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The Ultimate Pop-Culture Feminist Syllabus: 50 Books, Movies, TV Shows, Artists, and Albums Everyone Should Know

You can’t go five feet on the Internet without tripping over feminist commentary on pop culture. We’re at high tide for that sort of thing. But there’s only so many posts on the feminism of Mad Men or The Hunger Games or Very Special Personal Essays about Girls I can read before I start longing for a little more… variety in the repertoire. So I rounded up 50 items I think ought to be on every feminist’s read/watch/listen list.

It can’t hope to be comprehensive, of course, but this is my suggested start. My parameters were these: I left out most of the obvious classics — Fear of Flying, Buffy, Sylvia Plath — unless there was some angle I felt doesn’t get discussed enough and necessitates a second and closer look. I tried to keep the focus on female creators, too, though some men snuck in here. No tracts or journalism, so most of Steinem/Dworkin/Wolf was out.

And as a first example, the suggested soundtrack for this list would definitely include Ani DiFranco’s “32 Flavors.” The song’s about female ambition — “I am a poster girl with no poster” — and the way people will try to tear women down for having it.

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A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

This one’s a little obvious, but of course I have to suggest the document that every creative woman on the planet should use as a Bible. Oh, you’ve assimilated the message about having some place of your own to go and write, I’m sure. But it’s always worth recharging your sense of self-worth. “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind,” Virginia Woolf wrote.

The Cosby Show

Clair Huxtable, on The Cosby Show, was not just one of the first African-American working mom heroines on television; she was also one whose husband, Cliff, not only wasn’t embarrassed by her strident self-advocacy, but positively supported it. Watch the above clip, in which she schools her daughter Sondra’s then-new boyfriend Elvin on whether she is “serving” him when she offers him some coffee. Funny to think that this sort of rant is a bit radical for network television today, though it happened virtually every week.

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The Piano (dir. Jane Campion)

The Piano is one of these films that looks deceptively like a Merchant-Ivory biopic and ends with someone more or less literally losing a limb. The work of Jane Campion generally gets accused of effectively being feminist tracts in movie clothing, but the ambiguities in something like this film — is Holly Hunter’s character really happy? Was she really Harvey Keitel at all? — are her true trademark.

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Complains of a Dutiful Daughter (dir. Deborah Hoffman)

Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter is a short documentary (about 45 minutes) by Deborah Hoffman about the descent of her mother into Alzheimer’s. It’s a bit hard to get — I saw it at MoMA — but would be well worth another airing by PBS (hint, hint).

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The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

People tend to reach first for The Handmaid’s Tale, but I think if you are willing to veer from the de rigeuer reproductive-rights dystopia in Atwood you can’t go wrong with The Edible Woman. The title sort of says it all: a woman, newly engaged, suddenly begins to obsess over whether she is being metaphorically eaten by it all.

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Nine to Five (dir. Colin Higgins)

Nine to Five, pitched as a crowd-pleaser, doesn’t just advocate for workplace equality; it suggests that in order to achieve that, the best route is to literally tie up your boss and restrain him while you impress his boss enough to have him transferred. A bit of a roundabout strategy, but Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin make it work.

The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl

The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, by Issa Rae, should not need an introduction — the creator recently signed a development deal with HBO — but for the uninitiated, it follows the life and times of one “J,” whose running monologue often includes the line, “I’m uncomfortable.”

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Francesca Woodman

The artist’s photographs usually involve herself as the subject, and typically she’s fading into her surroundings: the floor, the wall, a chair.

Salt-n-Pepa — Very Necessary

Very Necessary included, among other great tracks, “None of Your Business,” an early shot across the bow at would-be slut-shamers:

If I wanna take a guy home with me tonight
It’s none of yo business
And if she wanna be a freak and sell it on the weekend
It’s none of yo business
Now you, shouldn’t even get into who I’m givin’ skins to
It’s none of yo business
So don’t try, to change my mind, I’ll tell you one more time
It’s none of yo business

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Heavenly Creatures (dir. Peter Jackson)

Heavenly Creatures is one of the few films about teenage girls that seems to take their cruelty and obsessiveness seriously. I suppose the fact that it ultimately results in murder makes the friendship central to the movie slightly unique, but the way these young girls roll around in the macabre feels hauntingly familiar.

