Songs for the Struggling Artist

Context Is Everything: A Gen X Look at The Lost Daughter

There’s a little bit of a conversation happening in feminist circles around the movie The Lost Daughter, written and directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal. I felt it was my duty, as a feminist on the internet, to watch it. I didn’t really think I’d have anything to SAY about it necessarily but I like to be informed and it turns out I do have something to say. Funnily enough my thoughts are probably more Gen X related than feminist related, though. I suppose at its heart it’s Gen X feminism that’s gotten under my skin.

The movie takes place in the more or less contemporary moment (though not precisely, as it is a covid-less world) and Olivia Coleman plays a 48 year old woman. When the movie flashes back to her twenty something self, it is to about twenty years ago, though it has a vague sense of being in the 90s. The character wears foam earphones, like back in the day. The song she tells us she loves is the Gen X anthem of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” The context of the film says, “This is a Gen X woman.” But very little of this makes sense. Like, I guess a Gen X English woman could go crazy for “Livin’ on a Prayer” but it’s odd. It would mean something in real life. I don’t know what it would mean exactly but whatever it means doesn’t add up to the person in the movie.

Look, I, like the character, am also 48 so I may be overly tuned in to the specifics of this woman who is meant to be my age – but I would be awfully surprised to meet a woman my age who grew up in Leeds, became a passionate and respected academic translator of English poetry into Italian AND her favorite song was “Livin’ on a Prayer.” I’d need a whole movie to explain how that could be. Honestly.

Also – one of the central events of the movie  is just so weird and out of generational character that it would need another movie’s worth of explanation to make it make sense. In the movie we learn that Coleman’s character has two daughters in their mid to late 20s – which means she had them in her early 20s. This would be extremely unusual for a highly educated ambitious Gen X woman. Certainly there are Gen X women who had their kids young, no doubt. But it is incredibly rare in a character like this one. Most Gen X academic nerds would wait years to have their kids. And to have TWO kids so young? Again, as an ambitious academic? One, I can buy. That’s a mistake, probably. Two, seems crazy. Like, I need an explanation for it, or I’m going to spend the whole movie confused. Which I did.

Anyway – (and this is a spoiler so skip ahead to the * towards the end if you want to be surprised)



– when her kids are five and seven she leaves them, whole cloth, never to be seen again until three years later. The movie tries to make this understandable but it’s just – weird.

As my Gen X friend, with whom I discussed this, said, “There WAS child care in the 90s.”

Like – leaving their kids is just not something I’ve ever heard of anyone doing.  Tempted? Sure. Kids’ll make you crazy, I’m given to understand – But to just leave? When divorce, joint custody, childcare and blended families are all options that are on the table? She leaves her family for a rewarding sexy professional life. Seems like a nice life she’s leaving them for but the choice is super weird. Gen X moms know how to work it out. We grew up with working moms. The work/life question really isn’t this giant a conflict for Gen X moms. It still sucks. Don’t get me wrong. But it’s not so extreme that leaving for years at a time makes any sense. Our conflicts in this arena are much more subtle, more nuanced. We didn’t have to flee the people we love to have a life of the mind.

The thing that seems important to recognize is that this film is based on a book by Elena Ferrante – who writes about the specifics of Neapolitan women in earlier eras with razor sharp analysis. I haven’t read The Lost Daughter – but I’ve read her Neapolitan quadrilogy, with which it would seem to have a lot in common. I’d imagine they are set in similar time periods. I assume, from the structure of this film, that the book takes places decades ago. I know from the articles about it that it is concerned with both the mom character’s Neapolitan background and the bits of that she shares with her fellow tourists in the group. I assume that the main character, Leda, is of an entirely different generation. I can probably even guess which one. Based on the choices she makes and the desperation she feels and how limited her scope is – I’d say she’s a contemporary of Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton. These are women so backed into corners they feel they have no other choice but to stick their heads in the oven or permanently walk out the door.

