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A Historian’s Guide to Summer – The TV Edition

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Ah, summer. There is so much to love about this bewitching season. The long, warm evenings on the porch, the tinkling of ice in a cold beverage, vacations to exotic locations, and a slower pace of life that seems to magically rejuvenate the soul. I think F. Scott Fitzgerald stated it best when he wrote, “And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”

Who am I kidding? Summer is also about kids out of school and underfoot, the dreaded bathing suit shopping trip, vacations to not-so-exotic locations (Dollywood, anyone?), and temperatures so hot and muggy that certain portions of skin stick together abnormally. Let’s be honest, summertime is a mixed blessing. This is especially true for academics. There is a persistent myth that teachers, professors, and graduate students actually have summers “off.”  While it is true that we are released from the task of teaching (unless you are doing the summer school thing), the months of June, July, and August simply signal a shift in scholarly priorities. Instead of teaching and/or taking classes, summer for academics means intensive research trips, attending conferences, writing or revising articles, or in my particular case, beginning the daunting task of reading the 350-some books on my comprehensive exams lists. Hardly a “vacation.”

There is, however, some truth to the myth. I’m not going to lie to you. One of the best things about being an academic is that sweet moment after you turn in those final papers and submit student grades. The moment when the realization slowly dawns on you that your time is officially now your own. In a word: freedom. You are the master of the calendar. Sure, you still have a ton of work to do, but you can largely structure it around vacations, sleeping in, long lunches, or drinking beer with your colleagues while engaging in some useless academic navel-gazing.

A group of lady historians enjoying their summer

A group of lady historians enjoying their summer

One of my personal favorite summer activities is catching up on all of the TV shows and movies that I didn’t have time for throughout the academic calendar. I am particularly looking forward to watching episodes of Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, and Breaking Bad – all shows I am woefully behind on (don’t judge me).

One of the best ways to spend those lazy summer TV days is to catch up on the multitude of documentaries that are out there (you know, when you are not sunning yourself in Barbados). Turns out, I am a documentary fanatic. It doesn’t matter if it’s about Elmo, Monopoly, Buddhism, or North Korea – if it is a good documentary, I’m going to watch it. In particular, I love watching documentaries that focus on the history of women, medicine, health, or gender (big surprise, I know). So I asked some historian friends of mine for recommendations and then compiled a list of my top-five must see documentaries for this summer. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section.

1. How to Survive a Plague

This 2012 Academy Award nominee for best documentary is about the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Rather than focus on the origin and evolution of the disease, How to Survive a Plague examines the efforts of activist groups ACT UP and TAG  to provoke a government response to the emerging AIDS crisis. This film powerfully documents how activists struggled against political, religious, and scientific hostility and worked to produce an effective treatment regime. Far from a hagiography of activism, the documentary also shows intense internal divisions that erupted between these groups and also reflects on the naive belief that a “magic bullet” was just on the horizon. I watched this movie last week with my teenage son, who is usually too cool to hang out with his mom. He even told me later that he brought up the documentary in his history class. How to Survive a Plague is available on Netflix Instant.

2. Paris is Burning

This 1990 documentary (filmed in the mid-1980s) chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the African American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities that created it. The film examines the elaborately-structured Ball competitions wherein participants must “walk the runway” according to an assigned category. Judges then pick the winners based on “criteria including the ‘realness’of their drag, the beauty of their clothing and their dancing ability.” More than simply a story about dancing and drag culture, the film thoughtfully explores themes of  race, class, and gender in America. The entire film is available on Youtube. 

3. The Triangle Fire

This PBS American Experience documentary focuses on the deadliest workplace accident in New York City history. On March 25th, 1911, a deadly fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village. The flames ripped through the crowded loft while the workers, mostly young women,  desperately tried to make their way downstairs. The fire killed 146 people, and all but 17 of the dead were women. Nearly 400,000 New Yorkers filled city streets to pay tribute to the victims and raise money to support their families. The ensuing public outrage forced government action and within three years, more than 36 new state laws had been passed. The landmark legislation gave New Yorkers the most comprehensive workplace safety laws in the country and became a model for the nation. This is a powerfully moving documentary and whenever I show clips of it in class, I always hear stifled sniffles coming from my students. The Triangle Fire is available on PBS.

4. XXY

OK, I’m cheating a little on this one because XXY is not a documentary but a feature film from Argentina. I haven’t actually seen the movie yet, but it comes highly recommended by fellow Nursing Clio blogger, Elizabeth Reis. Released in 2007, XXY tells the story of  a 15-year-old intersex person, Alex Kraken, and the ways in which she and her family struggle to come to terms with her condition. According to Wikipedia, XXY  has received widespread critical acclaim, “winning the Critics’ Week grand prize at the 2007 Cannes film festival, as well as the ACID/CCAS Support Award. It was nominated for eight awards at the 2008 Argentine Film Critics Association Awards, winning three of them including Best Film, and was nominated or won awards at a number of other foreign film festivals.”  XXY is available on DVD.

 5. Period: The End of Menstruation?

This documentary was recommended to me by fellow Nursing Clio blogger, Heather Munro Prescott, and I can’t wait to see it. According to the film’s website, Period: The End of Menstruation examines how “current marketing of hormonal birth control attracts customers by promising freedom from monthly periods. For many consumers, menstrual suppression eliminates painful monthly flow, giving them more control in their lives. For others, menstrual suppression represents a frightening shift in thinking about the human body and another dangerous experiment on woman’s health.” The film focuses on the cultural and medical side effects of suppression and aims to offer a balanced perspective by interviewing over 50 participants around the United States. Period: The End of Menstruation is available on DVD.

So, dear Nursing Clio readers, what are your must-see documentaries? What would be in your top five?

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Carolyn Herbst Lewis #

    I am a sucker for Ken Burns’, “Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.” I have seen it more times than I could count. Once, I realized that I started quoting it in a video interview a student did with me for a class project. Still can’t make it through the Solitude of the Self section without weeping.

    May 23, 2013
    • Wow! I can’t believe there is a Ken Burns documentary that I haven’t seen. Thanks for the suggestion, Carolyn. I am going to add it to my summer list!

      May 23, 2013
  2. Elizabeth Reis #

    I reviewed three excellent films in Signs — Films in the Feminist Classroom online journal:

    Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter (about a woman seeking asylum in the U.S. because of female genital cutting in Mali); Absolutely Safe (on breast implant safety); and She’s a Boy I Knew (about the filmmaker’s transition from male to female and the relationships in her life that evolve as a result).

    All three films would work great in an Intro. to Women’s Studies class or maybe a class on women’s health and sexuality — or just to watch on your own!

    Here’s my review: http://www.signs.rutgers.edu/rev_er_3-2.html

    May 23, 2013
  3. I know this is all about great documentaries, but if you do not catch up on your TV watching with Nashville you are totally going to be sorry.

    May 23, 2013
    • And from what I understand Scandal is also not to be missed!

      In all seriousness, I cannot say I am a documentary junkie, but more of historical fiction TV queen. I will say though I loved A Midwife’s Tale. I could watch that one many times.

      May 23, 2013
    • I admit, I had to Google Nashville. I was skeptical until I read the reviews. I will add it to the list! Thanks Claire!

      May 23, 2013
  4. Helen McBride #

    I had no idea Paris is Burning is on Youtube!

    *high fives world for internet*

    I’ve heard Ricki Lake produced ‘The Business of Being Born’ is a really excellent examination of the childbirth process in the US, need to tick that one off my own list! (Go Ricki!)

    May 25, 2013

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