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The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

The Woman Warrior is a memoir about growing up Chinese-American, but it is also deeply concerned with the failings of memory. Kingston constantly interrogates and reconsiders the stories her mother told her as a child.

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Real Women Have Curves (dir. Patricia Cardoso)

Real Women Have Curves was my own introduction to America Ferrera, but it’s still my favouite thing she’s done. Revolving around the coming of age of a Mexican-American girl who isn’t stick thin, it is the rare movie about feminine self-image that doesn’t fall for the Bridget Jones trap of diet-and-liberation.

Roseanne

Roseanne‘s legacy has perhaps been somewhat overshadowed by its last, nutty season, not to mention Roseanne Barr’s post-show persona (particularly on Twitter), but it remains a radical sitcom. No one on it looks supermodel-ready, and reveling in so-called “white trash” culture actually allows it to make some remarkably cutting insights about class and aspiration. I will always have a soft spot for Darlene Conner.

Cher

Who else with such wide appeal got to straddle massive phallic objects in the early 1980s? Who did not seem to care if everyone found her outfits too weird for words? Mermaids and Moonstruck-era Cher remains a bit of a revolutionary.

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The Group by Mary McCarthy

Unless you’ve been watching Mad Men really closely, or are over 40, you may not be familiar with Mary McCarthy’s novel, The Group. Published in 1962, it follows a group of graduates from Vassar College as they make their way in Manhattan. No less than The New Yorker‘s television critic Emily Nussbaum has made the comparison to Girls.

Designing Women

Julia Sugarbaker’s rants on Designing Women were things of glory. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that she was always right — I have never quite understood what was quite worth defending about her sister’s beauty pageant habits — but the unabashed displays of female aggression, usually directed at men, were things of beauty. Watch the above to see for yourself.

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Dogfight (dir. Nancy Savoca)

Dogfight is one of my favorite movies that basically no one has ever seen. Starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor, it follows them around San Francisco one night in the ’60s. Phoenix is about to ship out to Vietnam, and is spending his night competing with buddies to bring the ugliest “dog” to a bar — which is where Taylor comes in. Things don’t develop in the usual romantic comedy direction. You can rent this on iTunes: go for it!

Awkwafina

Coworkers turned me on to the Queens-born rapper Awkwafina, whose “My Vag” is a counterpart to Mickey Avalon’s “My Dick.”

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Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation (ed. Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman)

Kate Bornstein, a leading queer theorist and memoirist, paired with S. Bear Bergman in 2010 to document the growing trans and genderqueer community in the anthology Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, which won the 2011 Lambda Literary Award. Be sure specifically to read Gwendolyn Ann Smith’s “We’re All Somebody’s Freak.”

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Six Feet Under

Before Hannah Horvath, there was Claire Fisher on Six Feet Under. The women of that show — though it was written by a man — were some of the most interesting and in-depth explorations of female subjectivity on television — all of them “difficult” women, and all totally without the general aura of shrewishness that sometimes plagues such a character in popular culture.

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Catherine Breillat

Catherine Breillat is a French provocateur most famous for her censor-busting explorations of sexuality in films like Sleeping Beauty.

Jean Grae — “My Story”

Jean Grae’s “My Story” is about an abortion. She was really unhappy with her label making a video for the song, telling the Village Voice in 1998, “The most hurtful thing being that it’s such an important song. The personal part of me baring my soul is fine. The political aspect of it — you couldn’t have a more pro-choice song. So now, in essence, what you’ve done is taken the choice away for the video for the song called ‘My Story.’ I think it’s the most disrespectful thing ever. It’s really prompting me to have the kind of voice that I know I should have. I can’t let it go. I can’t let something like that go. And it’s not fair.”

