“The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”
— President Jimmy Carter, July 15, 1979
Erica Benton can’t sleep. It’s late, and her husband of 16 years has just left her for a younger woman. Instead, she starts going through the medicine cabinet and furiously throws out any trace of her husband’s products. When she’s finished there, she moves to another room, cleaning in a kind of manic fury as what can only be described as sinister disco plays. It’s a marked contrast from earlier in An Unmarried Woman, Paul Mazursky’s warm, honest 1978 drama, where—clad in just a sweatshirt and underwear—Erica (the radiant Jill Clayburgh) gracefully and gleefully dances around the apartment to the strains of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake following an early morning tryst with her husband. Erica is no longer a wife or a swan but an angry, sad woman trying to make sense of herself after a seemingly senseless turn of events. Her confidence is shattered.
An Unmarried Woman is chiefly a finely-tuned cinematic exploration of what it means to be a woman during a decade where women everywhere were redefining their gender personally, politically, and culturally. But the film also captures a specific kind of personal crisis on-screen—one marked by individual insecurity and a loss of purpose or deeper meaning many Americans felt late in the supposed “Me Decade” of self-improvement and personal autonomy (or blatant narcissism, depending on your reading of various white male cultural critics of the day). It’s a general “malaise” that would come to define Jimmy Carter’s presidency from 1976-1980 and eventually give way to the Yuppie hedonism of the Reagan ‘80s.
But for Erica, 20th Century Women’s Dorothea, and Freaks and Geeks’ Lindsay Weir—three on-screen depictions of Carter-era women released in three very different decades—this “crisis of confidence” is personal, potent, and life-altering.
“Just as we are losing our confidence in the future, we are also beginning to close the door on our past.”
1978: Erica Benton, An Unmarried Woman
On the surface, Erica has a pretty great life: a loving husband and a precocious teenage daughter, a beautiful apartment, an interesting job at a downtown art gallery, and a supportive group of girlfriends. She’s a typical, WASP-y, upper-middle class woman in her 30s who’s certainly benefited from the women’s rights movement, even as she prioritizes “traditional” markers of womanhood like being a wife and mother. Yet Erica possesses an independent streak (which she’s clearly passed down to her daughter) that gives her the confidence to advocate for herself within her closest relationships at home, work, and with her friends.
That is, until one afternoon when her husband Martin (Michael Murphy) tearfully announces he’s fallen in love with a 26-year-old woman and wants a divorce. The camera stays close on Erica while Martin tries rather unsuccessfully to explain himself, and we see her face shift through myriad emotions: confusion, pain, and finally, disgust. When he leaves, she vomits in the street. She’s literally sick to her stomach; the impact of her life imploding is a gut punch.
What makes An Unmarried Woman a cinematic touchstone of second-wave feminism is its emphasis on Erica’s relationship to herself, first and foremost. Who is she separate from a man? From her daughter? Her friends? Who does she want to be? From the beginning, women have had to identify themselves in relation to the people around them, never making distinctions between self and other. Who you are is who you are to everybody else. Without being Martin’s wife—the defining relationship of the last 16 years of her life—who is Erica, really?
“I’m afraid,” Erica tells her therapist, a fellow divorcée. “Everything is different. I’m not able to know what’s going to happen. Now, it’s like everyday is like,” she makes a whooshing sound as she throws her hands in the air with a pained chuckle. Before, Erica’s identity—like her daily life—had structure. Her relationships stabilized her. Now everything is in flux, whooshing around with nothing to ground it or her.
Her therapist encourages her to casually see some other men to test the waters, and Erica reluctantly agrees. Her best friend, Elaine (Kelly Bishop, ever perfect) tries setting her up with some middle-aged dolt during a frenetic, double-date dim sum lunch with her and the man she’s seeing, but Erica rejects pass after aggressive pass in the cab ride uptown, jumping out when he won’t take no for an answer. Instead, she nervously sleeps with macho co-worker Charlie (Cliff Gorman), always game for anything but a serious relationship, which gives her some relief and an instant jolt of confidence when she’s feeling most rejected and undesirable. Her bravery and determination has paid off.
