An Unruly Sequence in 20th Century Women (Yu Ching)

The character of Abbie, played by Greta Gerwig in 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, USA, 2016), plays the part of the unruly woman in a sequence of the film where she is unable to actively participate in a social dinner due to the physical and mental toll of her menstruation. As an uncontrollable function of the female body, menstruation is linked with the grotesque and is often a taboo subject, even in the relatively progressive household that Abbie lives in, as demonstrated by Dorothea (Annette Bening) and Julie’s (Elle Fanning) attempts to reprimand Abbie for talking about it. However, Abbie insists on making a spectacle of herself, disrupting the social atmosphere of the room by expressing her frustration at the others’ refusal to acknowledge her body as simultaneously grotesque and normal. She encourages Dorothea’s son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) and other male friends to say the word “menstruation”, and the hesitation and embarrassment of the men results in a comic situation for the viewer. In an uncanny parallel to the Medusa model of the unruly woman, one of the friends averts his eyes when saying the word, and Abbie points it out, telling him to look at her. Kathleen Rowe paraphrases Hélène Cixious’s analysis that “As long as men avert their eyes from [Medusa], fearing the sight of her and her gaze, ‘woman’ can be only a phantasm of castration for them, deadly and grotesque”.[1] By demanding eye contact and thus visibility, Abbie encourages the men to transgress the traditional gender boundaries that they have been taught since birth. Abbie’s anger of being repressed turns fragile masculinity into the butt of the joke.


[1] Kathleen Rowe, “Feminist Film Theory and the Question of Laughter,” The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter (Austin: Texas, 1995): 10.


One comment

  1. This was a good example that highlights not only the Medusa aspect of Rowe’s analysis but also the unruly woman. Abbie is angered at being oppressed and not being able to talk about her menstruation. Abbie is an unruly woman because she challenges the taboo surrounding menstruation and makes her body a spectacle.

Leave a Reply