This post was updated on April 8, 2016 to reflect Netflix’s current offerings.
Movies are meant to make us feel understood. Actually, let me rephrase that: Movies are meant to make men feel understood, at least in today’s cultural climate — last year, women made up only 12 percent of protagonists and just 30 percent of speaking roles in the top-grossing films. Needless to say, as women, it’s tough to find films that represent us, that make us feel seen, that help us to process our experiences. (Not to say that women can’t relate to male protagonists, or vice versa, but come on, Hollywood — 12 percent is bleak.)
Enter Netflix’s “Featuring a Strong Female Lead” categories, which do much of the difficult work by sorting through endless films and TV shows starring toothy white dudes, burning them in effigy (I think), then serving up hundreds of examples of complex, fully drawn women going through some shit onscreen. But this long, unwieldy list of lady-centric media creates yet another problem: What to watch when, and why?
Why not select a slew of movies and shows that speak directly to your present experiences, whether by giving you a sense of perspective (“Damn, the mom from The Babadook sure has it a lot worse than I do, what with a children’s-book character trying to drive her to filicide”), presenting you with possible solutions to your troubles (“Oh, so I can just poison my bigoted boss to death!”), or simply empathizing with you (“Yes, girl, it doessuck when your mobster boyfriend uses you as a pawn in his murderous game while you’re just trying to get it with your hot lady neighbor”). To help, we’ve created a handy guide to which of Netflix’s “Featuring a Strong Female Lead” films (and a few TV shows) across categories you should watch when you find yourself feeling some type of way.
What to Watch When You’ve Done Something Terrible (and Want to Feel Better About It by Watching Somebody Do Something Significantly More Terrible):
Top of the Lake
Jane Campion’s chilling 2013 mini-series follows Elisabeth Moss as detective Robin Griffin, a haunted young woman who reluctantly returns to her tiny New Zealand hometown to solve the mysterious disappearance of a local teen named Tui (Jacqueline Joe). The deeper Robin pries into Tui’s departure, the more horrifying are the secrets she uncovers, both about her own family and the people she’s investigating. While I don’t want to spoil anything here — it’s worth falling down this dark, twisted rabbit hole — suffice to say that any poor choices you may have made lately pale in comparison to even the most benign goings-on of the townspeople of Laketop, New Zealand.
Did you forget to wish your grandpa a happy birthday? Hey, don’t sweat it. The characters in Asghar Farhadi’s dark psychodrama About Elly “forget” to tell a woman’s family that she disappeared. They also lie to each other and themselves, practice dangerous group-think and moral relativism, and play endless rounds of beach volleyball while their young children are swimming in the raging Caspian Sea. Ultimately, About Elly asks how far one should go to preserve a false sense of order to spare another person grief. The answer: not as far as everyone in About Elly goes.
The Sisterhood of Night
Feeling a little Regina George–esque lately? Well, some of the high-schoolers in The Sisterhood of Night make Mean Girls’ evil queen bee look like, I don’t know, Jerry Seinfeld’s bee in Bee Movie. In Caryn Waechter’s modern-day riff on the Salem witch trials, an angry, jealous teen named Emily Parris (Kara Hayward) decides to exact revenge on her pretty, enigmatic classmate Mary Warren (Georgie Henley) by telling a sordid tale about Mary — namely, that she’s the head of a satanic sex cult. Soon, parents get involved, teachers get in trouble, and people start offing themselves, all because Emily was feeling sort of annoyed about not getting a part in the school play. So don’t feel too bad about that backhanded compliment you just gave your co-worker.
However guilty you might be feeling about your own behavior of late, you’ll feel downright mired in moral rectitude after beholding the walking clusterfuck that is Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) in Election. Over the course of Alexander Payne’s acerbic 1999 satire, McAllister, a once-respected teacher, pits his high-school students against one another, commits small-scale electoral fraud, ruins his marriage, and has his eyelid stung dramatically by a bee (… Jerry?). It should be noted, considering our overarching category, that all of McAllister’s poor decisions stem from a profound irritation with Reese Witherspoon’s Strong Female Lead Tracy Flick. It can be hard to watch a woman succeed!