The best way to get over someone is not always getting under someone else, but for Erica, a personal sexual revolution provides a needed pathway forward towards real autonomy and identity. When she meets sensitive, sexy Saul (a magnetic Alan Bates), an abstract artist who dribbles bright paint on large canvases, the attraction is palpable, but there’s also tension of a different kind. Erica has choices now she couldn’t and didn’t have before, and little by little, she’s beginning to relish her newfound freedom. After their first night together, Erica bluntly tells him, “The sex was very good,” before heading out the door, leaving him sitting in his robe. Each time they sleep together, Saul asks for something more concrete—dinner with her daughter, a summer stay at his house in Vermont, a real relationship. Here is the stabilizing force of her past—a relationship to a man—offered up for her future, but the pleasure and shock of An Unmarried Woman is that in the end, Erica confidently rejects it and winds up on her own with one of Saul’s expressionistic paintings instead.
“Hey,” she shouts at him as he heads for the driver’s seat of his car, “how am I supposed to get this thing home?” Saul smiles mischievously at her and shrugs before driving away. As we watch Erica determinedly struggle to maneuver up the busy streets of New York towards her new apartment with this giant painting—a reminder of her not-so-distant past—you get the sense that she’s going to be fine. She can’t see where she’s going, but she’s confident she’ll get there on her own two feet.
“Confidence in the future has supported everything else—public institutions and private enterprise, our own families…Confidence has defined our course and has served as a link between generations. We’ve always believed in something called progress. We’ve always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own.”
1979: Dorothea Fields, 20th Century Women
“My son was born in 1964,” Dorothea Fields (the droll, magnificent Annette Bening) says in a voiceover in Mike Mills’ tender 2016 drama 20th Century Women. “He grew up with a meaningless war, with protests, with Nixon, with nice cars and nice houses, computers, drugs, boredom. I know him less every day.” The generational divide between her and her 15-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) seems to widen not just every day but from moment to moment during the summer of ‘79 in the breezy suburbs of Santa Barbara, California. An older single mother who once dreamed of being a pilot in the Air Force during World War II (and even enrolled in flight school), Dorothea cannot get her relationship with Jamie off the ground. She doesn’t know how to navigate it anymore. When she reaches across the kitchen table to smooth his hair while they go through her stocks each morning, he moves away.
It’s natural for children to separate themselves from their parents, especially as teenagers—to experiment and test their own limits. When we’re young, we long to prove to the world (well, mostly to ourselves) that we’re capable and confident and maybe even a little (or a lot) daring. That also means doing stupid, painful things that not only hurt us but our parents too. One afternoon, Jamie and his friends play a game where one person causes the other to faint by pulling on their diaphragm. Unlike his other friends who woke up after just a few seconds, Jamie is out cold for over half an hour, tearfully rushed to the hospital by Dorothea; Jamie’s best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning); and Dorothea’s two loyal house boarders, William (Billy Crudup) and Abbie (Greta Gerwig). When Jamie finally wakes up, Dorothea is relieved but more lost than ever.
“Why would you do something so stupid,” she asks him. “You know you almost died, right?”
Jamie shrugs her off, “You don’t need to worry about me.”
His cavalier attitude toward his near-death experience at the hands of peer pressure is too much for Dorothea to process. It’s clear she and her son don’t understand one another at all; the divide has become a vast canyon. Having faced The Depression, depression, and divorce (among other things), Dorothea has always believed she could raise her son to be a good man without anyone else. Now she’s not so sure she’s up to the task. In Dorothea’s mind, if she can’t confidently prepare her son for this strange, ever-changing world, she needs to find someone else who can. “People from her time never admit anything went wrong,” Jamie says of his mother.
20th Century Women presents Dorothea as a woman of many contradictions. She is contemporary and open-minded, yet also occasionally old-fashioned in her values. She’s independent and assertive, but also emotionally closed off. She’s tough because she’s had to be to make it on her own, but she also tells Jamie “having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world,” and there’s a flicker of sadness in her eyes that confirms she knows it all too well. Isn’t it true that the things that soften us, like love, can also harden us in certain ways? As so many artists have effectively illustrated almost to the point of banality, the line between joy and pain is razor thin. Dorothea understands that acknowledging that pain also means admitting to her own failures and mistakes, so her impenetrable exterior and contradictory nature is a result of a lifetime of heartbreak and sadness she’s chosen to avoid rather than admit to herself (or anyone else). Her outward confidence has come at the expense of her inner satisfaction, and when her son—the person she loves most—almost dies, it rattles her whole worldview. Better to let him go than keep trying and, in her view, “failing” at raising him herself.
