In the Canonball mailbag this week, we received a question from a reader, which Mia will endeavor to answer.

Our faithful reader writes:

I’m trying to figure out a good Christmas gift for my younger sister and I’m drawing a blank. She is 13, loves musicals, and plans on marrying Nick Jonas. Of course, I want to be the nudgey big sister and get her something more positive/empowering than a subscription to Tiger Beat. However, Nick Jonas has not yet starred in a feminist musical, at least not one that’s been released on DVD. What would you recommend for the discriminating 8th grader of today? Is there a feminist TV show/movie/book/CD/magazine that changed your teenage life?

I’m glad you asked this question, dear reader, because here at Canonball (aka The Feminist Lair), we’re always asking ourselves, “How can we shape the young minds of America?” Though I have to admit that I was initially stumped. It’s been a few years since I’ve been in 8th grade (though honestly, not that many), and, at any rate, I’m not sure how much feminist media found its way into my life at that age. So I’ve put together a list of (mostly) books, TV shows and movies that I discovered either as a teenager or a lot more recently that I think would have appealed to me — and hopefully to your sister! — at that age. You may already be familiar with many of them, but I think it’s sometimes easy to forgot that there are feminist influences all around us.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

An obvious choice, perhaps, but I feel like Jane Austen is such a good gateway to other Great Literature, if your sister’s starting to look beyond the Young Adult section. Pride and Prejudice, specifically, has always resonated with me, partly because of the excellent 1995 miniseries (which is also a good gift option, especially if she’s already read the book) and partly because of Elizabeth Bennet, the story’s intelligent and spirited protagonist who refuses to marry for anything but true love, despite the fact that her parents are in financial trouble, and the fact that her mother would be more than happy to get her five daughters married off. As you may have guessed, I was a bookish teen, but I had so few outlets – outside of my mother, who shaped my literary taste – to discuss books, so I would say: don’t just buy your sister a book, but talk to her about it too. Pride and Prejudice raises so many feminist issues, including the opportunities that used to exist for women (spoiler alert: not many) and the value society puts on the sexual purity of women.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
I actually read this book for the first time this year, but I know I would have adored it when I was younger. The story is told through the painstaking diary-keeping of Cassandra Mortmain, a teenage girl who lives with her eccentric family in a dilapidated castle in 1930s England. Like Pride and Prejudice, this book presents a clever female protagonist who is learning how to negotiate the adult world – I can’t say too much more without spoiling it (and this is a book to savor, I promise), but I’ll say that the issues of love and money pop up here too.

Persepolis and Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi

Another coming-of-age story! Satrapi’s autobiographic comics (which were also made into an beautiful film – I apologize if I get them confused) follow her from her childhood in Tehran at the start of the Iranian Revolution to her adolescence in Austria to her return to a transformed Iran that is both politically and socially restrictive, especially for women. A reoccurring theme in the story that speaks to the concerns of teenagers and feminists alike is freedom, whether it be freedom from the monarchy or from parents or from the Islamic religious police, who force women to wear veils and who fine Marjane and her boyfriend for holding hands in public. This powerful story is another great opportunity to open up a discussion with your sister.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

I read Jane Eyre for the first time in 6th grade and probably glossed over about half of it, because it was a bit too challenging for me at that point. I think it’ll be more accessible to an 8th grader, but it’s definitely a book to read again and again over the years, so you may as well start young. Jane is strong-willed, independent and determined to carve out a place for herself in life, on her own terms. One of my favorite details of this book (though you might say it’s more than a detail) is that Jane is not beautiful – she’s incredibly plain, and her love interest, Mr. Rochester, is almost ugly. Jane doesn’t have the privilege of beauty, but she does have spirit! And for teenage girls who aren’t quite sure what feminists stand for, I feel like Jane perfectly illustrates that a woman can both listen to her convictions and follow her heart. Jane feels life, and she feels it deeply:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.

“Gilmore Girls”
I don’t know what the kids are watching on TV these days, so it could very well be that your sister has already discovered “Gilmore Girls.” But, if she hasn’t, get her these DVDs post-haste! I spent a great deal of time in high school (and college) watching (and rewatching) these episodes, and I’m so grateful that there was a show that depicted so many excellent, complex female characters. Of course, our heroines are the smart, sassy, pop culture savvy mother and daughter pair Lorelai and Rory. But then there’s Rory’s best friend Lane, an aspiring drummer who hides her love of rock music from her strict Christian mother (who has her moments of relateability too – yay for multifaceted characters!). And then there’s Lorelai’s mother, an old money Republican who lives in smart designer suits and does everything just so (and she has her vulnerable moments too!). And so many more ladies! Sisters are doin’ it for themselves!

“Freaks and Geeks
The TV series Freaks and Geeks revolves around siblings Lindsay and Sam Weir, as they navigate high school in the early 1980s. Though not an overtly feminist series, it was always interesting to me to see how Lindsay straddles the respectable world of peter pan collars and competitive math teams with the seedy but intriguing world of the school “freaks.” Meanwhile, Sam, who is hopeless nerd, struggles with what masculinity is “supposed” to look like, as he tries to impress a popular cheerleader. These questions of identity – and how to create your own – are fascinating and definitely familiar.

Hairspray
Seeing as your sister’s a fan of musicals, maybe she’ll enjoy the 2007 film starring Nicki Blonsky (or, better yet, see if the stage version will be near you this year, and buy her tickets to that), but I’m a purist, so I’m going to recommend the 1988 John Waters film. This movie’s really got it all: a girl who’s not ashamed of her body (played by Ricki Lake), a major plotline about racial integration, Sonny Bono, dancing! Waters’ film isn’t as squeaky clean as the newer versions (though I will fully admit that I saw the Broadway musical in high school and loved it), but I think it’s pretty cool that he lets the outcasts and the weirdos take center stage. What better way to tell a teenage girl that it’s okay to stray from the norm than to show her that doing your own thing is awesome too?

So, what say ye, readers? What gifts would you buy for an 8th grader and future feminist? Any fans of musicals out there? Leave your answers in the comments, and help a fellow reader out!

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