20th Century Women: The SSL Review

20th Century Women is not The Edge of Seventeen
I saw a trailer for 20th Century Women in the theater, and really liked it - made a note to myself to see it in the theater when it came out. So me and Charlie went, got some popcorn, and I started watching the movie, and I was all like, "dude this is not what I was expecting at all." So I waited wondering when it was gonna change, and then I slowly realized I clearly had the name wrong in my head. It was not called The Edge of Seventeen. So, all that to say I saw The Edge of Seventeen in the theater by mistake because of this movie. It was an okay enough movie, but I was severely disappointed given my original intentions (popcorn helped make it okay though).

I later did see 20th Century Women in the theater though, and loved it. I wanted to write an SSL Review ASAP, but things happen and I didn't. I think luckily I ended up not getting to it until I could do a home re-watch and get all the quotes down perfectly.

An SSL Review
Here's the deal. This may be the the most overtly Orgasm Equality infused movie that exists out there. Like for real. I've never seen a movie - except for maybe mine - so we'll say never seen a movie of the fiction genre- that is more specifically pointing out that 1. women need outer clitoral stimulation in order to orgasm and 2. lots of women just plain go through life not orgasming during sex because sex ends up mostly being penises pumping into vaginas. This movie makes no bones about this. It is bold and correct, and it will be getting a stellar Vulva Rating.

An SSL Review, for those new to the blog, is a critique specifically of depictions and/or discussions of female orgasm, female masturbation, or the clit. I am particularly looking for how realistic the scene is (Does it give incorrect anatomical info? Does it show a woman orgasming from something ridiculous like a butt slap? Those get low vulva ratings), and also for what the scene adds to the larger cultural conversation about female orgasm and sexuality. A list of all my TV SSL reviews are HERE and my movie SSL Reviews are HERE.

There's a lot of SSL Reviewable moments in this movie, so I think I'm going to give some background first then talk about this movie's lady-gasm storyline as a whole before I critique and rate the SSL Reviewable moments. I think it will be easier that way.

Background for the importance of this movie's setting (the golden age of the clit)

The Summer of '79
The  thing to know here is that this movie takes place in the summer of 1979. From my perspective, this is the golden age of reality-based lady-gasm cultural information. It was just over 10 years after Masters and Johnson came out with their large, groundbreaking research (Human Sexual Response) that showed the clitoral glans is the center of female orgasm just as the penis is for the male. They found no evidence, in all their many looks at people doing the nasty, for this vaginally stimulated orgasm that so much of the world for so much of history, including Freud, believed in. I repeat. There was no evidence for such a thing as a vaginally induced orgasm. From this new base of scientifically backed lady-gasm knowledge, feminists started writing and talking and surveying about actual female orgasm experience, and doing sexual therapy based of actual scientific evidence instead of what professionals always assumed about female orgasm.

Granted, it was in no way like the world suddenly 'got' the female orgasm and how it had been so mischaracterized and misunderstood for so long, but from what I can tell from the writing of the time, things seemed to be slowly pulling that way. I was merely in my mother's womb during this summer of '79, so I of course did not experience this 70's lady-gasm golden age nor did I see it come to a halt in the very early years of the 80's. I'm only assuming this is the story of things from an outsider looking back at the writing and research of the time. Either way, what happened in 1982 - not 3 years after this movie was set- was that the G-spot was 'introduced' to the world in a book that did 2 big things.

1. It correctly (and with a small amount of physical evidence that has since been expanded upon over the last 40 years with physical scientific investigation), brought the idea of female ejaculation to the culture and connected it to the 'female prostate,' which could be felt through the vaginal wall as a raised area. They called this the 'G-spot'. Sadly, though, the idea of female ejaculation and its connection to the G-spot/female prostate was quickly forgotten and largely ignored in pop culture, staying more in the fringe topic area of female sexuality even to this day.