“I can’t be there with him,” she tells Abbie and Julie in the kitchen the day after Jamie’s hospital trip, “I have to let go. How do you be a good man these days? He’s only got me…It’s not enough.” So Dorothea enlists the two of them to help with Jamie, both because they’re closer in age and because she thinks they know him better than she could hope to at this point. At ages 25 and 17 respectively, neither Abbie nor Julie is confident she’s up to the task, either, but Dorothea reassures them they’ll be fine, even though it sounds more like she’s reassuring herself of her decision to let her son go.
Dorothea’s hands-off parenting hits more than one snag as Abbie and Julie face their own crises and draw Jamie into them. Under their supervision, he starts reading radical feminist literature, going out to punk clubs, and getting into fights. They’re all in over their heads. Dorothea is concerned, but still unconvinced she’s needed.
In a genuine attempt to understand her son’s world, she and William go to a punk club themselves with Abbie, but it only causes Dorothea more confusion about who her son is and what he values. These are not the values of her and President Carter’s generation, which was shaped by the Depression and World War II where Americans were united by a common sense of duty, morality, and meaning. It makes sense Dorothea is the only one in her living room who is visibly moved by Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech. They both remember a time when life didn’t feel so empty and when crises brought people together instead of wedging them apart. “I thought that was beautiful,” she says when the speech ends while the younger generation scoffs. This is perhaps the root of Dorothea’s confusion and ultimately her pain; she’s always wanted more meaning to her life and her great disappointment is that her son, the most meaningful thing she’s ever done, finds no meaning in anything.
Only when Jamie disappears after running off with Julie to a motel in San Luis Obispo does Dorothea realize it’s time to step back in and be the mother she’s convinced herself Jamie doesn’t want or need, gaining the kind of mental and emotional clarity that often only comes out of a crisis. When she gets to the motel, he’s returned safely, but is not exactly happy to see her or feel her sudden concern for his well-being after pawning him off on other people all summer.
“It just seemed like you couldn’t deal with me anymore,” Jamie says to her.
“I don’t want you to end up in the same place as me,” she replies honestly for the first time, “I wanted you to be happier. And I just didn’t think I could do it by myself.”
“I thought we were fine, though, just me and you,” he says. Dorothea is surprised and happy to hear this, a little smile creeping over her face. They may not come from the same worlds, but mother and son understand one another at last. By being vulnerable in front of Jamie and admitting her own lack of confidence in herself as a mother, Dorothea can make peace with herself too, closing the divide between mother and son ever so slightly. She’s doing the best she can, and it’s enough for them both.
July 15, 1979
By the summer of 1979, the U.S. was still suffering from OPEC’s 1973 cuts to oil production. Long lines formed at gas stations from coast to coast due to gas rationing. The economy was stagnant, and inflation was high. Vietnam, Watergate, and the lingering bitter aftertaste of JFK’s assassination had whittled away at the American public’s confidence in the government and in America itself. The early gains of the women’s rights movement—and, specifically, the push for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment—had slowed significantly. After the social and civil upheaval of the 1960s, it didn’t seem like there was much unity at all in a country besieged by corruption, paranoia, economic downturn, and energy problems.
It was with all of this in mind that Jimmy Carter—the first president actually elected by the American public following Nixon’s resignation in 1974 and Ford’s assumed term until 1976—cancelled his scheduled Independence Day address that summer and went into hiding for 10 days at Camp David. While there, he spoke to religious leaders, businessmen, laborers, teachers, intellectuals, and local politicians about what he viewed as a much larger issue than simply energy or the economy. An empathetic, deeply religious man, Carter believed the underlying “malaise” (though he never used the term himself) in America to be an existential or spiritual one—a struggle to find meaning and purpose in a troubled world. When he emerged on July 15th, it was with something closer to a sermon than a presidential address.
