doesn’t mean you don’t want him to be strong for you, and wanting a man to be strong for you doesn’t make you a weaker woman; maybe it even makes you a stronger one.

And then there’s Dorothea: By letting her son journey through the worlds of two very different women, it almost gives the audience a guarantee that Jamie will grow up to be a great man; a fact we already see in the second half of the film. 

At the start of the film Dorothea says to Jamie, “Men feel like you have to fix everything for women, or you’re not doing anything. But some things can’t be fixed. Just be there. Somehow, that’s hard for you all.”

It was a great quote that made the entire audience laugh, but I also thought: It’s great when men fix things. Why wouldn’t you want a man to even just try to fix things?

By the end of the movie you realize Dorothea’s point: By simply being present, Jamie actually ended up doing a lot more for Abbie and Julie than he would have if he’d simply been focused on solutions and results.

Going into awards season, this is a movie I’ll be rooting for, and I’m thinking men and women alike will too…

Want more from Laura? Read why what you put in writing is important and when & why Laura hates dressing up.