Women’s History Month, which runs through the end of March, is a time to honor the vital role of women in history and celebrate their diverse achievements and stories.
To mark the occasion, the CNET team has come up with a list of inspiring and illuminating movies and TV shows that explore the triumphs and challenges of the female experience. Some are documentaries, of activists, artists, politicians and more. Others are historical dramas that open a window on women’s lives in the past, or contemporary takes that feature compelling female characters navigating modern life.
Of course this roundup represents only a sampling of the vast range of available content that would make for great viewing during Women’s History Month. Got your own picks? Please share them in the comments.
Zeitgeist Films; video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET
You like the internet? Thank Hedy Lamarr: inventor, visionary, sex symbol. Lamarr’s story is suffused with transformation and survival; inspiration; invention and reinvention again. The forebear of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, Lamarr was the Jewish-born wife of a businessman with Nazi ties. Her dramatic escape from the regime led to a second life on the silver screen, where Lamarr was judged by her beauty rather than her cutting intellect.
In this 2017 documentary, Lamarr comes to life as a whole person, with thoughts and dreams. Refreshingly unabashed in her groundbreaking role as a contributor to technology and science, Lamarr, in her own words, reveals herself as an innovator who knew her worth.
Magnolia Pictures; video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET
After the wonderful documentary The Wolfpack, director Crystal Moselle wrote and directed this story about a group of female skaters based in New York who called themselves Skate Kitchen. Most of the cast in this 2018 drama are nonprofessional actors playing a fictionalized version of themselves. Honest and delicate, Skate Kitchen is a beautiful portrayal of teenage girls taking over spaces that too often seem to be reserved for boys.
For a true, uplifting story, Hidden Figures ticks all the boxes. The Oscar-nominated biopic follows the Black female mathematicians who were instrumental in helping NASA during the space race. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson are the names that hopefully you’ll remember after watching, and the three women are brought to life by the unwaveringly excellent performances of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.
When I joined my first newsroom in the early 1990s, I had no idea how far women journalists had come in such a short period of time. Then I watched Good Girls Revolt. The single-season series is based on the true story of the young women who worked in the Newsweek newsroom in the late 1960s and faced utterly ridiculous sexism. They worked their butts off as researchers – i.e., male reporters’ assistants — yet were never allowed to become reporters or get bylines. They were also paid substantially less than their male counterparts.
This Amazon Original series isn’t completely serious, though. I delighted in the fashion, hair, morality and revolutionary feel of the time. And I cringed at the women’s (often poor) choices in romantic and sexual partners. I also sent Amazon an incredulous note when this series was canceled after one season. If you give Good Girls Revolt a try, you’ll understand why.
You have to have pretty thick skin to be an activist in the public eye. But lawyer Gloria Allred has championed women’s rights for decades, seeming completely immune to the childish taunts thrown her way. This 2018 documentary is an utterly fascinating look at the life and motivations of one of America’s best-known attorneys.
This historical miniseries has a stacked cast, including Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne and Sarah Paulson. Blanchett plays Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist who caused unexpected backlash to the political movement to pass The Equal Rights Amendment. Prominent feminists of the ’70s pop up, like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. For a vivid look at history through powerhouse performances, Mrs. America is tremendous.
A soaring feel-good movie from 2016 about a young woman who achieves greatness. The best part? Queen of Katwe is based on a true story about the first titled female chess player in Ugandan chess history. Life in the Katwe slum is a constant struggle, but when Phiona Mutesi discovers her talent for chess, she starts believing she can do bigger and greater things. Starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, Queen of Katwe is a winning checkmate.
I’ve often had romantic notions of writers of yore meandering through their days, dreaming of their next story while sipping tea and taking walks through their estates. To watch this 2016 film and learn the brutal reality the Bronte sisters faced is a true wakeup call.
Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte struggled in ways I cannot fathom. They were poor and isolated. Their alcoholic brother drained their family financially and emotionally. And they faced a publishing world that had zero interest in women authors. Yet they wrote and published (under male pseudonyms) some of the greatest works of English literature: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. This film is simultaneously haunting and inspiring.
In the last decade of her life, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg achieved a status her colleagues hadn’t: She became a pop culture icon, aka the Notorious RBG. As the 2018 documentary RBG makes clear, it was largely because of her pointed dissents defending everything from reproductive rights to pay equity to voting rights. But long before she sat on the nation’s highest court, she was fighting for gender equality. In the movie, Gloria Steinem describes her as “the closest thing to a superhero I know.”
The film features interviews with Ginsburg, her children, granddaughter, friends, former colleagues and even a few politicians — those who agreed with her decisions and those who didn’t. It also makes good use of audio from the cases she argued in front of the Supreme Court (she won five out of six).
One of those cases is dramatized in the enjoyable but mostly forgettable On the Basis of Sex, which stars Felicity Jones as Ginsburg and includes a powerful cameo by the Notorious RBG at the end. (It’s the movie’s best scene.) Pass the tissues, please.
I Am Greta chronicles the remarkable story of teenage climate change activist Greta Thunberg. The 2020 documentary is an intimate look at Thunberg’s one-person school strike for climate action outside the Swedish parliament. We also see a little of her life as a shy student with Asperger’s. The rare footage is in the sure hands of Swedish director Nathan Grossman, following one young woman’s galvanizing impact from Sweden to the rest of the world.
I Hate Suzie is a show that says something that hasn’t been said on screen before. Writer Lucy Prebble manages to discuss female identity through low-key lines delivered by her flawed and lost yet powerhouse women. “I feel like my whole life I’ve just seen everything from other people’s points of view and I’ve never asked myself like, ‘What do I want?'”
