Suffragette: The Good and the Bad

It took me a while to go and see Suffragette. When I first saw the trailer I squealed, when I began to see Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep and Helena Bonham-Carter’s faces staring nobly from the sides of the buses in London my heart would inflate a little with all the anticipation. But then my friends beat me to it, and their lacklustre reviews left me deflated. First of all it was ‘disappointing’, ‘not that great’ and ‘not historically accurate’. Then another friend went to see the screening which had a panel discussion afterwards. I couldn’t attend, however she summarised the key issues that were raised to me:

  • It misrepresented the working class, who apparently weren’t actually as hostile as they were portrayed, and
  • There were a significant amount of women of colour involved in the movement, however they were not represented at all in the film.

On hearing this, I was crushed. What I assumed would be a much needed revival of the feminist topic, raising awareness of the historical struggle of women so as to incense the women (and men) of today to be more proactive apparently had failed significantly.

It is true that these flaws are not something to be overlooked. In particular, their failure to represent women of colour in the movement was an ignorant slipup and deserves to be highlighted as a point of criticism.

My own ignorance of this fact before the film and the fact that my ignorance was maintained as I watched the film, as well as walking out of the theatre reflects how much of a disappointment it is. This historical moment has abruptly been centralised in the attention of a 21st century audience and it was a perfect opportunity to realign perceptions of the movement. Yet the Suffragettes remain a symbol of white feminism. As one person pointed out on Twitter: ‘There’s a reason white feminists love commemorating suffragettes so much, you know.’

This was only incensed by the 3 main actresses in the film wearing t-shirts proclaiming ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’ to promote it. This is an excerpt from a quote by Emmeline Pankhurst, so in its context I’m sure retains its legitimacy. However, taking it out of its original context, slapping it on a t-shirt and putting it on the bodies of three privileged, middle-class white women and you have a massive cockup. What I’m curious about is how nobody stopped for a moment, took a step back, had a good long stare (shouldn’t even take that, a brief glance at this idiocy should’ve done it) and said ‘wait, one second, this will very quickly be misinterpreted all over the internet. Ladies, take off your t-shirts.’

I finally went to see the film last week, and as the credits rolled, immediately after wiping away copious amounts of tears and snot, my mind turned to the criticism which had been brought to my attention previously. What were people thinking? Certainly, all that was said was valid. The film is one-sided: although spreading attention across different classes, it failed completely to branch out beyond white women. But if this was one-sided from the scriptwriter Abi Morgan and director Sarah Gavron, the reviews of the film as boring and disappointing are equally one-sided.

Feminism is still very much needed in our society, in every sense. At the end of the film it shows a list of the dates when each country gave the right to vote to women. Shame on you France (1944), Italy (1946), Greece (1952), San Marino (1959), Monaco (1962), Andorra (1970) and Switzerland (1971). Particularly haunting is Saudi Arabia, where women will be able to run for office and vote for the first time next month.

I applaud the makers of Suffragette and all those involved. This is because everybody who steps into the theatre should be provoked by the reminder of the recent history of the movement, the acts of violence committed against women and the fact that our rights were not won easily. Our rights, our right to vote and be considered equal to men; and thus our right to continue this struggle when we realise that this equality has not been achieved. It has not been achieved in England, and it has been far from achieved on a global scale.

By Alex Howlett

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