'Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding': Finally, a Film Gets New Feminism

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Jane Fonda, Catherine Keener, and Elizabeth Olsen star as three generations of women negotiating three generations of outlooks—just as women today are doing.

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IFC

Not long into Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding, Elizabeth Olsen's character, Zoe, has an epiphany. Sitting on a porch swing outside her grandmother's house in Woodstock as a pot-laden party bustles around her, talking to a middle-aged black woman who's dressed in African garb, she opines with great authority—as college freshmen are wont to do—on a very abstract concept with the conviction that she is the first person on earth to properly understand it. The fragmentation of society, she says, has made interpersonal harmony impossible. The woman corrects her: Yes, fragmentation has complicated things, but "only in recognizing the beauty of fragmentation..." Zoe cuts in—as college freshmen are also wont to do—finishing the woman's thought, "can we begin to transcend it!"

It's a moment that encapsulates Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding, a humane, mostly successful chronicle of three generations of women (played by Jane Fonda, Catherine Keener, and Olsen) struggling to understand one another after years of familial fragmentation. Written by Joseph Muszynski and Christina Mengert and directed by Bruce Beresford, its message about intergenerational empathy, and about learning from the failures and successes of one's foremothers, offers a refreshingly thoughtful take on the challenge of being a young feminist.

Young feminists are accustomed by now to being told that they do not exist. But the reality is that American feminism has fragmented—and that's a good thing.

Fonda plays Grace, a sexagenarian for whom the '70s never ended. Grace lives in Woodstock and hasn't seen or spoken to her daughter Diane in 20 years—since Diane's wedding, when daughter caught mother selling pot to the party guests and called the police. Diane, a conservative lawyer who lives in New York City, is the polar opposite of her mother, and she's never allowed her kids—Zoe the aspiring poet and Jake the aspiring filmmaker—to meet their grandmother. When Diane's husband asks her for a divorce, she flees the house and the city and goes, kids in tow, to her mother's place. They spend a few summer weeks getting to know each other, and slowly they begin to forgive each other for their failures as mothers, daughters, and wives.

Movies about intergenerational struggles are hardly uncommon. Movies about intergenerational feminist struggles, however, are hard to come by. And when mainstream films depict feminism at all, they often resorts to caricature, like with Legally Blonde's Enid Wexler, a lesbian from Berkeley who thinks that the word "semester" privileges male reproductive material so wants the winter term to be called the "ovester." Or they offer heavy-handed revisionist history, as with Maggie Gyllenhaal's anachronistically outspoken women's rights campaigner in Hysteria. In Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding, though, the feminism is subtle but crucial to the tensions that run through the movie.

Grace is a Second-Wave feminist who lived through the Summer of Love and who fully embraces the idea that women should shape their lives according to their own desires and no one else's. Diane was born at Woodstock—family lore has it that she entered the world just as Jimi Hendrix was playing "The Star Spangled Banner"—and spent her life defining herself in opposition to her mother's brand of feminism. She is highly educated and financially self-sufficient, but she rejects her mother's hippy-dippy beliefs, believing that they made Grace selfish and disconnected from the realities of the world. Zoe, young and self-assured, spends much of the movie deciding which of her many dearly held principles she's willing to compromise on, and trying to find a pragmatic sweet spot between principles and practicality. Of the three women, Zoe comes the closest to calling herself a feminist, though the word is never once uttered in the whole movie.

Young feminists are accustomed by now to being told that they do not exist. The dismayed refrain from older feminists, those of Grace's and Diane's generation, is that young women these days don't call themselves feminists, or don't take women's rights seriously enough—and that as a result, the progress achieved in the last half-century has stalled or is being rolled back. Alternatively, young feminists are told that they're concerning themselves with the wrong issues, as in last year's fierce debate over the global SlutWalk protests.

The reality is that American feminism has fragmented. Now, it's about more than free love and howling at the full moon with a group of women wearing beads and caftans, as Grace does. And it's about more than a woman's right to higher education and a prestigious career, which Diane has. It is no longer about any one thing. American feminism now incorporates the need for LGBT rights, racial equality, disability rights, socioeconomic equity, environmental responsibility, and an international perspective. A movement so large and diverse is necessarily fragmented: There are now as many different feminisms in America as there are feminists. Feminists young and old need to recognize the beauty of that fragmentation before they can begin to transcend it.

Zoe, a young feminist who is passionate about animal rights but finds herself drawn to a handsome local butcher, spends much of the movie navigating a feminist path for herself that falls somewhere between her grandmother's ideas and her mother's. Like her grandmother and her mother, she has a limited view of the world—she's a straight, white, Ivy League-educated woman from New York City. And like many young people, she is learning to be more patient with people whose worldviews differ from her own.

Of course, it helps that this lesson comes in the form of Cole, the aforementioned handsome butcher played by Chace Crawford. Zoe is predisposed to despise Cole on the basis of his work at the organic meat shop, but once she learns why he does that work—out of a desire to support family farms that don't use pesticides—she's reminded of the importance of understanding a person before passing judgment on them. The same lesson applies to her dealings with her mother: Zoe's sadness at the failure of her parents' marriage manifests as anger with her mother, and when Diane reveals that it was Zoe's father who asks for the divorce, Zoe retorts, "Well, can you blame him?" The next morning, when Zoe tries to excuse her behavior, she tells her grandmother, "I was upset." "You were also cruel. But you'll make it right," is Grace's reply, as swift and certain as Zoe's "Can you blame him?" It's touching and well-acted scene, a moment of intergenerational empathy and wisdom.

Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding leaves you with a hopeful sense that the next generation of feminists are indeed working hard to make it right. They're learning to deal with fragmentation and nuance. They're making tough decisions about what to do when the rubber of idealism hits the road of reality. And they're learning from their mothers' and grandmothers' successes and failures. In Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding, as in the real world, that goes for the personal and the political.

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Chloe Angyal is a freelance writer and an editor at Feministing. She is currently working on a book about romantic comedies.

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