The girls of the counterculture Left were wrong; not about civil rights or the Viet Nam War or imperial Amerika, but about sex and men. It is fair to say that the silence of the mothers hid a real, tough, unsentimental knowledge of men and intercourse, and that the noisy sexuality of the daughters hid romantic ignorance.
That passage from Andrea Dworkin's 1983 book Right Wing Women: The Politics of Domesticated Females could almost serve as an epigraph for Sally Potter's new British Cold War coming-of-age film Ginger & Rosa. The book, is Dworkin's effort to understand the position and commitments of anti-feminist conservative women. Her conclusion is that conservatives, correctly, view the sexual revolution for women as in many ways a scam, and that free love is not so much an escape from the inequities of domesticity as an intensification of them. This critique of the sexual revolution is embodied in the film by the character Roland (Alessandro Nivola), the father of protagonist Ginger (Elle Fanning.)
That critique, and the portrait of Ginger's dad, is gleefully vicious; Dworkin would loved it, and it is easily the best thing in the film. Roland is a dashing activist and political theorist. He was imprisoned as a conscientious objector during World War II. Since then, he's continued to write and to teach—when Ginger name-drops him to an anti-nuclear activist, the guy just about has a stroke.
But despite all his courage and brilliance—or perhaps because of them—Roland is, as far as his family is concerned, a giant, selfish prick. He actually names his daughter "Africa"—because women are the dark continent, get it?—so that she has to spend the rest of her life using the nickname Ginger. He is a shameless philanderer, sleeping with his students and even with his daughter's best friend, Rosa (Alice Englert). When confronted, he starts babbling about autonomy and how he can't be held to the man's rules, man, and how he suffered when he was in prison. When his wife gets upset because he's treating her like dirt, he tells her that her tears are "emotional blackmail," designed to impinge on his freedom and drag him into stultifying normalcy. His political commitments are both a justification and a form of bullying, and his radical rejection of domesticity doesn't free his wife, but simply means that he can take her cooking and her service without any return of fidelity or affection. Even his principled pacifism ends up as an emotional bludgeon. His militant, egotistic non-violence isn't all that different from the war-mongering he deprecates—a fact the film emphasizes by showing a clip of John Kennedy burbling soaring platitudes about freedom and the necessity of dropping the bomb, just as Roland babbles soaring platitutdes about freedom and the necessity to sleep with as many sweet young things as he can find.
This contrast—or, occasionally, comparison—between politics and relationships, public and private, structures much of the film. Most obviously, Ginger as she grows older becomes more and more committed to anti-war activism, while Rosa focuses on sex and true love, not necessarily in that order.
But the truth is that, despite the title, Rosa—and therefore the potential for sisterhood and feminism—is pretty marginal to the film's interests. It's Ginger we're really interested in; the public/private split between the two friends is really only a displacement, for the public/private split within Ginger. That split is also, for the film, and for Ginger herself, figured as a split between her mother and father; her activism impresses her father. It's also a way to separate herself from the domestic despair of her mother, Nat (Christina Hendricks). In fact, Ginger accuses her mom of political quietism as a way to one-up her in arguments—not unlike her dad.
Ginger's politics are not just a way to separate herself from her mom, though. They're also a way to separate herself from herself. As Roland and Rosa become more serious, and even flaunt their relationship in front of her, Ginger turns to activism as a kind of escape, even getting herself imprisoned—again, just like her dad. When she is released, she won't speak at first...then starts to rant about the danger of the bomb...and finally says that if she says what she is really thinking she will explode. The destruction of the world explicitly is used as a way to cover up the truly destructive truth of Roland and Rosa's betrayal. Rather than the personal being the political, the political is a dodge to deny the personal.
Ginger is finally coaxed to speak by Bella (Annette Benning) a family friend—and an activist. Bella is a feminist (she objects to being called a "poetess" rather than a "poet") and it's surely significant that she works to give Ginger a voice. But while she seems like she could be an alternative to the public/private split in the film, that possibility is never really explored or realized. In the confrontation at the end of the film, when Roland justifies himself through his usual "I am free and autonomous!" spiel, Bella doesn't put forward any kind of feminist alternative to the boilerplate hippie leftism. In fact, when she starts to argue, Roland tells her she has no right to judge him because she doesn't know him. Feminism for the film is too intimate to articulate an abstract argument and too public to comment on relationships. It simply flops ineffectually betwixt and between.
In theory, at least, it wouldn't have to be that way. Feminism's insistence that the private experiences of women are political and public could, instead, be a strength—a way to see that changing the world doesn't have to be about running away from her own life as a woman and daughter and sister. The film, though, prefers to reconcile politics and emotion through art rather than feminism. Ginger is a poet, and the film ends with her writing a poem to Rosa. It's not a happy conclusion, exactly, but the act of creation, and of reconciliation, does seems to be presented as a way both to self-actualize better than her asshole dad and to stay true to her personal obligations and loves better than her defeated mom.
Sally Potter's an artist herself, of course, so it makes sense that she'd end up by validating art. Maybe too much sense. The move to poetry at the end, like the film itself, comes off as a little glib. Like Dworkin, the film sees clearly that vaunting autonomy and sexual revolution are as rigged against women as more traditional arrangements were. But instead of turning that anger to use in demanding a change in the nature of the relationship between public and private, the film simply opts for cheap lyrical reconciliation and a shrug. Ginger & Rosa recognizes that Roland's supposedly liberatory politics are a blueprint for his personal cruelties...but the conclusion seems to be, not a different, more feminist politics, but simply to turn away from politics altogether. Ginger's last words of the film are silent; an internal monologue addressed ostensibly to Rosa, but actually occurring only in her head. Instead of escaping from domesticity through the sexual revolution, she escapes from both through that other baby boomer staple, aesthetic solipsism. It's a different kind of romantic ignorance, perhaps, but I'm pretty sure Dworkin would see it as romantic ignorance all the same.