Women are under enormous pressure to change so that we conform and “fit” existing workplace cultures that were created by and for men. This pressure is very real but at times subtle – so subtle that a woman may not even realize that she is responding to a culture that is persuading her to change. You can see this pressure in the many books and articles that have been published giving women advice about how to think, be confident, make decisions, lean in, dress for success, and the like.  My curated list counters this trend by highlighting narratives that offer an alternative storyline of female self-discovery, empowerment, and victory  in definitive ways.

Before you get started, please consider some practices necessary to create a reflective mood or transformational mind-set with your media experience. First, allow yourself to reflect on the character’s intentions.  What is she trying to achieve? As you prepare your mind and heart to enter her world, use an event, experience, or emotion from your own life to slip into the skin of the female protagonist.  What are the pressures she encounters, how does she experience them?  How do you feel as you travel in her shoes?  Are her responses surprising – is her courage, integrity or creativity inspiring?  Did you imagine her resourcefulness on display? Have you been more creative than her?   Have you created a more resilient network than she did?

Next, consider talking through your viewing experience with close friends, mentors, and coaches to gain perspective on the emotions that matter to you. Do your own emotions help you better understand who you are and what matters to you? Do your emotions help you better understand whether you are under pressure to change and how you might resist in an effective and safe way?

Finally, do not forget that we are all different, and those differences should be celebrated as opposed to suppressed. When women are given the freedom to be authentic, then organizations, society, and the world are winners.

Recommended Films

Today we have more movies and television shows written, directed, and produced by women than at any other time in history.  They are showcasing a plethora of stories about women but among my favorites are those where women overcome obstacles so that they can be their authentic selves. There are some of my favorite films that I selected for this article.

Lady Bird (2017)

Director Greta Gerwig drew upon her personal experiences to bring Lady Bird to life, which is a coming of age story about a girl brought up in a small suburb of Sacramento, who refused to be deterred from discovering her own authenticity. Lady Bird is portrayed by Saoirse Ronan, the actor whose expressive powers build the heart of her character.

Pay special attention:

  • The moment when you can slip into Lady Bird’s story of creative resistance.

  • Lady’s Bird’s heroic faith in her destiny which generates unexpected decisions, actions, and speech patterns (tone and word choice) confounding those around her.

Boys have had the benefit of many coming of age films such as the coming of age story for a young man, Rebel Without A Cause (1955), that challenged the constricting norms that young  American men have had to individuate against. The emotions James Dean activates for his journey through the film are unique to the challenges a young man faces. Similarly, Lady Bird empowers girls and women with a whole range of different emotions distinct to the coming of age journey for women, a genre that has barely been addressed by cinema with optimism and possibility.

Little Women (2019)

Most of you have likely read or seen the magnificent Little Women, written by Louisa M. Alcott. Greta Gerwig’s 2019 remake is particularly remarkable because of the sharp definition of each of the four daughters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy – growing up as very different individuals. They are encouraged to be entirely themselves by their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern).  Little Women is a period film set in the time of the civil war, and the girls face a host of pressures to alter their personalities.

Pay special attention to:

  • Greta Gerwig’s specific interpretation for each act of individual self-expression that the characters live out – some of their decisions have disastrous consequences and others result in triumphant experiences.

  • Consider each character’s emotional experience or situational challenge as you slip into the narrative and feel the possibility of the adventure each character facilitates.

  • Notice how emotions of “cherishing” one’s truth and self-worth create an ongoing paint palette of flourishing emotions for the March sisters.

  • Test yourself by looking for emotions like discernment, meaning in the midst of chaos,  open-ness, equanimity, and serenity.  These emotions spontaneously create bigger stories for each individual.

  • Jo, who steps the furthest from societal norms as she insists on being the breadwinner for her family, sacrifices her personal comforts and stays truthful to her gifts and aspirations for both her home, her academy, and her publishing career.

Greta Gerwig’s remake was highly acclaimed for taking this well-known story and creating new art highlighting the individuality of each sister.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty dramatizes the behind-the-scenes work to uncover Osama Bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  The central character (played by Jessica Chastain) faces tremendous pressure to disavow her gut and give up on the slim leads that she believes will lead her team to Bid Laden.

