In the Blog
Suffragette’s Missed Opportunity
Image: Focus Features / Pathé UK
I left work and biked hard to the theatre, late, muddled, sweaty, missing the intro talk. Two hours later I left the theatre in much the same condition, feeling out of sorts and generally ill at ease, in the best way. A lot of criticism has been levelled at Suffragette including racism (Meryl Streep’s t-shirt) and erasure of the identity of people of colour in Britain’s suffrage movement. It can be difficult as a viewer to tease apart a film’s political failings in order to evaluate its content, and frankly I’m not sure we should, but when a film leaves you with rocks in your guts it is worth moving deeper.
The film focuses on a fictional working class laundry worker, Maud Watts, played by Carey Mulligan, who is both affected by and subject to the late 19th century British class system. As a result she slowly becomes enveloped in the local women’s movement, a militarized group fighting for the vote. Watts serves as the film’s wide-eyed newcomer, functioning as a sort of audience stand-in. She is lead gingerly towards the concepts of injustice and equality as they are made manifest in her life, awakening to a political consciousness following a series of traumatic events. In this way we receive a sort of First Wave Feminism 101 where themes of finding your voice, squaring your nerve and fighting the impulse to be a “good girl” are at play. The film traces the movement’s transition from non-violent protest strategies to direct, sometimes violent, militarized action.
The women’s movement at the time was split between women at two ends of the class spectrum; those with access to money, connections and influence who served as the movement’s patrons and those at the bottom of the class system, functioning as foot soldiers with working class boots on the ground. Those in Watts’ social milieu faced imprisonment, unemployment and poverty, as they could not afford to pay police fines and spent disproportionately more time in jail. Both groups bucked against their places in the class system and the film does a beautiful job discussing both the tension and collaboration between those with access to social capital and those without.
The film slowly wades towards a moment of conversion so that once Maud comes to feel she is existing under a system of terrible injustice, you feel it too. Although this way of presenting the concept of equality among the sexes is convincing, it falls short of its goal by first requiring Maud to demonstrate that she is a ‘good girl’. When you meet her she would never engage in acts of social disobedience, things are not “bad enough” for her to act. Suffrage does not yet affect her directly, and several scenes in the early part of the film reinforce the notion that social issues have to impact you directly before you generate enough will to act. The film sets up the audience and Watts to come to a moment of conversion simultaneously, demonstrating to viewers how even regular folks can become radicalized by experiences of arrogance and abuse.
Watching this film in a 2015 context provides just enough distance for the media and political discourse around suffrage to feel entirely dated and thus un-relatable. While there is some benefit to leading your audience gently by the hand, it is tough to watch the makers of the film continue to lay a foundation meant to provide justification for women’s equality, rather than presenting it as self-evident. The onus is placed on marginalized populations to push movements forward while also suggesting that the audience has to be convinced the movement is worth pursing at all.
Films like Selma and Stonewall attempt this same political rallying cry through first-person narrative, with varying success. Suffragette feels more personal than Stonewall (and is much more historically accurate), but feels less emotionally urgent than Selma. Selma’s message against injustice in all of its form`s translates well to social justice movements in our time by placing the onus on privileged bystanders to make change. With a template like Selma to look to, a film that represents both a true telling of the movement and a marked intensity of feeling, Suffragette could have offered much more of a comment on radical feminism and the importance of and rationale for civil disobedience in social and political movements.
Suffragette, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron, deserves big praise for presenting a searing emotional re-telling of working class women’s struggle. Though the film at times feels formulaic and conventional it also calls the viewer to appreciate the circumstances under which groups that have been pushed to the margins are forced to use both violent and non-violent action as a necessary means of emancipation. Meryl Streep’s cameo as Emmeline Pankhurst, activist and leader in the suffrage movement in the UK, levels a rallying cry that extends out of the film and deep in to the audience.
The true power of this film will be in its modern-day parallels to other struggles for justice. Though I do not believe this was a goal for the filmmakers, if viewers can link the base injustice experienced by Watts with those in the popular narratives against victim-blaming in rape cases, the #blacklivesmatter movement or the call for an inquiry in to missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, I believe a wider vision for this film will have been realized. Though a historical re-telling is important and necessary, we are in the midst of a civil rights movement right now. With activists of colour pushing the public to attend to racialized and gendered violence perpetrated by the state, there is an emotional and ethical urgency to the struggles happening today. Whether we recognize the importance of making change like Maud or continue to remain ignorant of oppressions that we don’t believe affect us remains to be seen.