Maybe you’ve recently done something questionable to keep your job or advance your career, like throw a colleague under the bus. It’s vital, then, that you watch Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous, a dystopian, futuristic sci-fi that sees protagonist Gwen (Jacqueline Kim) doing something utterly batshit to herself so she won’t lose her job at a prestigious tech company. Sure, Gwen’s underlying motivation is admirable — sending her daughter (Samantha Kim) to a good school — and her actions are more than understandable within the hopelessly misogynistic world the film presents, which perceives women as unemployable once they reach middle age. But what Gwen decides to do in the name of career advancement profoundly alters her family’s stability and happiness. Also, it makes it hard for her to walk up stairs.
When Your Job Is Sucking the Life Out of You (and You Need to Be Inspired and/or Gain Some Perspective):
9 to 5
Alternatively, perhaps your job truly does suck and it’s time to get a new one. Or perhaps it’d be easier to take a page out of Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin’s book and try to improve the bleak workplace you’re stuck in. The first step, of course, is to nearly poison your boss, then make him a prisoner in his own home. Next, feel free to forge his signature on dozens of memos announcing new office policies. Lastly, watch as he’s shipped off to Brazil and have a giggly smoke at his desk. Be sure to wear a blue pleather coat throughout.
It seems unlikely that one of the most profoundly hilarious movies of the past year would be set inside an Israeli Defense Forces outpost. But Talya Lavie’s debut film — which features an almost entirely female cast — strikes just the right balance of darkness and deadpan absurdity in telling the stories of Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar), two IDF soldiers assigned to jobs so menial, they’ll make yours seem downright scintillating. Daffi’s entire job consists of shredding paper, which makes her weep on a daily basis. In theory, Zohar sorts the mail; in practice, she psychologically tortures her commanding officer and works to beat her own Minesweeper scores. Never again shall you complain about color-coding your boss’s GCal.
In a World …
We all have days where we feel like the patriarchy is conspiring against us (because it is). For Carol Solomon (Lake Bell, who also writes and directs the film) — an aspiring voice-over artist struggling to make a name for herself in a career dominated by thunder-voiced males threatened by her very presence — that day is every day. Rather than let a slew of silky-piped men get to her, though, Carol doubles down on her dream and works her ass off to prove her vocal prowess. We can all learn something from Carol, whether it’s how to wage a war against insidious sexism in the workplace, or how to stop talking like sexy babies.
Beyond the Lights
Speaking of the patriarchy: Imagine if your job required you to look and act like a frat boy’s sexual fantasy at all times. That’s precisely the situation in which Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) finds herself in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s wonderful musical drama Beyond the Lights. Noni — a reluctant pop-star with a helicopter stage mom (Minnie Driver) who insists her daughter stay “face down, ass up” at all times — is so miserable in her “choice” of profession that she attempts to jump off a balcony within the first ten minutes of the movie. Fortunately, there’s a hot cop (Nate Parker) there to save her. I’m not really sure how that last part might pertain to your particular professional situation, but if you can, find a hot cop.
Two Days, One Night
Here’s the part where I make you feel bad for complaining about your job in the same way that your parents used to make you feel bad for not finishing your dinner: Some people don’t even HAVE jobs. For instance, there’s Sandra (Marion Cotillard) in the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night — a woman who, after losing her steady position in a factory, must put on a good face for her children, fight off her looming depression, and maintain her sense of pride as she begs her co-workers to forgo their bonuses so she might resume her post. This movie will wrench your heart right out of your chest, and also inspire you to go into work super-early the next morning.
When Your Significant Other Has Pissed You Off Considerably (and You Crave Solidarity With the Sisterhood)
No scene in recent memory better exemplifies sisterhood solidarity than the following interlude in Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood: Our protagonist Marieme (Karidja Touré) — a teenage girl who’s dealing with a fractured family life and a recent foray into drugs — rents a hotel room for an evening with her three best friends in an effort to forget her rough reality. The foursome primp, donning new dresses, putting on makeup, and posing in front of the bathroom mirror. Once ready, rather than go out, they gather in the middle of the room, turn on Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” and start dancing exuberantly. Sciamma lets the camera linger on the girls for the entirely of the song as they lip-sync the empowering lyrics, grinning wildly. In other words, kick your shady S.O. out for the night and screen this one with your ladies.