2. Strangely, the book also asserted that the 'G-spot' was sort of a magic button in the vagina that when stimulated gave women an amazing, full-bodied orgasm. They had absolutely no physical evidence for this, and no scientific investigations in the almost 40 years since have found evidence for there being anything in the vagina that can be stimulated to orgasm - much less the 'G-Spot.' However, this assertion from the book, baseless as it was, was quickly eaten up and taken for gospel in pop culture - in everything from women's magazine puff sex articles to progressive sex education. I assume the prior decade of people awakening to the truth that women came from the outer clitoral glans instead of from penises and such stimulating the inside of the vagina had been pretty stressful and confusing, and a lot of people didn't know how to process that or adapt their experiences to that truth. So, when a book with baseless assertions about how (guess what!?) there is something in the vagina that causes orgasms was published, it blew the hell up. I've always imagined it was easy to let one's self fall back to believing p-in-v intercourse, with no additional clitoral stimulation, could be as orgasmic for women as it is for men. That belief was just too damn comfortable and familiar to let go of as a culture...and we still are white-knuckle gripping the hell out of that hopeful assumption to this day.

Like I said, this book didn't give the fact-based reasoning for vaginal orgasms (although in this book they called them uterine orgasms), but it did break the truth of female ejaculation to the world and that must have given it enough credit to believe anything it asserted. Plus, and I think this is even more important to its success and the longevity of its assertions, people desperately wanted any reason to validate their previous beliefs about female orgasm. So, to me this was the end of the golden age, and from then on, all these feminists who were literally just talking and writing about the clit and female orgasm from a scientifically investigated viewpoint, were slowly edged over to a sort of extremist place in history, as if their clit based discussion of female orgasm was a polar opposite of the equally extreme vaginal based discussion of female orgasm from the Freud era. It's revisionist history, forgetting that one of these 'extremes' is (still) completely un-backed by scientific investigation, and the other is completely based in scientific knowledge. However, still to this day, there is the feeling that feminist of this era talking about the primacy of the clitoral glans were extreme and reactionary..like, it was okay, nay cool even, that they talked about how important the clit was, but for some god-forsaken reason, pointing out that vaginal orgasms had no backing in science and were probably just made up was just. too. fucking. extreme. even though it was completely true.

So the 'extreme' feminist writing in question is front and center in this movie. The main character is reading and reacting to it in a time before 'The G-Spot' mangled and confused the cultural knowledge of what scientific investigation has actually showed us about female orgasm. Not that this was a Utopian time, but it was a unique time that allowed for a critical mind to get more unencumbered, accurate information about female orgasm. Soon after this, I think, it becomes much harder for a thoughtful, critical person to filter through the info. I mean, honestly, as a working class midwestern gal born in 1980, I had to get deep into researching for my movie Science, Sex and the Ladies, before I even became exposed to these 'extremist' feminist viewpoints - and even being exposed, I had to figure out for myself that their viewpoints were not really 'feminist' as much as scientifically accurate. Anyway, that sort of hidden circumstances of that particular era in regard to female orgasm knowledge makes the timing of this movie's setting intriguing to me.

The other thing is that this is a movie about a teen boy in 1979, his Depression era mother, and the people that surround them. This, again, is at a unique time in which feminist theory and influence had been steadily rising in status for over a decade. It, to me, is an incredibly subtle and thoughtful look at what feminism meant to the 3 women and 2 men that make up the main cast - and about what being a woman or being a man means to them. They are of different experiences and different generations, and the truth is that their relationship to feminism, to their own gender, and to the opposite sex is pretty complicated. It's both hopeful and sad and strangely familiar to us even though we're almost 40 years in the future.

And here's the thing, this was written and directed by a man. Obviously, I love the idea of women telling stories of women, and I believe there are things maybe only a person from a group can really tell well about that group, but I also believe that sometimes an honest and thoughtful telling of a story about people you know very intimately can give an outsider perspective that is real and important. It seems like this writer/directer was writing about his own experience and about his close-contact understanding of the women in his family. I think he does it well, and outside of the Orgasm Equality elements, and the general top-notch quality of the acting and movie-making, it's a big reason I loved this movie.

The Lady-gasm Story lines in 20th Century Women
So, here's some basics. Mom (Dorothea) wants help teaching son (Jamie) to be a man and enlists a 20-something woman (Abbie) who rents a room in their home and her son's female BFF (Julie) to help her.

