I went to see ‘Suffragette’ with a lot of mixed expectations. I’d heard the reviews weren’t that great, my mum described it as ‘slow’ and there’d been criticism for the lack of BME women in the film (zero). There were also issues of Carey Mulligan’s accent and the fact the film was advertised as having leading roles by herself, Meryl Streep and Helena Bonham Carter. These may seem like minor points, but they reveal deeper issues beneath their surface.
The film begins with voice-overs of men in parliament, who state that women will want to become MPs next if given the vote. The fact that this happened only around a hundred years ago should put women’s rights in context of the modern history of this planet, much of which has regressed into an unequal society. To some it may be a historical drama, but for me it was a reminder of how much the fight isn’t over. What warmed my heart was one man in the audience who expressed vocally his support as an ally to the feminist movement throughout the film. At the start of the twentieth century, men who supported the suffragettes were few and far between. So, it is evidence of progress when more men are willing to admit their privilege in terms of gender, and are willing to have less power in the name of equality.
It says something about the acting industry that they didn’t get a woman to play her who is actually working class
The film as a whole centred around the character of Maud Watts, a working class woman from the East End of London. Through her character we saw the negative associations of feminism as she denounces the label ‘suffragette’, to later reclaim it, and how tragically the political connects to the personal with her husband’s extreme rejection of her. This also highlights how the patriarchal enforcement of gender roles pressurises her husband to assert society’s notion of masculinity so damaging that he would leave Maud to the streets and give away their child before supporting her actions.
The violence in the film exists on both sides. The suffragettes commit acts that can easily be described as terrorist – planting bombs, not only in mailboxes, but, in a minister’s house, coming close to killing an innocent person. Their behaviour was also riotous, smashing the windows of random shops. They tell the leaders they turned to violence only when everything else had failed, at frustration of not being listened to, and in return they face imprisonment and force feeding when on hunger strike. This made me think of how the complexities of other struggles are seen in modern-day politics, for example, David Cameron’s dismissal of the London riots in 2011 as ‘mindless’. They may have been, but is it not also mindless to dismiss them as such, without thinking about why people would be compelled to act in such a destructive way. A range of age groups and ethnic groups were stirred by the injustice of a racist legal system, in the same way, it could be argued, that the Suffragettes were stirred by deeply ingrained sexism. In both cases there were pros and cons to the methods, and for those who argued that the riots diminished the initial reasons for protesting, similarly there were those who said that the suffragist movement suffered due to the violent tactics of the suffragettes.
There also a question over the fictionalised Maud Watts. Was not enough known about working class suffragettes? It’s no coincidence that the characters with familiar names from history are all white, middle class women. Mulligan’s attempt at a cockney accent isn’t quite right either, and rightly or wrongly, when my dad said that she has a “posh face”, I couldn’t help but agree – there’s too much pouting and not enough raw honesty. It says something about the acting industry that they didn’t get a woman to play her who is actually working class and has a more accurate accent.
There is a virtual erasure of women who are black and from minority ethnic backgrounds.
This is not the only aspect of the film that skews the historical accuracy. There is a virtual erasure of women who are black and from minority ethnic backgrounds. Their existence in London pre-dates the 1900s and yet in a crowd of suffragettes, all of them are white. This simply doesn’t reflect the reality at the time. So, it rubs salt in the wound when we have white women on magazine covers with the phrase ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.’ This is taken completely out of context from the film and making it into some tokenistic slogan on t-shirt, possibly made by people who are working in poor conditions and paid so little it’s actually been deemed as slavery, is just in really poor taste. It dismisses the meaning behind the words, as the word ‘rebel’ has become less politicised and more a part of being ‘cool.’ Feminism is so much more than that. I feel this belittles the suffragettes, dumbing them down into a catchphrase.
The idea that Emmeline Pankhurst (Streep) even spoke to Maud is unlikely. It was actually Sylvia Pankhurst who splintered away to focus on working class women’s rights. At the end of the film, we are informed that ‘certain women’ got the vote first; these women were those who had property. Therefore, it was working class women who didn’t get the vote until much later. It follows that countries around the world gave women the vote at different times. Presented in a hierarchical way, it stunk of British imperialism, and seemed to cement the women’s movement in history, promoting the idea that everything is fine in the UK today, but not in Saudi Arabia. It clings onto colonialism in the ranking of these countries, forgetting that itself is falling behind in terms of women in politics.
What was great about the film release, was the fact that at the première, Sisters Uncut stormed the red carpet, lying down on it, and chanting ‘dead women can’t vote’ in a splay of green and purple. Ironically, they were dragged off by security. This was really effective in drawing attention to the cuts on domestic violence services, disproportionately effecting BME and LGBT women, making 32 organisation’s non-existent. And still there is a backlash; those who say that it was because the services were told they need to admit men, not realising that all genders need specialist services, and there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ model, hence the need for LGBT services.
The more the conservative government protect the rich and demonise the poor, the more women especially will be forced into making life or death choices.
This attitude also suggests a denial of the disproportionate number of women who require these services – only recently was the case of a woman who was forced onto the streets with two babies due to an abusive relationship, ending with her children dying. The more the conservative government protect the rich and demonise the poor, the more women especially will be forced into making life or death choices. Without these services, the reality is that the choice is going to end up being a kind of death, hence the powerful chant that ‘dead women can’t vote.’
The fight is not over, and we need Feminism to remind the world of this sometimes.