The documentary world can be overwhelming. Think of a topic — broad or obscure — and very likely a movie has probably been made about it. Biographies, investigations, social commentaries, historical portraits, institutional exposes… but how to choose? How about the films that dive deep into fascinating, meaningful topics that we don't talk about often enough: women's issues.
Consider the experience of being a woman in 2020, in every corner of the globe. From personal stories to wide-scale investigations, documentaries are a window into the experiences of women from all walks of life. With a camera and a vision, filmmakers can shine light on people and challenges that so many of us know too little — or nothing — about. That includes thorny topics like the sexualization of young women, workplace sexism, gender-based violence and murder, sex trade, and lack of access to education and healthcare.
To experience another woman's life for a couple of hours, watching a documentary can be a revelatory experience. Here are our picks for the documentaries every woman needs to see.
AKA Jane Roe (2020)
Nick McSweeney's documentary about Norma McCorvey, the woman known as "Jane Roe" in the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case, made headlines when it revealed she had been paid by anti-choice activists to reverse her stance on abortion later in life. But the movie is important beyond its initial shock value — in painting a complete portrait of a woman who became a hero and villain to both sides of the political spectrum, it presents a complicated legacy, the ramifications of which we're still dealing with today.
Audrie & Daisy
Audrie, 15, and Daisy, 14 didn't know each other, but their stories are similar and all too common. Both girls alleged they were sexually assaulted by their peers while drunk and unconscious. This documentary is about the devastating aftermath of their assaults. Photos of Audrie from that night went online and she committed suicide shortly after; Daisy and her family endured torment and bullying online and in their community. This movie is less about the perpetrators themselves than the systems that protect them: A culture of victim-shaming, an instinct to protect prized male athletes, and a legal system that fails the young women who need it most.
Katie Couric, Gloria Steinem, Condoleezza Rice, and others shine a light on the most pervasive distributor of sexism: the media. Everywhere we look, the mainstream media tells women that their worth is measured by their beauty, desirability, and youth — rather than her intelligence, ambition, or character. That has a very real impact on the girls — and boys — who grow up seeing these images everyday and believing that it represents their value and place in the world.
This controversial film looks at the prejudices faced by Black women and women with dark skin in all corners of the world. Those biases are deeply rooted in racism and classism, as well as the dissemination of the Western ideal of beauty in the media. For example, skin-lightening products are a multibillion-dollar worldwide industry. The addition of Viola Davis's story proves that no dark-skinned woman is immune to this prejudice.
It's A Girl
Here's a sobering fact about gender-based infanticide: Every year, India and China "eliminate" (abort, kill, abandon) more baby girls than are born in the United States. Some families sell their baby daughters to be trafficked; others fight to save their lives. Here, experts, activists, and those with firsthand experience discuss the causes and impacts of this frightening epidemic.
The Invisible War
There is a rape epidemic in the U.S. military: Half of women in the military report being sexually assaulted, yet only 8% of cases are prosecuted, according to this well-researched doc. In fact, if you are a woman stationed in Afghanistan or Iraq, you are more likely to be raped than killed by the enemy in the line of fire. These predatory men come home and transition into our civilian communities; the women come home and watch these men's crimes be buried by military culture and the Department of Defense. It's hard to know what's worse: the upsetting personal stories or the alarming big-picture statistics.
The Hunting Ground
The same brilliant team from behind The Invisible War tackled the equally daunting and serious issue of rape on college campuses across the U.S. What happens to these women is horrific, but what happens after is equally despicable. School administrations try to cover up crimes to protect their reputations and keep the tuition money and alumni contributions rolling in. Meanwhile, the survivors face social stigma, victim-blaming, retaliation from their peers, untreated trauma, and roadblocks to pursuing their education.
Hot Girls Wanted
This Rashida Jones-produced project got a lot of attention when it first came out, with good reason. This deep dive into the disturbing exploitation of teenage girls that occurs within the world of "amateur porn." It follows a Florida-based porno recruited and five young women who are lured into the business by false pretenses or pushed into it by life circumstances like poverty. An upsetting but necessary watch.
The story of Anita Hill is 25 years-old, but it is more relevant today than ever. Hill watched her life crumble after an FBI interview of her accusing Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment and lewd conduct. She was called to testify before Congress, and she did. What happened as a result — character assassination, mudslinging in the press, and a stalling of her career — exposes the harsh reality of sexual and racial politics in America. And if you're wondering what Hill has been doing in the decades since, this intimate life portrait explores that too.
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Are you ready for some lighter female-focused fare? Then watch this lively doc about seven stylish New York women in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Their approach to fashion, self-expression, beauty and aging is refreshing and inspiring. And the women are a riot. Dressing your age? No such thing.
Nine women celebrities — Selena Gomez, Kerry Washington, Chloë Grace Moretz, Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett, Salma Hayek, Alicia Keys, Freida Pinto and Meryl Streep — voice the stories of nine young women from impoverished and developing countries who are fighting tooth-and-nail for an education. Poverty, forced labor, sexist cultural and religious norms and a lack of schools are among the challenges these brave girls face to do something many of us take for granted.
A Path Appears
The team behind Half the Sky created this sweeping three-part series hosted by journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. They travel the U.S. and to Colombia, Kenya, and Haiti — and recruit help from the likes of Jennifer Garner, Blake Lively, and Eva Longoria — to spotlight individual stories that bring to life the most serious women's issues: sex-trafficking, teen pregnancy, poverty, sexism, violence, etc. Kristof and WuDunn go a step further, exploring the most effective methods to affect real change.
No Woman, No Cry (2010)
In her gripping directorial debut, Christy Turlington Burns shares the powerful stories of at-risk pregnant women in four parts of the world, including a remote Maasai tribe in Tanzania, a slum of Bangladesh, a post-abortion care ward in Guatemala, and a prenatal clinic in the United States.
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