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Learning to Drive by Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt’s essay collection Learning to Drive has the famous feminist pundit musing on more personal matters, like her obsessive googling of her last boyfriend and what it will be like when, as demographics dictate, her cohort will outlive men.

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I Shot Andy Warhol (dir. Mary Harron)

I Shot Andy Warhol earned director Mary Harron the ire of Lou Reed; he refused to grant her rights to the Velvet Underground songs she wanted to use, fearing she’d glorify Valerie Solanas, the film’s protagonist. Instead, in the film, Solanas emerges much as she was — which is to say deeply, deeply troubled. And the fact that the film doesn’t fall prey to either lionizing or condemning her is a rare thing in a depiction of a militant, radical feminist.

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Lorna Simpson

Lorna Simpson’s photography is generally about problematic depictions of the body, and more specifically the black female body. In Guarded Conditions, above, the woman’s arms crossed behind her back suggest both vulnerability and self-protection. I recommend this book in particular for familiarizing yourself with Simpson and her themes.

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Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black is about an obese medium named Alison who is frustrated with her spirit guide, an obnoxious ghost named Morris. She also has a spinster-Jack-Sprat sidekick, Colette, and things get real Flannery O’Connor for them real fast. Literature hasn’t often taken fat people seriously, and the supernatural subject matter would seem to keep that from being the case here either, but Alison’s description the experience of her body is not to be missed.

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Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is set in 2024, in the midst of environmental and societal disintegration that leads Lauren Olamina — who flees the chaos — to found a new religion called Earthseed. There’s something terribly brilliant about the particular powers Butler gives Lauren: she has what the book calls “hyperempathy,” the ability to feel the sorrows of others, and the book’s haunted me ever since I first read it.

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High Art (dir. Lisa Cholodenko)

Lisa Cholodenko’s film High Art takes a familiar if somewhat pulpy storyline — that of a young straight woman ready to experiment with lesbianism — and somehow manages to avoid cliché. The best part of this movie, after Ally Sheedy’s lesbian photographer, is Patricia Clarkson’s performance as Greta, whose fading looks and heroin addiction add up to icy social observation.

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Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name was an attempt to create a new genre she called “biomythography.” What that means is that this is neither autobiography nor pure fiction, but an attempt to make an epic out of oneself. If that sounds arrogant to you, let’s put it this way: such powers have not generally been granted to women in our culture, and not African American women in particular. This is really a must-read, I have to tell you.

Carole King

Carole King is my favorite of the 1970s folk singers, not a particularly inventive choice, of course. But she is the one whose songs, like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “You’ve Got a Friend” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” were articulating all the female ambivalence about love and relationships that is now taken as cliché long before anyone else was doing it in music. And long before you or I or Lena Dunham was even born. We need to show more respect.

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Ana Mendieta

Ana Mendieta’s art is bloody and gruesome and totally great. My favorite is her early Silueta series, which sees her body merging with the dirt, but her Body Tracks performance art pieces (pictured above) are more widely known. Mendieta died tragically young, possibly murdered in 1985 though her accused killer was acquitted, so her legacy is deeply tied to questions about violence in the lives of women.

Margaret Cho

Margaret Cho’s rant about having her own television show, All-American Girl, in 1994, is required viewing for anyone who wants to know why so much commercial art — like network television shows — is such terrible terrain, gender-politics-wise.

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Annie Allen by Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks’s coming-of-age narrative/book of poetry Annie Allen made her first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, in 1949. The centerpiece of the book is the 43-stanza “Anniad,” another attempt to give the black female experience an epic quality.

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Fire (dir. Deepa Mehta)

You may recall that there were riots in India over Deepa Mehta’s Fire. At a film festival there, someone shouted at the director that they wanted to shoot her. But the censors eventually released it unedited. Fire tells the story of two sisters-in-law who fall in love with each other, in part because their husbands don’t offer much in the way of sexual satisfaction, much less romance.

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How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez

Told from three points of view, each one of a trio of Dominican sisters who move to New York, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents  offers excellent insight into the immigrant experience, particularly from a female perspective.