The titular Suzie, played by Billie Piper with a weird, skittish energy, experiences trauma after life-upending pictures on her hacked phone are leaked. Even though the character is a celebrity actress, she’s relatable, vulnerable and unpredictable. It’s probably too much to say this is a modern Odyssey, but thanks to the frenetic, almost frenzied filmmaking, by the end it feels like you’ve experienced something big.
As someone with immigrant parents, I connected deeply with this 1993 film (and the Amy Tan novel it was based on). But the beautiful, complicated relationships between Chinese immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters can resonate with anyone struggling to navigate complex bonds with people who may have different backgrounds and life experiences.
The film explores the importance of tradition and the power of love to connect people regardless of challenges or differences. It also speaks to the resilience of women to overcome immense difficulties, no matter their background.
Music Box Films; video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET
Mary Dore’s 2014 documentary looks back at the second-wave feminism movement from 1966 to 1971 and interviews a number of pioneers who fought for women’s liberation. It’s a great quick watch and a helpful reminder that even though young women today are a few generations out from second-wave feminism, there are still important conversations to be had about issues like reproductive rights and gender equality in the workplace.
This 2020 documentary about the systematic sexual abuse of elite young female gymnasts by USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar is harrowing. But the strength and perseverance of the athletes who went on record with their stories, facing their abuser in court, is nothing short of heroic. Nassar — and those who enabled his widespread abuse — took so much from these young women. But no one could take away their courage or humanity.
“High Priestess of Soul” Nina Simone is a legendary singer and activist, and this 2015 film, which uses rare recordings and archival footage, is maybe one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. It was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 88th Academy Awards. And for good reason.
The tide has turned, so to speak. Instead of the helpless “rescued by a prince” princesses of yesteryear, Disney has made a sincere effort in the last decade to tell stories that will inspire young girls to be strong and independent. Moana plays a Polynesian teenager who sets out on an oceanic mission to help her people, guided by demigod Maui. Moana, from 2016, is a beautifully animated, well-written film that should be played on repeat for our young sons and daughters.
Forty Acres and a Mule; video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET
Spike Lee’s 1986 directorial debut, She’s Gotta Have It still holds up more than three decades later as a comedy, a drama, a romance and a thought piece on race and sexuality. The film follows the incredible Nola Darling as she juggles three men simultaneously, while not letting them define her or her independence. On the upside, once you finish the movie you can start straight away on the Netflix series Lee recently adapted. It’s also fantastic.
Amazon Prime; video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET
This is a filmed version of writer-comedian Heidi Schreck’s one-woman show, directed by Marielle Heller (who plays the adoptive mom in The Queen’s Gambit). It starts out with Schreck giving a talk about the Constitution that she used to give as a teenager, all over the country, to earn college money, which is funny and self-deprecating and nerdy.
But it develops into the story of the women in her family and the ways the nation’s founding document has circumscribed their freedoms and directly affected their lives. NGL, it gets pretty dark. Wisely, Schreck ends on a high note — I won’t say more. This is funny, moving and deeply thought-provoking.
As a child of the 1970s and 1980s, I had of course heard of the classic book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Her autobiography tells the incredibly painful and fascinating story of her childhood. Yet I had no idea who the real woman was until I watched this 2016 documentary.
Her fame as a brilliant poet and author was preceded by decades in the theater as a dancer, singer and actress. She was also an activist who was intensely involved in the civil rights movement and worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin. This documentary lays it all out and allows you to soak in Angelou’s talent, personality, determination and iconoclasm.
In 18th century France, a painter is hired to paint the portrait of a woman without her knowing. As they spend time together, the two women become closer until it becomes clear their relationship goes well beyond friendship. Beautiful, sensual and free of the clichés sometimes present in movies about LGBTQ characters, Portrait of a Lady on Fire does an excellent job exploring a passionate, nascent same-sex love.
The Great is one of my most favorite shows from the past few years. This irreverent comedy about the early years of Catherine the Great’s marriage doesn’t let historical accuracy get in the way of a good story. And it really is a fantastic story. Elle Fanning and Phoebe Fox are brilliant, and Nicholas Hoult is a wonderfully terrible husband you can’t help but feel a little sorry for.
Speaking of loose interpretations of history, there’s Apple TV Plus’ Dickinson. The series follows a young Emily Dickinson through her struggles to be seen as a poet and rebel against the strict constraints of 19th century New England society. Dickinson has modern sensibilities — yes, there is twerking and R&B, and yes, Whiz Khalifa plays Death — but there are really great and raw moments about young women who desperately want to be their true selves and thrive.
Regardless of your views on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 2019 documentary Knock Down the House is an incredible underdog story that shouldn’t be missed. Focusing on progressive female candidates during the 2018 congressional primary campaigns, it’s an insightful look at the democratic process, and women’s role in it.
Emerald Fennell has taken the classic revenge story to a completely new place with Promising Young Woman. Fun, clever, bitter and very refreshing, this dark comedy features the heroine (played by Carey Mulligan) we didn’t know we needed. Be ready to talk about the ending for weeks after watching it.
Spunky 1950s New York housewife Midge Maisel discovers a passion and talent for stand-up comedy in this Emmy-winning comedy series. The show’s an exuberant and often touching look at a woman who defies all cultural expectations of her era to boldly chase her dreams.
Set in Derry, Northern Ireland, in the ’90s, Derry Girls is about four friends navigating high school while also living through The Troubles. It’s equally hilarious and hopeful, and you absolutely will cry at least once watching it, but in a good way.