A female correspondent read my post “What Should Boys Watch?” and wondered about the other half of the population. I asked her to compile her own list of what girls should watch. Here it is, in her words.
I often hear my friends, all of whom are mothers of girls, insist we should tell our daughters that anything a boy can do, they can do, too. First Things readers know, however, that differences between boys and girls aren’t so easily dispelled. It’s darn hard for a woman to “have it all”—marriage, career, children, exercise, entertainment, nice home, and great schools, all at the same time. Girls who listen to so much encouragement eventually hear it as outside pressure. Better to show them strong female characters in books and movies—women who may not have it all, but who show the kind of energy, intelligence, wit, and initiative young girls hope to develop themselves.
With that in mind, here’s my list of films.
Camille (1936). Greta Garbo plays Camille in George Cukor’s adaptation of this Alexandre Dumas fils play. A courtesan, she falls in love with a young baron who is willing to give up his title to be with her. But she gives up her love so that he can have the life his name warrants him.
The Lady Vanishes (1938). In this early Hitchcock effort, a young woman strikes up a friendship with an old woman on a train, not knowing that the latter is really a British intelligence agent. When the elderly woman is kidnapped, the young woman bravely leads the effort to find her.
Gone with the Wind (1939). Yes, the history and racial mores are off, but let’s not forget Scarlett O’Hara’s determination and grit and independence. Before she marries Rhett Butler, Scarlett works the dirt of her beloved Tara with her own hands and steals her sister’s fiancé because he can save the family house and land. Whatever are her sins, she pays dearly for each one.
The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958), AKA The Blonde and the Sheriff. Jayne Mansfield, the busty blonde of the title, can sing—but she also runs a hotel and teaches the British immigrant played by Kenneth More the ways of the West, including how to shoot a gun, so that he can perform his duty as sheriff.
Pride and Prejudice (1995 BBC miniseries). In this age of social media, girls can only marvel at the way Elizabeth Bennet tells Mr. Darcy, who fears she despises him, that she actually loves him: “My feelings are quite different. In fact, they are quite the opposite.”
Bringing Up Baby (1938). Katharine Hepburn is silly but adorable, and she is also the engine of the action. She gets the boy, too, dorky scientist Cary Grant, who learns from her the zany unpredictability of love.
His Girl Friday (1940). Journalist Rosalind Russell is about to marry for a second time, trading her first husband, the newspaper publisher Cary Grant, a manipulative but entertaining rascal, for a new beau, an insurance salesman who offers a quiet life in a small town with his mother. Guess where this talented reporter finally ends up.
National Velvet (1944). Young Elizabeth Taylor must disguise herself as a boy in order to ride her beloved horse in a race that will prove the horse to be what she knows him to be. She wins, then turns down Hollywood to lead a normal life.
Notorious (1946). Ingrid Bergman, the American daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, is recruited by a government agent (played by Cary Grant) to search for Nazis in Brazil. They fall in love but suspend their feelings in order for Bergman to marry a man they suspect. Risking her life, she will succeed in uncovering him and his ring.
The Paradine Case (1947). Gregory Peck is the hero of this film noir courtroom drama, playing a happily married solicitor who takes on the defense of a dark widow femme fatale. His wife understands that only by having her acquitted can she save her marriage—maybe.
The Three Musketeers (1948). In this adaptation of the classic novel, girls can choose which beautiful woman they want to identify with: pure and kind Constance, or seductive and devious Milady.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952). This famous dance film is also the story of a struggling actress who, when she meets movie star Don, pretends not to know him and doesn’t reveal her crush upon him for weeks. After Don recognizes her singing and dancing talent and displays it to others, together they will become stars of talking pictures.
Ivanhoe (1952). Elizabeth Taylor plays Rebecca, a young Jewess who falls in love with Ivanhoe, knight to Richard Lionheart. She doesn’t renounce her love, despite the great social gulf between them and the fact that he is engaged to his longtime love, Lady Rowena. In the end, she accepts this love and thus reconciles with her rival.
Roman Holiday (1953). Audrey Hepburn is the crown princess of an unspecified country on an official trip to Rome. She wants to have a little fun and escape her wards. She meets a journalist, plays with him in Rome—then gives him up to assume her duties as a princess.
All That Heaven Allows (1955). In this “woman’s picture,” as it was referred to by the press, a widow falls in love with a young gardener of the same age as her children. Will she get another chance at love and marriage, or will her family and friends’ opinions prevail? It is hinted that women, even the less young ones, have desires and needs—and why should they not be met?
Tender Mercies (1983). Can a man and a woman build a life together after the world has hurt them both? She is a widow with a young son; he is a recovering alcoholic with an estranged daughter. Will converting to Christianity bring him redemption? Will the fragile couple resist the next blow he is dealt?
The Man on the Moon (1991). In this coming-of-age movie set in 1957, fourteen-year-old Dani and her seventeen-year-old sister Maureen fall in love with the same boy. He falls for the older sister, and she gets her wish that “love should be beautiful.” This pulls the sisters apart before a tragic accident forces both to grow up too fast and find solace in each other’s existence.
Jane Eyre (2006 BBC miniseries). Every girl should know this character who turns down the man she loves because, as she tells him, “I must respect myself.”
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.