Alright, so your man (or woman) fucked up again. Uma Thurman’s Beatrix feels you: Her ex Bill attempted to murder her multiple times, killed all of her friends (at her WEDDING), stole her unborn child, then raised it without her knowledge or consent. Ugh. Men, am I right? Why not take a page out of Uma’s book and stalk ‘em down where they rest their head, then hit them with the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique? Or just talk it out, sleep on it, I guess, whatever.
The L Word
The ladies of The L Word could teach a master class in mutual support. Over the course of Ilene Chaiken’s long-running Showtime series about a group of gorgeous lesbians living in Los Angeles, women forge and set flame to romantic relationships with stunning speed and regularity. Also, Shane (Katherine Moennig) has sex with literally everyone. But through it all, they offer one another shoulders to cry on, coffee shops to whine in, and beds to fall into, then wake up in and be all, “… So, that was a mistake.” In other words, the ladies of The L Word will remind you of the power of female friendship, and also of the power of hot sex (you know, whenever you’re ready to head back to the homestead, no pressure).
We’ve all accidentally dated a con artist or two in our day (I see you, Anne Hathaway). But what to do when you willingly enter a long-term relationship with a violent mafioso, one who murders his boss in front of you then won’t let you leave? If you’re Jennifer Tilly in the Wachowskis’ sexy 1996 thriller Bound, you fall in love with your hot next-door neighbor (Gina Gershon) — also an ex-con, but who’s counting — and plan to escape together with the aforementioned mobster’s money. If you’re short on dexterous neighbors experienced in pulling off heists, though, you might just try making some better dating decisions initially.
For a Good Time, Call …
Jamie Travis’s lightly raunchy rom-com is a helpful how-to guide for how to survive getting unceremoniously dumped by an unrepentant finance-bro who holds the lease to your apartment. Step 1: Reluctantly move into the fabulous condo of your sworn enemy. Step 2: Get stoned together and realize you actually genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Step 3: Partner up to start a wildly successful phone-sex line. Step 4: Invest in an amazing couch and some leopard-print clothing. No, really, that’s it. I promise this works.
When Being an Adult Is Too Hard (and You Need to See Other People Doing an Even Worse Job at It):
Having trouble finding an apartment you can afford in one of the insanely expensive cities we must all live in in order to have a job so that we might be able to afford an apartment? Try, if you are able, to remember how much worse off Frances Halladay (Greta Gerwig) is. After Frances’s longtime best friend/roommate ditches her, the underemployed Frances is forced to couch-surf her way across the entire damn United States of America, sleeping everywhere from a bro-y apartment in Chinatown to her parents’ house in California. Oh, and she also lives in a dorm at one point. Try to keep calm and consider Queens.
The Babadook — which sees a young widow (Essie Davis) raising her keyed-up son (Noah Wiseman) alone and slowly losing her mind in the process — is the best cinematic birth-control this side of Rosemary’s Baby. But Jennifer Kent’s debut feature also serves a healthy dose of perspective to parents who might be dealing with a problem child of their own. Sure, your kid won’t go to sleep unless you dress up as Dora the Explorer and read aloud from The Joy of Cooking in a British accent. But Amelia’s kid just pushed his cousin out of a tree house and is convinced that a storybook character is stalking him with intent of bodily harm. Even if he’s right, he’s still really annoying.
Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas is about a lot of adult things — parenting, marriage, fulfilling dreams while being a married parent, writing erotic novels — but it’s also about struggling to become an adult, which is a struggle I’m pretty sure doesn’t end until you die. We experience this mighty endeavor through the blurry eyes of Jenny (Anna Kendrick), a young woman who likes to get very drunk and has to grapple with doing that while also living with her older brother (Swanberg), his wife (Melanie Lynskey), and their toddler (Jude Swanberg, the most adorable child to ever grace the silver screen; sorry, Macauley). Jenny fucks up a fair bit, going so far as to nearly burn down her brother’s home (with his entire family inside), but is ultimately redeemed by her good heart and ability to write a creatively raunchy sex scene. Watch this one with your family after you’ve almost accidentally burned down their house, and they will forgive you.
