The Re-education Project (aka How Have I Never Seen Thelma and Louise?)

I would like to attempt something. Consider it a belated New Year’s Resolution, or an ongoing project in self-improvement and continuing education. I’m a feminist. Duh. You’d have to have been skipping the content of this blog and only looking at the dazzling photos to have missed that (Unrelatedly: Sorry for all the stock photography, that’s not really my thing).

I took a bazillion gender studies classes in college. I’ve read a lot, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Ariel Levy, Betty Friedan to Andrea Dworkin, Alix Kates Shulman to Adrienne Rich. I am well versed in the theories of the various waves, and I know where I stand on most of the issues, give or take a few of the finer points. And, of course, I’m always looking to broaden/deepen/complicate my own understanding.

But if you’re going to publicly comment on media and gender, as I do, reading is not enough. Watching and listening has to be part of the education process, and this is where I’ve started to find some serious holes in my own mental map of gender studies and women’s history. While my formal education required that I go back and read the sacred texts, I don’t feel like I truly have a handle on other forms of influential media.


How have I never seen Thelma and Louise?

I recently watched an excellent documentary on the evolution of Wonder Woman (if it’s in your city, go see it), and how her character changed in both comic books and on screen to match the flavors of feminism (or backlash to feminism) over the decades. One reference included Thelma and Louise, and I realized that I’d never seen it. A few weeks ago, I watch the PBS documentary Makers about the history of the women’s movement (streaming online, go watch it right this second). It also featured clips from other television shows and movies that I’d missed along the way, like Murphy Brown and The Mary Tyler Moore show. Obviously, most of this content was before my time, but given that I take great pride in being media literate and well-versed in this particular history, it seems I have some catching up to do.

I spend a serious amount of time keeping up on what we’re talking about now, but I want to contextualize the present by rounding out my knowledge of the past. If Girls wouldn’t have been possible without Sex and the City, and Sex and the City wouldn’t have been possible without Golden Girls, then I need to have seen Golden Girls to really understand how far we’ve come? How does the groundwork laid by Murphy Brown add depth to the current conversation we’re having about Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” philosophy? How does Tina Fey follow in the tradition of Mary Tyler Moore, or not? 

So, I need your help. If my goal were to fill out my understanding of “women in the media” over the last few decades, especially as it pertains to gender roles, feminism, sexism, etc., what do I need to go back and watch? I can’t watch everything, so what are the moments in media history that are influential, pot-stirring, game-changing? Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Thelma and Louise 

Golden Girls

The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Murphy Brown 

Nine to Five 


What else? Post in the comments or tweet at me, @rosiesaysblog!

Related Post: The week in feminism

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Filed under Gender, Hollywood, Media

35 responses to “The Re-education Project (aka How Have I Never Seen Thelma and Louise?)

  1. A League of Their Own — SUCH a classic!
    The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
    Free to Be…You and Me
    Steel Magnolias
    Fried Green Tomatoes

    I’d also recommend listening to a lot of Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire, both of whom have had long and pretty damn fearless careers singing feminist music in a genre (country) that is not often thought of as feminist.

  2. Mars

    For reasons similar to why you should watch MTM, I suggest “That Girl.” For a great fictional awesome lady, read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn if you never have. For the time it was written, it was an astounding comment on gender roles and poverty.

  3. It’s already been recommended but Roseanne (especially the earlier seasons) are amazing.

    Although it isn’t a TV show, take 2 hours and watch Silkwood.

  4. Ohh, I love Nine to Five!
    Also Big Business and Baby Boom. And maybe Beaches. I’m not sure it’s entirely what you’re looking for but it is all about female friendship.
    I also watched 10 Things I Hate About You in the last year or so, and thought it was a much more interesting interpretation of women than we see on the screen now. And so many female musicians!
    Buffy the Vampire Slayer

  5. I see it’s been said before, but I also must say Buffy. To this day my favorite thing- it literally picks me up off the ground when I’m down and reminds me that I am strong and capable. Is that lame? Even if so, still true. Great post thanks :)

  6. Working Girl and Aliens. Long Kiss Goodnight. Oh, and Laverne and Shirley.

    Also, even though they might not seem feminist at first glance, many of the late 80s and early 90s romantic comedies had much less problematic gender representation than today’s ones. When Harry Met Sally, Bull Durham, Sleepless in Seattle.