Abbie's reading material story line
Abbie is already teaching him about punk rock, but she also gives him feminist reading. He's in his room reading. We see the following title:
Title: "'Politics of Orgasm' Susan Lydon 1970"
The following is a voiceover as he reads the book:
"Women's sexuality, defined by men to benefit men has been downgraded and perverted, oppressed and channeled. Anatomically all orgasms are centered in the clitoris, whether they arise from direct manual pressure applied to the clitoris, indirect pressure resulting..." (fades into silence)
So, he learns that the clit must be stimulated for a woman to orgasm (which is fucking true as shit), and that plain ol' intercourse won't get it done. Then he puts this knowledge out there in a skateboard park with another dude.
Dude: I fucked Heather so hard last night. She came like 3 times.
Jamie: How did you stimulate her clitoris? 
Dude: with my dick. 
Jamie: Women need direct clitoral stimulation, like with fingers or a vibrator or something. She probably faked it. Women fake it all the time. 
Dude: (seeimg Jamie's shirt) Talking heads are a bunch of fags. 
Jamie: Actually there's a girl in the band, and she's dating the drummer, so... 
Dude: Your name's Jamie, right?(Dude starts beating Jamie up)
He was totally and completely right in this scenario. Women do need clitoral stimulation, and she probably was faking it. Yet, clearly, this knowledge is and was not widespread, even in what I called above the 'golden age of clit knowledge.' And that, my friends, is some reality that I appreciate this movie's dropping.

So then we see him at home getting his wounds tended to.
Mom: So what was the fight about?
Jamie: clitoral stimulation
Mom: Why do you need to fight about that?
Jamie: I don't know. I want to be a good guy. k? I just wanna be able to satisfy a woman.
kinda confused, frustrated, weirded out, and unsure what to say) Kid, I'm sure you will (walks away quickly)
Later he's sitting with Abbie and she says:
Abbie: The next time a dude tells you a sex story, you just have to agree with everything he says and act like it's right, even if it's not because they don't want to be contradicted. They just wanna live in their fantasy lands.
Abbie knows he's right, but instead of this being some grandstanding moment of being right, she just tells him to shut up because it's easier. I mean, I like this because it's just real. That's what women do all the time when it comes to sex and our orgasms. We just go along; because it's easier, because we don't know how to say what we want to say, because we don't want to offend or rock the boat, because we don't realize there's other options. I like the sorta defeated realism in this scene. It highlights how ingrained those misconceptions about how ladies orgasm really is, and how not straightforward change is. In fact it points out something important - some men are so sensitive and angry about this kind of information that they would beat someone up rather than have their pride hurt at all. However, I also like that this scene doesn't back away from acknowledging that Jamie's understanding of female orgasm is correct either.

Julie's orgasm story line
Later, he's walking with his BFF who is his own age. They've been friends for years, and he's grown to like her romantically. She likes him a lot as a friend but is very clear that she does not want to get sexual with him. She often sneaks into his room and sleeps (just sleeps) with him. She does get sexual with other guys pretty regularly though -  including some that are super assholes. It clearly bothers Jamie that she would have sex with other dudes but not nice ol' him (I think there's a good storyline in here later about Jamie's feelings of entitlement to Julie sexually, but that's not specifically SSL Review relevant). They are walking and talking (this is after the fight above), and Julie is holding the feminist book he's reading.
Julie: I can't believe Abbie gave you this book.
Jamie: It's interesting. What's it like...for girls?
Julie: What?...sex?
Jamie: orgasms.
Julie: Do you really wanna know what it's like?
Jamie: yeah.
Julie: I don't have them.
Jamie: What?
Julie: None of my friends do.
Jamie: Then why do you do it?
Julie: There's other reasons. You know, like the way that he looks at you, or the way they get a little bit desperate at some point, and the little sounds that they make,  (
She closes her eyes and mimics a guy grunting - Jamie laughs) and their bodies - 'cause you don't exactly know what they're gonna look like or smell or feel like until you do it. But yeah. Half the time I regret it.
Jamie: Well, then why do you do it?
Julie: Because half the time I don't regret it.
This is everything to me. I love this scene because this. is. real. This is the reality for so many girls (and women as well). Penis-in-vagina intercourse is the most common, acceptable way for a girl to engage in sexual activity, yet it doesn't necessarily include the organ of female sexual pleasure, the clit, so it often doesn't include orgasm. That female orgasm should not be expected from intercourse is not something we learn - in fact we all grow up believing quite the opposite, and it wreaks havoc on female sexuality.