Maybe you’ve made some questionable parenting choices recently, like, say, letting your kids watch The Knick or letting Steven Soderbergh watch your kids. Might I suggest a brief binge-session of Weeds? Mary Louise-Parker’s Nancy Botwin is one of the most lackadaisical onscreen parents in history, the type of mom who will do an innumerable amount of insane, dangerous, and selfish things — including, but not limited to, moving her family to Mexico to live with her drug-lord boyfriend, going to prison for three years, and having sex with her dead husband’s brother on the spot where he died* — in the name of “supporting her family.” You get your Clive on, girl.
When Nobody You Know Gets You (and You Need to Know that Somebody Somewhere Does):
Dear White People
Are you the only person at your family dinner who believes that we don’t live in a post-racial America? Been there, my friend! Worse, are you a POC surrounded by these nimrods day in, day out? Time to break out Dear White People, which will prove your point and then some through the stories of black students at a predominantly white college. Justin Simien’s debut is sharp and funny and clever, but it’s also something of a call to action. The most startling scene sees the characters converging at a “hip-hop”–themed party, where white kids wear blackface and hold fake guns; should your fellow viewers scoff at the unlikeliness of it all, just wait ’til the credits, which roll over photos of similar parties that’ve been held across the country.
Pariah, Dee Rees’s moving film about a queer black teen (Adepero Oduye) coming to terms with her identity, announces its outsider ethos right there in the title. As Alike works to understand her own sexuality, she’s pushed away by her frightened parents, mocked by her small-minded peers, and heartbroken by a confused classmate. But Alike’s story is ultimately one about redemption, freedom, and choosing one’s own path, a tale that confirms that there’s a place for all of us (even if that place is on a nondescript cross-country bus).
The United States of Tara
Can’t figure out how to bond with your neighbors or, you know, your entire community? Tara Gregson (the inimitable Toni Collette) is just like you, except she has dissociative identity disorder, which means at any given time, she’s either a suburban mother, a 1950s housewife, a rebellious teen, or a Vietnam vet. Needless to say, her neighbors don’t exactly flock to her doorstep. But over the course of Diablo Cody’s tragically canceled Showtime series, Tara slowly expands her social circle, starting by cultivating a (relatively) happy marriage to John Corbett, a (relatively) healthy relationship with her two kids (Brie Larson and Keir Gilchrist), and a (shaky) friendship with her sister (Rosemarie DeWitt). So maybe start small. Remember, Rome wasn’t schmoozed in a day.
Welcome to Me
You aren’t the only one who’s memorized all of Oprah’s opening monologues in hopes of usurping her throne. You’ve got good, albeit somewhat unpredictable, company in Welcome to Me’s Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig), a TV addict with borderline personality disorder who wins the lottery and immediately purchases her own talk show so she might reach the towering heights of her idol. Sure, you might not have $86 million at your disposal, or have a victory speech at the ready that references why you find masturbation useful, but Alice is proof that even the hottest of messes deserve to follow her Winfrey-esque dreams, find love, and own a giant swan boat.
We Are the Best!
If, like me, you find fall and the accompanying mass delusion that is football culture deeply irritating, I highly recommend catching up with the trio of anarchic Swedish teenage girls at the center of We Are the Best! Set in 1980s Stockholm, We Are the Best! follows Klara (Mira Grosin), Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), and Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne),13-year-old rebels with zero musical talent who decide to start a punk band anyway. Their first song, “Hate the Sport,” is a goddamned revelation, a screed against all things athletic. A sample lyric: “Children cry and scream / You only care about your soccer team.” Try inviting your friends over to watch the Bears game and playing this on repeat instead.
* In an earlier version, we identified the spot of Nancy and Andy’s copulation on “Weeds” as Judah’s grave, but it is actually the spot where Judah died.