    • Awesome suggestions. Alien came up in the Wonder Woman documentary and I forgot to add it to the list! Great point about the rom coms too. I just saw Breaking News with Holly Hunter and was pleasantly surprised.

  7. I definitely second Roseanne and Buffy.

    I would also recommend Living Single and Girlfriends (for a newer show) for shows about groups of black female friends. I’m trying to think of other WOC-centric shows, but I’m sadly lacking in my own education there. Something to amend.

    And maybe Ellen’s show? The sitcom, not the talk show, of course.

    I’m really glad you’re making this list actually. Not just for you, but because I’ll probably steal this for some summer viewing, especially to try to fill my pop culture knowledge pre 1990s.

    • Duly noted on Roseanne and Buffy. I’ve seen a fair amount of Girlfriends, but I’m glad you’re reminding me to keep it colorful :-)

      • As an addendum, there’s also ‘Introducing Dorothy Dandridge’, and from the British Asian perspective, it might be worth checking out ‘Anita & Me’ and ‘Brick Lane’

        P.S. When we say Asian in the UK, we tend to refer to places like India/Pakistan/Sri Lanka rather than China/Japan/Korea.

  8. SteveS

    This is fun. Here are mine:

    Norma Rae: Union!
    Tootsie and Yentl: Gender benders
    Bend It Like Beckham: Soccer Masala
    Erin Brokovich, Silkwood and Julia: Inspiration

  9. Out of left field perhaps and certainly on the darker edge —

    “I Spit on Your Grave,” both versions — the entire rape revenge subgenre is fascinating culturally, regardless of what one does with it. Good fodder.

    “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” — difficult ending, lots of potential interpretations, rich, overlooked, plus it’s got Diane Keaton and she’s tops.

    “Natural Born Killers” — If for no other reason than — “How sexy am I now? Huh, flirty boy?”

    “The Color Purple” — Obvi.

    “Calamity Jane” — Just fun and frothy, although there are some heavier Westerns with some serious females from this time period… so I could add here.

    “Reflections in a Golden Eye” — Not so much “feminist” necessarily, but for the character studies, social commentary, and texture, everyone should see this film. Seriously, everyone.

    Films based on Tennessee Williams mostly say stuff regarding the role of women.

    For TV shows, more recent but if you missed — “The L Word.” Waaay less troubling, IMHO, than the consumerist, boy crazy antics of the “girls,” yes “girls,” of Sex and the City. I also think “Damages” is like a smack down of “Murphy Brown” — and a needed one. And a bit older: “Farscape!” You gotta give “Farscape” a serious look. Probably one of the best TV shows ever and I don’t dig SciFi and couldn’t train my attention long enough to watch “Battlestar Gallactica.” Seriously, some awesome women and incredible themes in “Farscape.”

  10. Can I second Fried Green Tomatoes??? It is probably in my top 5 favorite movies. It is movie with two story lines, one contemporary and one historical. PLEASE make this a priority. It has so many feminist themes and truly influenced me growing up. I hope you watch it and I hope you write something about watching it. That’s how much I love it! haha

  11. As an historian, I am endlessly fascinated by modern depictions of women in historical films – whether based on true events or entirely fictional – so I’ve recommended a few of those in the following. I’m not sure if any of these are what you’re looking for, but they’re interesting:

    Chocolat – strong female lead in morally restrictive French Protestant village
    The Duchess – reinterpreting early modern female characters according to modern imaginations
    Elizabeth – more on modern film imagining strong females of the past
    Becoming Jane – normalizing Jane Austen as a female writer by giving her a romanticized, torrent love affair
    Buffy the Vampire Slayer – movie and tv series a must!
    Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire will fill the Tennessee Williams female roles perspective, and both star phenomenal female actresses of their day (Elizabeth Taylor and Vivienne Leigh respectively)
    Persepolis – coming of age of Iranian girl in Islamic Revolution
    Boys on the Side – female friendship
    Mona Lisa Smile – free-thinking female Prof in 1950s
    Riding in Cars with Boys
    The Stepford Wives (1975 original)
    Caramel – story centers on 5 Lebanese women
    Veronica Mars and Alias as other possible tv series of interest

    • How could I forget “All I Wanna Do (Strike)” with Kirsten Dunst and Rachel Leigh Cook?!! GREAT movie – 1960s all-girls school, a group of friends discover plans to turn the school co-ed and they concoct a plan t save their school.