Pay special attention to:

  • How she has to survive being undermined and devalued.  What are the emotions she activates to counter the darkness that threatens to weaken her resolve?

  • Find the moment or experience that speaks to you deeply and travel into her heart-mind as she completes her mission.

The movie is deeply personal and philosophically complex, the signature trademark of Kathryn Bigelow who often defies Hollywood norms created largely by male artists.

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Director Steven Soderbergh brought to screen the story of legal assistant Erin Brockovich involving a landmark legal dispute.  Julia Roberts portrays Ms. Brockovich in this adaptation, and  she defines the emotions that give this legal assistant the intriguing ability to hold ground and express herself entirely as she is.

Pay special attention to:

  • Erin Brockovich’s intuition and persistence which helps her law firm win a landmark lawsuit against a giant corporation.

  • Her attention to the community’s stories, and how this connection results in a victory for the entire community.

  • The moments when you connected most with her narrative arc, and recognize the emotions she had to believe in her gut and persist in constructive ways to win for everyone.

Mr. Brockovich is tough, sassy, and unafraid to make waves. Through her advocacy and persistence, she prevails.

Downton Abbey (2011-2015)

This period drama features several striking women characters among the aristocracy as well as women among the staff, employed to service the lifestyle of the Downton Abbey residents.

Pay special attention to:

  • The many Crawley women – Mary, Edith, Sybil, Cora, Violet, and Isobel Crawley – as well as staff members, Mrs. Bates, Ms. Patmore, and Mrs. Hughes. Each of these well-developed female characters has been meticulously imagined by Jullian Fellows for their values and emotional temperament.

  • Select the characters that you best identify with, and find moments when you can identify with their challenges.  Reflect on the emotions and values that reveal truer dimensions of themselves in spite of the historical forces intent on robbing them of autonomy.

Downton Abbey is set at a time when women had few choices, but the women in this cast are given scenarios where they seize their power for more truthful self-expression.

Romance is a Bonus Book

This Korean series (with English subtitles on Netflix) directed by Lee Jung-Hyo, explores the struggles of a brilliant woman who has fallen out of her career trajectory to cope with a difficult domestic situation.  Her efforts to regain a role within the publishing industry is elaborately spelled out.  The journey is arduous yet there are several incredible moments in the first two episodes that could create the emotional hook for you as the viewer.

Pay special attention to:

  • Consider the chemistry and dynamics that build the culture of the Korean publishing industry, and select the character you most sympathize with.

  • Look for how the emotions of vulnerability, doubt, and misrepresentation are gradually transformed in the context of several challenging relational encounters and creative projects.

  • Notice how the protagonist gains the courage along with several other characters in the ensemble to reveal and inhabit their strengths without inhibition and thus transform their role in the world.

For American viewers, this series has the added benefit of showing you the culture of South Korea, and the free spirited expressive nature of the gender dynamic in ways that are uniquely Korean.

Zindagi Gulzaar Hai (2013)

This is a Pakistani Series in Urdu, directed by Sultana Siddiqui (with English subtitles on Netflix).  The series is an adaptation of Umera Ahmad’s novel.  Kashaf Murtaza (Sanam Saeed) is an academically brilliant woman who clears a difficult exam and earns a sought after track in Pakistan’s bureaucracy.

Pay special attention to:

  • How she is efficient at work but struggles to feel validated – she is inhibited in domains outside of her work.

  • Notice how the process of building an equitable partnership with her husband and colleague in Government Service, Zaroon Junaid (Fawad Khan), is a risk that almost undoes her.

  • When you discover experiences within the narrative you can connect to, you have found your hook.  It reels you in and activates the learning within. There are a minefield of emotional treasures that strengthens a woman’s journey in this series, despite the traditional patriarchal pressures being the oppositional force.

Sanam Saeed and Fawad Khan are both terrific actors, and the dialogues are subtle yet evocative.  The scenes and narrative of each episode offer a rich canvas against which to imagine and understand the steely journey of building up the emotions necessary for tenacious self-definition.

Mildred Pierce (2011)

Mildred Pierce is a five part mini series directed by Todd Haynes which aired on HBO in 2011.  Kate Winslet won several accolades for essaying the character of Mildred Pierce previously played on screen by Joan Crawford (1945). The series is an extraordinary study of a woman battling her way to establish economic independence.

