One of my favorite movies of 2016 has to be Mike Mills' 20th Century Women, in theaters Dec. 28, starring Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning. The film, set in sunny Santa Barbara, follows three women in different stages of adulthood as they navigate the freedoms afforded to women in the late 1970s. Thanks to three fantastic performances, each woman feels like a real life friend: honest, relatable, and flawed. And Gerwig agrees. "I feel very connected to all of them," she tells me over the phone. "I thought [Mills] built such a beautiful, complicated world. I wanted to be part of it."
Gerwig plays Abbie, a punk-music-loving 20-something struggling with a health scare and trying to find herself and her individuality. To form her character, Gerwig was handed a stack of feminist writings from the era. "What was amazing to me was how many pieces of writing could have been written yesterday. It's so relevant," the 33-year-old says of her research. "I think that engaging with the core of what modern feminism is, through the structural patriarchy, trying to figure out what the right way to combat it is, or live within it, or transform it, all of that — those ideas and where they came from was really fascinating to me."
And where these ideas came from was largely the 1970s. This time period in America brought about a wave of new legislation. Roe v. Wade ensured a woman's right to a safe and legal abortion in 1973, and it wasn't until 1976 that the first marital rape law was passed in Nebraska, making it illegal for a husband to rape his wife in the state. And even though the Equal Pay Act was signed in 1963, the actual wage gap between the sexes has only been slowly narrowing. In 1979, the year the film is set, men earned an average of $15,176 more than women annually, according to Institute for Women’s Policy Research. In 2016, men earned roughly $10,470 more. What's worse, according to the same study, women aren't likely to receive equal pay until 2059.
"When [feminists of the '70s] speak about what women's position in society was — making less on the dollar than men — [it's] the same [today]. Men being leaders in all of these different arenas... it's still unfortunately true. There has been progress, but it's not one hundred percent progress," Gerwig says. "The way revolutionary feminists wrote in the '70s, saying marriage and family are patriarchal and oppressive structures, was really fascinating. It was the first time we really thought of it that way, and thought of it as something that was worthy of being overturned."
But feminists of the '70s, according to Gerwig, felt a real urgency to — for lack of a better phrase — get sh*t done. There were new laws being passed in the hopes of aiding women's rights, and they compelled to change things for the better. Immediately.
"There was a real urgency through the feminist movement in the '70s coming out of the sexual revolution of the '60s. Perhaps we've lost some of that urgency. Perhaps we feel now that it's all been solved, and it hasn't. I think we could use some of their sense of... lighting a fire under their ass," she reasons.
And I can't help but agree. There is plenty of discourse surrounding women's inequality in the news today, but outside of reading about it, what are we really doing? Gerwig blames it on a general sense of apathy. So what can we do to combat a sense of indifference?
"[Have] a passionate engagement with the world," she says. "It's incredibly important. [It's] the opposite of apathy. The opposite of standing back from it. That would be the thing that I would hope for this generation."
With 2017 around the corner, it's time to put "passionate engagement" on all of our New Year's resolution lists. After all, following the challenging year 2016 has turned out to be, I'm not sure any woman can afford to be apathetic any longer.