These choices are perfectly readable in a time of extreme oppression. And I’m delighted to realize that the 90s were not a time of extreme oppression. Gen X women did actually have choices in the 90s. If we wanted to study Italian poetry, we did it. It’s not that extreme, actually. So this character just seems like she has a need for some medication and a good therapist, at the very least. This story, as told in the film, makes no sense. But – if I just sort of overlay the events on to say, the 1950s or early 1960s– with a bunch of Neapolitan roughs – it all falls into place. Context is everything.

Let’s do some math. Let’s assume this film is set in this current moment. So – this character is my age, right? Which means she probably graduated from college in 1995. Her eldest child is 25 – so she had her two years after she finished undergrad so that’s 1997. The character is a serious academic so she must have gone on to get a masters, probably a PhD. Did she get pregnant while she was in grad school? Probably. Unless she’s supposed to be in grad school at the point when we first meet her? And that old guy is her advisor? I don’t think so – because a well regarded scholar wouldn’t be citing the work of a grad student. She’s published somewhere. She had her two kids somewhere in the middle of getting a PhD and getting published. I’m not saying that’s not possible – but it is pretty unlikely in the late 90s. At the point when we meet this character, her kids are 5 and 7 which means it’s around 2002.

This Gen X mom abandoned her kids in 2002. It’s not 1957. It’s 2002. There WAS childcare in 2002. Again, not great childcare- but childcare. Also, there were cell phones. I got one in 2002 and I was very late to the party. AND – as my friend pointed out there was feminism. There was serious feminism. I’m sorry but you couldn’t be a serious scholar in this era without some encounter with feminism. It’s a whole field of scholarship and no Comparative Literature scholar could get through academia without a serious grounding in it. I’m not saying every academic in this era was a feminist but to not have any relationship to those issues at all in this era? Sorry. No way. You’re either in the game or you’re Camille Paglia and no one’s going around just translating a bunch of male poets in 2002 with no awareness of what feminist scholarship would have to say about it.

But set in the right context – in, say, an era that had problems “that had no name,” like what Betty Friedan was talking about, and when second wave feminism was really just strapping on its boots, sure – it all would make total sense. We would, in fact, root for a character to get out in that context. This character would be a singular person up against the tide of her culture and her time and we would have her back.

I mean – the thing is, both feminism and childcare had been around for decades by the time this character leaves her kids. A lot of Gen X kids were raised on both of those things. Many of our mothers were feminists. Many of them were working mothers who sent us to daycare. Our parents got divorces when things didn’t work out. And it was fine. Not a big deal. But this film somehow lives in a world where there are neither Gen X feminists nor Baby Boomer feminists or Millennial or Zoomer feminists for that matter. This is probably because it’s based on a book that takes place so long before.

Do Gen X moms fantasize about leaving their families and disappearing for awhile? I’m sure they do but fantasizing is very different than doing – and the choice to chuck it all, just generationally, doesn’t make sense. I feel like a lot of Gen X moms waited to have kids so we wouldn’t feel the need to abandon them.



Is the film well done? It is actually. The performances are excellent; Coleman is always amazing and Gyllenhaal has done extraordinary work. I loved how the eroticism of the character’s work was palpable and exciting. There’s an artful quality to it all – but it’s just weird. And not in a good way.

As Nylah Burton said, in Bitch Magazine,

“We need more messy female characters, but “messy female character” does not have to mean illegible female characters. Sometimes the two are mixed up. Confusing the audience about who a character is at their core doesn’t endear us to them or make them feminist heroes;”

Making Coleman’s character specifically Gen X makes things that would have been legible, absolutely opaque. The good news is that this movie makes me see some incredible progress that has been made over the years – that Gen X women are actually more together than I’d have thought.  

I feel like you could MAKE it make sense – with another few hours of story and context and explanation. Just the way I’d need another movie to figure out how a working class Gen X academic woman from Leeds ended up a big fan of Bon Jovi, I need another movie to make this movie make sense. It might be an interesting story but it would take a long time to explain.

I mean, this is a pretty Gen X look. I can’t argue on that point.

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