An Introductory Guide to Women-Centered Culture For Guys

Last week, Paulie asked me in comments on my post about Miss Representation, “Say I’m a stereotypical guy looking to watch/read something new. What stuff written by or starring women am I likely to enjoy?” Here, in no particular order, are 18 things that I think would appeal to men. I’ve omitted classics because I assume you know. All of these, for me, pass Ta-Nehisi’s test in that these are not things you should watch or read out of obligation, but because they’re very good. Got more suggestions? Toss ’em in comments.

1. Prime Suspect: Helen Mirren is so universally understood to be an amazing actresses, a salty dame, and a foxy lady, that it’s difficult to think about a time when she wasn’t a phenomenon in the U.S. as well as in the U.K. But if you want to understand Mirren’s general awesomeness, it’s worth checking out her seven-season run as DCI Jane Tennison, during which Mirren puts away serial killers, works with immigrant communities, challenges institutional sexism, has affairs and an abortion, and acknowledges her drinking problem. In other words, she’s an actual person rather than a saint, a living illustration of the costs of breaking gender barriers in the working world. And she’s funny, too.

2. Anything Barbara Stanwyck: The woman was tougher than most of the guys she was on-screen with, even in a dress so tight she couldn’t run in it, even in heels that she broke strategically as a way to get back to a mark’s stateroom on a cruise ship. “I love him because he’s a kind of a guy that gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk,” she declared in Ball of Fire. “I need him like the axe needs the turkey,” she glowered about Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve. Stanwyck is the apotheosis of the idea women can be equal — even superior — to men with an entirely different toolkit. Read this profile and critical reassessment of her by David Denby. Then rent The Lady Eve and prepare to die laughing during the mirror scene.

3. Emma Thompson and Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility: Jane Austen is, indeed awesome, but Emma Thompson is the only woman who possibly could have improved upon her, turning Sense and Sensibility into a pitch-perfect examination of why women get emotionally attached too quickly, or don’t explain why they’re thinking — and how social pressure, particularly when it comes to class and money, leads men into bad decisions. The movie is sharp, very funny, and quite moving. Yeah, it’s Austen and it’s understated, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s boring.

4. Anything by Mary Roach: Roach can write like a house on fire, but more importantly, she’s tremendously good at framing questions about science and society, whether she’s at a memorial service medical students are holding for the corpses they’ve dissected or having sex with her husband in front of a researcher for science. I’m particularly fond of Stiff, but her funny, sometimes disgusting, always deeply engaged books on sex, space travel, and the afterlife are all worth reading.

5. Talk to Me: Kasi Lemmons acted in The Silence of the Lambs. She directed Eve’s Bayou, one of the better semi-recent movies about black families. But I’d recommend Talk to Me because it’s a great movie about men, politics, and the District of Columbia. That last thing in particular is almost certainly the reason the movie wasn’t seen by very many people, but it’s doubly a reason to check out Talk to Me. That, and Don Cheadle in leisure suits.

6. Contact: This Jodie Foster vehicle isn’t perfect, and it’s got a deeply sentimental ending (though perfect for Father’s Day!). But as Ellie Arroway, Foster delivers a performance that’s all about reconciling science and faith, and the necessity of faith to science—and suggests that the scientific community ignore women at risk of missing out on important discoveries. It’s also nice to see, for most of the movie, that there’s a gender reversal: Matthew McConaughey’s minister is a man of faith and emotion, while Dr. Arroway is a woman of science.

7. And in that vein, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and Children of God: Based on the awesome assumption that if humanity discovered alien life, the Society of Jesus would kick into high gear, build a spaceship, and send a mixed party of scientists, Jesuits, and Jesuit scientists to go out and make first contact. The novel’s concerned with the connections between anthropology, religion, and population science, bonded labor, sexual ethics, cross-class solidarity and a repetition of Jewish history on another planet. Which is to say, it’s excellent.

8. In Plain Sight: Mary Shannon is no Jane Tennison, but she’s dryly funnier, and her partnership with Marshall Man wouldn’t be possible without the work that shows like Prime Suspect did to earn the right for women not just to be in law enforcement agencies, but to be cranky and difficult as long as they’re excellent at their jobs. Like all of USA’s shows, In Plain Sight uses snark to distance itself from the serious issues at hand, but witness protection is a nicely original way to approach a crime show.

9. Books by Hilary Mantel and A.S. Byatt: Two titans of British literature, Mantel and Byatt’s writing spans the land between Saudia Arabia and the English countryside, the time between Ragnarok to the War on Terror, and intellectual disputes from the founding of the Church of England to the social revolutions of the 1960s. Sure, Byatt in particular can be an intellectual showoff — she wrote all the period poetry in Posession — but they’re both revelations, tough and gorgeous. Wolf Hall, Mantel’s novel about Thomas Cromwell is tremendously beautiful and propulsive, one of my favorite books of the last several years.

10. Anything by Kathryn Bigelow. Almost anything by James Cameron: It’s hard to think of two directors who are more interested in making movies about the gender that they’re not than these former spouses. Where Bigelow celebrates the bonds that form between men, the way they come to understand each other when they work or play together, Cameron celebrates women and the strength they find when they stand alone.

11. Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Little House books have a reputation as girls’ stories, but Laura Ingalls understood boys and she liked them long before she met and married Almanzo Wilder, who trusted her to tell his life story. If you’ve got a son, this is a good early book to read with him (and daughters, too). Follow it up several years later with Lois Lowry’s The Giver.

12. Waitress: Adrienne Shelly was murdered before this movie, in which she directed and played a supporting role, came out. It’s a particularly female movie (the main character is famous for her pies), but it’s also about determination amidst poverty and the fierce way joy can crowd out fear. A scene where Jeremy Sisto slaps a pregnant Kerri Russell while he’s driving her home is tremendously uncomfortable to watch, and very well-acted.

13. Just Kids, by Patti Smith and We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver: I liked Patti Smith’s memoir of her early years in New York with Robert Mapplethorpe, though I think it’s a tiny bit too rosy. And We Need to Talk About Kevin is a blast of bile, guilt, and other feelings it’s unacceptable to express in public. Pairing them together somehow feels right, a simultaneous affirmation of the world’s fallenness and its beauty.

14. Palomar, by Gilbert Hernandez: Within the context Hernandez sets up for his set of the Love and Rockets stories, the women of Palomar are all superheroes, whether they’re rising from bathhouse proprietress to mayor, becoming the fastest girl in the world even if no one knows it, or transforming into an anti-imperialist crusader. And that doesn’t even get into the honor and glory and confusion of the men. I honestly can’t say enough good about the Heartbreak Soup stories except to say that they expanded my world.