I don't think people really put thought into what happens when a person has a bunch of sex but no (or too few) orgasms. Julie listed those other reasons why she has sex, and those all make sense. There are other reasons to have sex, but without orgasm, sex is not like we expect it to be from depictions and stories we see all around us. Those are from a male point of view that takes orgasm as a given in sex. Just as Julie describes, there is adventure and a sense of intimacy in sex that is super interesting and exciting. Boys feel that too I'm sure. But again, boys most often have an orgasm. If the girl a boy has sex with turns out to be a bitch or her breath stank, or she was too rough with him - those are annoying maybe, but at least he came. Something made it worth while.

But what if the boy a girl had sex with has stank breath or was shitty to her afterward, or was too rough or demeaning, AND he came, but she didn't? It's a completely different situation. It can make a girl feel shafted, used, regretful - real quick. So, without orgasm it's nice when it's nice - in all the ways Julie describes above like the smells, the surprise, the feel, the arousal.  However, when it's bad, it's really bad and can pretty quickly verge into feeling mean, violating or violent. That is something we don't consider about girls and sex, but we see this on Julie in the movie. She seems harmed by some of these interactions - like when a guy said he would pull out and doesn't. Her immense sense of adventure and wonder and arousal that leads her into these sexual experiences are probably not different from the adventure, arousal, and wonder that would lead any given boy on those same sexual adventures. So, it's sad that, because we live in a world that miseducates everyone on how women orgasm and reinforces incorrect understandings of lady-gasms, women and girls get fucked over subtly and not so subtly in so many ways that boys don't as a result of this very natural sexual experimentation.

Anyway, I think Julie's story has the sadness, the sweetness, and sense of adventure that an actual young woman in her situation might have. I like that she is not portrayed as fully tragic nor as a stereotype of wild female sexuality as so many depictions of girls like her tend to be. She is more complicated than that, more real.  Also, I think it's poignant that again, even in this golden age of clit knowledge, this girl and her friends are out there having a bunch of sex and no orgasms - a situation that is still quite common today (See the 2009 book Dilemmas of Desire). Her answers to Jamie's questions are raw and real and reflect the truth that the way our culture tends to have sex (without clitoral stimulation) leaves women and girls without orgasm and vulnerable to harmful sexual interactions.

Mom, feminism, and orgasms
This is an interesting twist that brings his mom into the story a bit. She is at her vanity, and he is sitting on her bed reading this to her. It titles as he reads.
Title: "'It hurts to be alive and obsolete :The aging woman' Zoe Moss 1970" 
"I am gregarious, interested in others, and I think, intelligent. All I ask is to get to know people and to have them interested in knowing me. I doubt whether I would marry again and live that close to another individual, but I remain invisible. Don't pretend for a minute as you look at me that I am not as alive as you are, and I do not suffer from the category from which you are forcing me. I think, stripped down, I look more attractive than my ex husband, but I am socially and sexually obsolete, and he is not. I have a capacity now for taking people as they are, which I lacked at 20. I reach orgasm in half the time, and I know how to please. Yet I do not even dare show a man that I find him attractive. If I do he may react as if I have insulted him. I am supposed to fulfill my small functions and vanish."
We see clips of his mother that would lead us to believe that this paragraph does reflect aspects of her experience.
Mom: Wow. What do you think of all that? 
Jamie: I don't know. Maybe I'm a feminist. (He smiles)
Mom: So, you think that's me? 
Jamie: (He becomes embarrassed and apologetic) Oh, I don't know. 
Mom: So you think you know me better because you read that? 
Jamie: I don't know. 
Mom: Then why are you reading it to me? 
Jamie: I thought it was interesting. 
Mom: (somewhere between mad, frustrated, and defensive) Okay, well, I don't need a book to know about myself. 
Jamie: I'm sorry. (his words are barely audible. He gets up and leaves)
Soon his mom is talking to Abbie.
Abbie: It's helping him.
Mom: Helping him what?
Abbie: It's helping him become a man. It's what you were talking about.
Mom: Learning about female orgasm is helping him be a man?
Abbie: Well, what man do you know that cares anything about that...I mean that's a miracle.
Mom: Look, he's just a high school kid okay. It's too much. I'm telling you.
Abbie: I think he seems really okay with it.
Mom:  You know you don't actually know what you're doing with him
Mom leaves frustrated, and Abbie seems resigned.