    • Wendy Wellesley

      Hello, creeper coming out from behind the internet veil. I’ve been taking in all these suggestions in the hopes of also embarking on an “education” project for myself. However, I just had to jump in when I saw the suggestion for Mona Lisa Smile. This is in no way to attack the recommendation itself, but just to add two cents on the film as it pertains to your “re-education” project and hope others will think critically about the film. And I fully disclose at the outset I am a Wellesley alumna.

      While I love Julia Robert’s character, Professor Watson, and what she represents, I can’t stand behind the film because of its blatant misrepresentation of Wellesley. If the objective of the film was to promote “free-thinking females” overcoming social expectations then they would have done better to show what kind of institution Wellesley, and other women’s colleges, was really like: a place that fostered women’s academic prowess, leadership, and independence and certainly did not promote marriage over careers. Presenting women’s colleges as it did undermines the whole premise of the movie and is a disservice to all the pioneering women who came from such institutions. Obviously people have different opinions about single-sex education today, but in the 1950s when this film took place, it was an undeniable locus of change and opportunity for women.

      This film is recommended all the time and I am only sad that in doing so it has created a distorted and inaccurate representation of Wellesley and similar institutions. When the alumnae class of 1954 saw this film, they were outraged. It was not the Wellesley they knew. Yes this was a fictional story as many people tell me when I raise this issue, suggesting that I am “overreacting” and being “overly passionate” about it (which of course makes me more outraged) — but I think that’s all the more problematic because it only exonerates Hollywood’s poor presentation of women. It’s like a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

      • Wendy Wellesley

        And also to add to the list: Xena!

      • Hey Wendy, thanks for voicing your opinion! I’ve seen Mona Lisa Smile too, and I wasn’t particular impressed. I think I want this list (which I’ll publish in entirety soon) to be kind of “suggested viewing”, not necessarily an endorsement. It’s more like, what needs to be part of the conversation, even if it problematizes the conversation.

  12. I second Boys on the Side. It’s just lovely.

  13. Pingback: This post will only make sense if you have seen, ‘Thelma and Louise.’ Also, BOOBIES MAKE ME SMILE! – slimegreen

  14. Pingback: Update on the Re-education Project | rosiesaysblog

  15. Well, you should educate yourself on the history of Wonder Woman… as she is both a comic book superhero and tv star. Even Gloria Steinem is a fan of Wonder Woman!

  16. Old School: The Taming of the Shrew (Taylor and Burton; gold standard of a problematic Shakespearean play)
    Morocco (hello, Marlene Dietrich in drag who makes eyes at everybody)
    Katharine Hepburn overall, particularly in Sylvia Scarlett, which is a cornerstone of feminist film/queer theory

    Contemporary: House of Flying Daggers (Chinese martial arts with an absurdly strong female protagonist. I prefer this to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
    Easy A (modern interpretation of the Scarlet Letter/slut-shaming)
    But I’m A Cheerleader! (sexual awakening/LGBT)
    Juno (thoughtful considerations on sex/children/family if you can get past the hipster snark dialogue)

    Just started watching Prime Suspect (BBC) with Helen Mirren, & I’m quite pleased. I’m also tentatively working my way through Revenge, which is (a) hilarious and (b) an excellent exploration of the ‘evil soap opera queen’ trope from the other side of the mirror.

    Have you read anything by Anne Helen Peterson? She writes Scandals of Classic Hollywood for the Hairpin, & this is literally her field of academia. Send her a message and ask for more old-school recommendations!

  17. I’d like to back up “The Stepford Wives,” of course, and for further problems, I’d recommend: “Fatal Attraction.” I recall my mom joking when I was a kid that it was a good date movie to keep men in their place (haha ;) ) but the crazy stalker lady got SUCH press and yet we see films that are the inverse ALL the time without even batting an eye…. like, of course, women are stalked So the debate around this film is just as interesting. You might also consider “Basic Instinct” in light of all the frothy uproar back in the day. These films need to be historically contextualized to be valuable, I think. I know you know that, but I think it’s good to say, too; though none of these films are slow or boring by any stretch, IMHO.

  18. Pingback: Recommended Viewing | rosiesaysblog

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