Dar Williams — “When I Was a Boy”

The folk singer Dar Williams often explores feminist themes, but the simple and pure “When I Was a Boy” speaks to the ex-tomboy in a lot of us.

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Pray the Devil Back to Hell (dir. Abigail E. Disney and Gini Reticker)

You can actually watch this amazing documentary about the women of Liberia, and their reaction and protest to the brutal regime of Charles Taylor in Liberia, for free online here.

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Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich’s first novel is still my favorite of hers. Set off by the death in a blizzard of a woman of remarkable resourcefulness named June Kashpaw, from the get-go questions of sexual autonomy are wrapped up in the saga of two Native American families.

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Eve’s Bayou (dir. Kasi Lemmons)

“If it is not nominated for Academy Awards,” Roger Ebert once wrote of Eve’s Bayou, the film film directed by Kasi Lemmons, “then the academy is not paying attention.” Well, it wasn’t. But this family saga set in Louisiana really should have been. We’re told their story through the eyes of the remarkably intelligent Eve Batiste, played by Jurnee Smollett.

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We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk About Kevin gets a lot of attention for its depiction of what it’s like to be the mother of a killer. But for me the strength of the book isn’t about the horror of that situation; it’s about the remarkableness of entering the mind of a woman who wasn’t sure she even wanted a child in the first place, ended up with one, and even before the depths of tragedy was deeply ambivalent about the experience of motherhood, Bad Seed or no.

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Morvern Callar (dir. Lynne Ramsay)

The eponymous Morvern Callar awakes in this film to find her boyfriend dead and a manuscript of his unfinished novel just sitting there, ripe for the picking. This is the kind of role Samantha Morton was born to play, and the director, Lynne Ramsay, also has a knack for these stories of people trying to claw themselves out of trauma.

Joan Jett — “Bad Reputation”

If I were to choose just one anthem for all of feminism, it would be Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, “Bad Reputation.” I resent that Judd Apatow got to co-opt “A girl can do what she wants to do and that’s what I’m gonna do” for Freaks and Geeks, actually.

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Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

The heroine of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time is Hispanic and also institutionalized as insane. But Connie has visions of a better world, and some plans to implement them, in what has been called the first “cyber-punk” novel.

Paris Is Burning (dir. Jennie Livingston)

Paris Is Burning is a documentary about drag culture in New York. In the age of RuPaul’s Drag Race, this subculture is hardly obscure, but this documentary still offers an unsurpassed depth in its examination of the possibilities of “passing” and the more complex experience of gender fluidity.

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Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis still routinely hits the bestseller lists in America, and yet discussions of women in Iran and in the Muslim world more generally still rely on outdated stereotypes about submissive women in veils. Maybe more people should read this book more carefully.

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Safe (dir. Todd Haynes)

Safe, Todd Haynes’ breakthrough into a slightly more mainstream audience than he had before, poses some fairly subversive questions about the nature of marriage and feminine fulfillment under cover of a story of environmental paranoia. The dread and panic induced by “settling down” are palpable.

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For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange

For Colored Girls did get a recent, Tyler Perry-directed Hollywood adaptation, but the text deserves study in and of itself.

Bobbie Gentry — “Fancy”

Probably better known to you from Reba McEntire’s 1990s cover of it, Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy, is actually a positive song about sex work. There is no tragic death at the end. Why, just look!

I’ve charmed a king, a congressman
and an occasional aristocrat
and I got me a Georgia mansion
and an elegant New York townhouse flat.

Now I ain’t done bad

The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich

My favorite poem in Adrienne Rich’s A Dream of a Common Language is the “Transcendental Étude”:

No one ever told us we had to study our lives,
make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history
or music, that we should begin
with the simple exercises first
and slowly go on trying
the hard ones, practicing till strength
and accuracy became one with the daring
to leap into transcendence, take the chance
of breaking down the wild arpeggio
or faulting the full sentence of the fugue.
And in fact we can’t live like that: we take on
everything at once before we’ve even begun
to read or mark time, we’re forced to begin
in the midst of the hard movement,
the one already sounding as we are born.

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