Pay special attention to:

  • How it might not be easy to find optimistic and constructive emotional anchors, since the series is provocative and disturbing about the perils of a woman’s journey to gain respectability, love and independence.

  • Yet, the challenges are familiar, and I recommend a reflection on the darker range of emotions women have to fearlessly address to discover who they are at deeper levels.

The series highlights many of the unaddressed issues not yet dealt with by the 1960-1970’s feminist movement.

Anne with an E (2017-2019)

On the lighter side, Anne with an E is a television adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables published in 1908. Amybeth McNulty who plays Ann infuses the orphaned character with a tremendous level of vibrant-authenticity.

Pay special attention to:

  • There are several characters within the ensemble cast, with distinctive emotional temperaments and a variety of motivations to empathize and understand.  Select the character you feel most sympathetic to, and study the emotional development of the individual.

  • Consider Anne’s development and growth to her full creative and intelligent potential, despite the many pressures for her to inhibit her natural gifts and skills.

Anne with an E is an excellent series also suitable for a younger audience.

Recommended Books

In addition to movies and television shows, there are many books that textually create the inner world of women who have fought to make space and time for their authentic selves to develop and flourish. I have curated my favorites for this article.

The Education of an Idealist (2019)

Samantha Power is the current administrator for USAID and the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.  She is deeply committed to developing U.S. foreign policy with a more compassionate response to the violence in the world. Her memoir illustrates her growth into adulthood as an influential voice for human rights and the atrocities of genocide.  An intense individual with strong feelings, she matured her ideals across two countries, Ireland and the United States.

Pay special attention to:

  • Her trials and tribulations to create and inhabit a life where her skills and talents are best deployed to serve and inspire.

  • Consider that the author is transparent about the emotions she has worked through, while negotiating for ideals that are constantly at risk.

  • See that she has crafted multiple roles for herself in the world as a human rights activist, journalist, writer, professor, member of the U.S. National Security Agency, and Ambassador at the UN.

Ms. Powers spreads out the canvas of her lifework, motherhood, core relationships at work, mentors, family, and foreign policy – and through this canvas, she gives us a glimpse into her intense experiences to gain a better understanding of her setbacks and triumphs.

In My Own Words (2016)

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a champion of gender equality (for both women and men), religious equality, and fairness in the application of the law. Justice Ginsburg and her authorized biographers, Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams, selected the excerpts to include in this excellent collection.

Pay special attention to:

  • Her many quotes which reveal a woman (either Justice Ginsburg or a litigant in a case) deftly navigating the emotional reefs that threaten to undermine the cause of equity.

  • Notice how she activates the emotions necessary to create perspective that persuasively argues for change.

These selected excerpts give readers a sense of how Justice RBG made her own way in a male-dominated space.

Becoming (2018)

Michelle Obama’s memoir travels from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years in the White House as the First Lady. From an EI perspective, slipping into her story and understanding her values and priorities is both empowering and revelatory.

Pay special attention to:

  • Her memories of her life as a child with her parents and brother which offer nuggets of life lessons that are a true joy to live through.

  • Later, as a well-known figure in the White House, she was the frequent subject of racist and sexist comments which tried her ability to stand firm to who she is.

Regardless of your political affiliation, you should consider reading this book.

Personal History (1998)

Katharine Graham’s memoir won the Pulitzer for biography.  She is admired as a woman of courage, conviction, and substance who piloted the Washington Post through the revelation of Watergate at a time when there were very few women in publishing (even today, that is the case).

Pay special attention to:

  • How she developed her confidence to lead the Washington Post through this time of U.S. upheaval,

  • How she stayed true to her values and beliefs through this arduous journey, despite many of those around her questioning her competency.

Katharine Graham played a pivotal role in history, and this book deftly portrays the challenges that she encountered along her journey.


I hope this curated list allows you to include several new titles to your personal library as you work to enhance your emotional intelligence.  As you continue to grow your library, select films and books with dramatic content that illuminate the inner life of strong, resilient female characters.  Pay attention to their emotional journey, and discover the hook that works best for you to grow both your strength and emotional intelligence.