Delivered with the somber, impassioned urgency of a country preacher to an audience of 65 million viewers, the “Crisis of Confidence” speech is at once a plea, a prayer, and a plan to get America back on track. Speaking in his warm Georgia drawl, Carter leans toward the camera, like a preacher over the pulpit looking out on his congregation. At times, he shakes his fists to emphasize words like “confidence” or “faith” or “progress.” His whole body is alive with the sad fury of his words. We are told we must rebuke our sins of self-indulgence and consumption, recognizing that neither satisfies our “longing for meaning.” You almost expect him to follow up with, “can I get an amen?”
It’s only when reflecting on the tumult and violence of the ‘60s and Vietnam that Carter’s whole body and tone shifts. He sits in stillness, voice softer, eyes occasionally glancing down. What was a sermon has become a eulogy. Suddenly, it becomes clear that perhaps the “malaise” the country is actually feeling is grief, the kind so overwhelming and relentless it immobilizes us and turns us inwards on ourselves even sometimes to the point we’re unable or unwilling to recognize our own need for change. Carter saw a nation traumatized and mourning, impervious to faith in something larger than itself; especially when everywhere you looked, there were failures and fractures.
Grief has a way of inuring us to the world at the same time it makes us feel hopelessly vulnerable.
“Often you see paralysis and stagnation and drift. You don’t like it, and neither do I. What can we do? First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future…”
1980: Lindsay Weir, Freaks and Geeks
It’s lunchtime at William McKinley High, and 16-year-old Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) nervously follows devilishly handsome burnout Daniel Desario (James Franco) out to the “smoking patio” to meet his other friends Nick (Jason Segel) and Ken (Seth Rogen), all part of the “freaks” who make up the titular Freaks and Geeks of Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s 1999 cult classic TV series. Navigating high school and its social ecosystem is a fraught experience for most teens, and Lindsay is no exception. A straight-A student and former mathlete, she’s taken to wearing her dad’s green army jacket every day over her other clothes and eschewing her scholastic overachieving, but she’s still a little lost, trapped between her old self and the person she thinks she wants to be.
Suddenly, Millie Kentner (Sarah Hagan) appears on the edge of the smoking patio just as Lindsay is attempting to make a good first impression on Daniel, Nick, and Ken. Visibly embarrassed by the presence of her prudish, brainiac, former best friend, Lindsey whispers anxiously, “Millie, what are you doing out here?”
“What are you doing out here?” Millie replies with a mix of shock and concern. “This place is for freaks. Today’s the deadline to enter the Academic Decathlon. Mr. Rosso said you didn’t turn in your application.” With every second of conversation that passes with Millie in front of “the freaks,” Lindsay grows more anxious about their association. Millie’s part of a past Lindsay no longer wants any part of.
“What’s wrong with you?” Millie asks, not understanding her best friend’s sudden change in attitude or behavior. Lindsay replies, “There’s nothing wrong with me.” She walks away, back toward the group she’s decided is closer to who she is as a person now. She’s not exactly sure about her future, but she is confident she can’t be the person she was anymore: full of faith, ambition, drive. Instead, she’s drifting along in a kind of numbness. It makes sense she’d seek out friends who seem equally as numb, even if it’s manufactured through sex, drugs, alcohol, and rock ‘n’ roll. Friends who don’t care about the future, who are just getting through each dreaded day of life and high school.
What Millie, Lindsay’s straitlaced parents, and cherubic younger brother, Sam (John Francis Daley), don’t understand is that Lindsay isn’t actually throwing her life away—she’s just shedding the overly idealistic faith that everything will be better if you simply put your mind to it. It doesn’t make sense to her, especially in the wake of her grandmother’s death, which she alone witnessed and which has become the catalyst for her existential crisis.
“Grandma looked so terrified and I didn’t know what to do,” Lindsay tells Sam one night. “She grabbed my hand and told me she didn’t want to go. She looked so scared, Sam. I said, ‘Can you see God or Heaven or a light or anything?’”
He asks, “What did she say?”
