Consuming Women’s History
March 13, 2012 by Anna Belle Pfau
The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.
Celebrate Women’s History Month with your Netflix Account
Wondering where all the women’s history documentaries and biographies are on television this month? You won’t find them on The History Channel, sadly. You can peruse a few articles online or buy some overpriced DVDs on its websites, but it’s not a suitable topic for airing, for goodness sakes. It’s not even much discussed at PBS, which celebrated Black History Month last month in this spectacular fashion. I loved watching those shows and had hoped for a similar line-up for March. I got this instead. Nothing but random videos and articles available only online. It doesn’t even register on The Discovery Channel’s website, or in their lineup.
The good news is that you can find a ton of great stuff on Netflix, giving you some control over what you’re consuming, especially this month. If we can spread the word on this, I’d love to see what their viewing stats look like at the end of the month. With that in mind, I’ve put together a sampler of women’s history videos that I have watched and found incredibly rewarding, and which I can recommend to you, dear reader, as a way to celebrate women’s history month. Here are my top ten videos available for streaming on Netflix:
Top Seven Documentaries for Women
#7: Orgasm, Inc.
Forget about the contraception wars; what are they doing to our orgasms? Did you even know there was a race underway to find the “female Viagra,” to cure the medical condition known as “female sexual arousal disorder”? Neither did producer/director Liz Canner until she took a job editing porn movies for a pharmaceutical trial. Her interest piqued, she decided to a documentary on it. The documentary is really good and includes lots of surprising information. I’m including it for women’s history month because it includes the history of this medical development, and because a schism develops between women in the film that tracks quite closely to the current division we see today and that stem from yesteryears’ internecine arguments within the feminist movement. I found this instructive considering the topic.
#6: Alice Neel
Credited with re-inventing portraiture, Alice Neel is one of America’s most important artists, and certainly one of the best female artists. This was a bittersweet documentary to watch, for the marks of our cultural and long history of hostility towards women have been left on her life, yet she herself insists throughout that she paid little price for her gender. It is obvious her socialist leanings preclude an honest assessment of the effects of gender-bias on her life. But it is there, from her early opportunities (few and far between) to the dissolution of her first marriage, to the treatment of herself and her children at the hands of later mates, to the very real fact that she is still so little known, after years and years of highly valued cultural production in New York City until her death in 1984, nor is she on the minds of American citizens very much. This complex and painful documentary is worth the time.
#5: Ayn Rand: In Her Own Words
This video was a revelation for me. You hear so much about Ayn Rand, so much of it bad, and for some time I’ve suspected that the floating negative narratives about her were not based in truth, but instead may have been based on sexist attempts to discredit and reduce the impact of her ideas by criticizing her person. That is not to say she was perfect or that her ideas should be adopted, but they certainly deserve an honest airing and the kind of honest historical scholarship that presents her ideas in the context of her life. Viewers get some of that in this documentary. I came away with a much richer understanding of how her logic worked, and that, like most people, it was the product of her life experiences, especially early ones.
#4: Hey Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird
This was an excellent documentary that reconstructed the events surrounding the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, the sole seminal book written by Ms. Lee, and which had and continues to have such a profound influence on race relations in this country. Lots has been written about the fact that Ms. Lee never published another book, and this documentary bravely tackles some of the criticism that contributes this to her gender. Her sister is interviewed in the documentary and she’s a sprightly nonagenarian!
#3: Top Secret Rosies: Female Computers of WWII
Never let it be said again that women are bad at math! This documentary puts that notion to rest by interviewing several of the women who served as “computers” during WWII, doing complex calculations that influenced such important areas as language codes and bombing targets. These women had a direct hand in helping win World War 2 and they are a joy to watch in this documentary of their work.
#2: Behind the Burly Q
This was a fascinating documentary to watch, if only because there was so much going on that we don’t know about without documentaries like this. If, like me, you struggle with the entire spectrum of sex-positive feminism, you should definitely watch this video. You don’t have to agree that prostitution is honest work or that pornography is a gender-neutral artifice to understand these women who are now in their twilight years, but who used to strip for the crowds in the old Burlesque theaters. They are honest about what they did, and not ashamed, but they do have some regrets, and something to say about feminism and what it has done for young women today. It’s surprising and presented in a quirky and cool way that really lets the women speak for themselves.
#1: Girl 27
Trigger warning: This documentary is about a rape.
This documentary took me to so many places, and that is why I’ve given it the #1 slot. First, I was shocked that I had never once in my entire life heard anything about this woman, who was very much in the media during the time her ordeals occurred in 1937. I was also saddened by the way her life had gone since she was victimized, and finally moved very much by the fact that the director, a guy named David Stenn, was able to gently prod her out of her isolation. At first I was very disturbed by his attempts to do so, but this tension does resolve, which I say attempting not to give too much of it away. In the end I thought it was a necessary documentary on a subject that very much needed publicity that offered an opportunity to talk about the web of women’s issues explored in this film, from sexual victimization, to consequences and surviving, to exploitation and subjugation, legal manipulation, the old-school patriarchy, etc.
Top Three Women-centered Historical Narratives
#3: the Catherine Cookson Collection
One has to be very careful selecting the right Catherine Cookson movie or series to watch, because she has a few objectionable ones (for me, anyway) that are merely Victorian romance stories that are heavy on rape fantasies. However, she also has a few that offer wonderful examples of empowered women in the Victorian era, which is not as fantastical as it may sound. Luckily her films are color-coded on Netflix. I recommend staying away from the ones with red banners. Here are a few of my favorites: The Glass Virgin, The Wingless Bird, and Colour Blind. The former also deals with issues of race, which is rare for a piece set in that period.
This is a fascinating series about a female doctor in Victorian England who rides a bike, opens a poor clinic when she is banished from medical academy, and is pretty outspoken about it all. The show aired over four seasons from 1995-1998 on the BBC. It culminates in two television movie-length episodes in season four, and covers a range of women’s issues not only as they relate to medical expertise. Jemma Redgrave a spitfire as Dr. Eleanor Bramwell.
#1 The Land Girls (2009)
Just as in the United States during World War 2, women took up the slack when the men left for war. And just as women could sign up for military and civilian services here, so could women there. One of the groups women could join was known as the Women’s Land Army, and they took over large swaths of agricultural production during the war. The Land Girls is the story of four such women and the British village they are assigned to. The miniseries explores a range of issues that women of that time would have faced. The show aired in five parts of about 43 minutes each and is a complete storyline of the time these female characters served.
If you want to expose yourself to some important women’s issues, or get an understanding of what women from various walks of life have faced through the last hundred years, please check out my recommendations. Just search for the titles. Once you fill your queue with these babies, more and more recommendations along these veins will start to show up, leading you to a wealth of options when it comes to watching television that’s good for women. We have the power to show them what we want to see; why don’t we take it this month?
And what are YOU watching, or have you watched on Netflix that relates to women’s history? Let’s start sharing some ideas. My queue is getting a little short!