It is clear in this movie that Jamie's mom, Dorothea, is a very open-minded progressive, feminist lady. She made her career in a male dominated field long before the feminism of the 60's and 70's swept the nation. Yet...she is incredibly uncomfortable with the sexual feminism of this era. It very likely is relevant to her life, because the truth is orgasm is a subject relevant to any sexually active person, but it doesn't feel like the kind of feminism she wants to associate herself with. She is an older mom and was of the depression era. That may be part of it, and I like seeing the relationship to different feminist ideals in different generations and genders, but I don't think that's it.

What I like about these scenes are the very palpable feelings of pride and indignation that we see from Dorothea. I think those are feeling that all women can relate to when it comes to not only certain aspects of feminism, but to sexuality and orgasm in particular. Orgasm is private and thus naturally embarrassing, but it is also soaked with social expectations that are confusing or contradict personal experiences. For women throughout the ages, admitting to our orgasmic realities, whether it be admitting to orgasming or to not being able to orgasm or to not orgasming in a particular way, had and still has consequences to one's standing in society, one's sense of self, and one's romantic relationships that can be quite severe. So being guarded and private, prideful and in denial are to be expected. This makes it hard for feminism surrounding orgasm to take off. Women have a lot to gain but also a lot to lose from rocking this boat...just as men do. Anyway, I like how the difficult and complex nature of feminism and orgasm activism is reflected in Dorthea.

The Vulva Rating
Like I said at the beginning of this post, 20th Century Women is the most unabashedly Orgasm Equality Revolution-style fiction movie I have seen. It not only straight up quotes important orgasm-related feminist writing of the 70's, but it also portrays a realism in the women characters' experiences of orgasm, sex, and feminism that are rare in movies and TV. The setting of this movie in the summer of 1979 gives it a uniquely perfect opportunity to speak on female orgasm from a perspective of sound scientific knowledge before our culture is flooded over so fully, not 3 years later, with a bunch of wishful, regressive information - in a way that buries the ability to really find good solid information on female orgasm even for quite thoughtful, critical people. So all that is awesome.

There is also a clear statement inside this movie that the clitoris is the organ of female sexual pleasure; that it needs to be stimulated for a woman to orgasm; and that plain ol' intercourse alone will likely not get the job done. It doesn't back away from that statement either. Even when the movie quite realistically shows Abbie advising Jamie to outwardly back away from his truth-telling in front of other men, she still acknowledges it is truth-telling. The harsh punishment Jamie receives for putting those ideas out there to other men is also a poignant reminder that the feminist writing Jamie references was (and still is) deeply revolutionary.

This is just about as good a movie as one could get for Orgasm Equality. I can't imagine how many people seeing it today are literally exposed to that kind of feminist writing on female orgasm for the first time. 20th Century Women is not just realistic, but also what it adds to the cultural conversation on female orgasm and sexuality is incredibly important and progressive. I love it.

20th Century Women gets an unprecedented 5 1/2 vulvas out of 5!



  1. Another thing that happened in the 70's is that Nancy Friday's book My Secret Garden was published. A significant number of women, myself included, learned how to orgasm from reading about other women's fantasies. I'm not sure that book has ever been given the credit it deserves for showing us what we needed to do to achieve an orgasm.

    1. Yes - good call! Thank you, Reticula. I actually found that book at a person's house I was babysitting for in college around the time I was beginning to research for this movie. It was a really lovely book. Maybe I'll do a quick post on it some day and help give it the credit it indeed deserves!