“‘No. There’s nothing,’” Lindsay replies matter-of-factly. “She was a good person all her life, and that’s what she got.” Her eyes fill with tears. Sam doesn’t know what to say. Lindsay doesn’t either. She’s angry and sad, overwhelmed with a grief no one else seems to understand.
Faith is its own kind of confidence, a belief that we can rely on something or someone else. When her grandmother died, Lindsay’s faith died too. All the things she was told she could rely on to ensure a bright future didn’t seem to matter anymore if the one person she knew deserved to see heaven at the end of her life saw nothing at all. Lindsay’s hostility towards her own perceived naivete, her blind faith—the same one shared by her parents, and Millie, most of all—is what pushes her towards the freaks, even as she moves through her days in paralyzing grief. While her actions don’t make sense to the people closest to her, they make sense to her, because she’s learned the truth: nothing makes sense.
Opportunity after opportunity presents itself for Lindsay to reclaim her “faith”—that is, to go back to her old self—but each time, Lindsay rejects that path, growing more confident in her own belief that none of this matters. Her final rejection comes when she’s selected to go to a prestigious academic summit at the University of Michigan for two weeks over the summer and she ditches it to follow the Grateful Dead around with her friends instead. As she exits the bus headed towards a known future—the kind her past self worked so hard to believe in—and steps into the VW van headed towards an unknown one instead, she looks truly happy for the first time. If all that exists is the present, as she now confidently believes, Lindsay is more than along for the ride.
When my mother turned 18 in 1976, she cast her first presidential vote for Jimmy Carter. I remember her telling me at some point during my youth that she felt she’d “wasted” her vote—he hadn’t done a lot of what he’d promised during his campaign. I expect if I asked her now if she felt that was still true, she’d have a different answer, given, well, everything that’s happened since. She was a young, bright, idealistic woman back then who’d be married a year later and finishing her college degree in Southern California, where she and my dad moved so he could work as a stagehand in Hollywood. She’d spend time sitting in long lines at gas stations all over Los Angeles and watch the Iran Hostage Crisis play out on television, the final nail in the coffin of Carter’s hopes for a second term. But in 1976, she had confidence in the future—her future—and in what Carter might do to pull the country out of its disarray.
My mother couldn’t and didn’t know what was coming when she cast her vote, just as I couldn’t and didn’t know when I cast mine last November, but we both voted out of faith that the future would be better than the past and present grief; the kind of grief Erica, Dorothea, and Lindsay all feel for various parts of their lives and selves. The kind that shakes our individual confidence even when we’re supposed to feel more empowered than ever as women. The kind we still feel now during a pandemic (a literal malaise), rising unemployment and inflation, violence, and climate change.
I worry Joe Biden is going to be another Jimmy Carter: a president elected in good faith to solve a lot of bad problems caused by tumult and corruption only to leave office without much actual progress. He even ran on a promise to “restore the soul of America,” which wouldn’t sound out of place in Carter’s ’79 moral plea to the nation. I worry that none of this overwhelming if numbing grief we’re all feeling these troubled days will lead anywhere but back to the same broken, self-serving systems that have caused it, the way America did when it rejected Carter and elected Reagan instead in 1980. I wish I could say I feel confident we won’t repeat our mistakes in the future and will reject the shiny allure of people and things making empty promises that can never satisfy our longing for deeper meaning—but I don’t.
Often our first instinct when we’re confronted with our own insecurities, pain, or grief is to flee; we want so desperately to avoid discomfort of any kind, but especially when it reveals the truth about ourselves or others. I would like nothing more than to wake up tomorrow and stop feeling so anxious and sad about everything at present, but what I find so admirable about Erica, Dorothea, and Lindsay is their willingness to confront their own insecurities and grief. Instead of running from it, they allow themselves to be vulnerable, sad, angry, and insecure. While they all experience their grief differently, they let it run its course without rushing to “move on” from crises personal and profound. And here is the great truth, the treatment for the “malaise” all of us feel at one point or another, individually or as a nation: only when we acknowledge and confront our brokenness can we stop being in crisis and start moving towards a new kind of wholeness; one built with confidence that our past doesn’t have to be our future, and that our present won’t last forever.