The history of motion pictures dates way back to the nineteenth century, and since then thousands of action films, thrillers, horrors, sci-fis, rom-coms, fantasy fictions and many other genres have entertained generations of people, but it isn’t until now, in 2015, that the plight of the heroic suffragette movement has been celebrated on the big screen.
It’s 1912 in the East End of London, billowing white sheets line the miserable streets, scores of women packed tightly into their corsets work long hours in mundane jobs, reporting to a hierarchy of male bosses. But gradually, a faint whisper of ‘votes for women’ can be heard echoing through the streets, refusing to be ignored. This is the scene painted by director, Sarah Gavron, who has admitted to purposely integrating colours of purple and green into shots featuring women to emphasise the physical bruises they endured in their attempts to gain equality, as well as the mental bruises in their fight against injustice. The purple and green also symbolise the colours of the WSPU activists who inspired and led the suffragette movement focusing on ‘deeds not words’ such as hunger strikes and the destruction of private property, which many women were restricted from owning.
It is ironic that in all of the films I have reviewed up until this point, this is the first where I mention a female director’s name. This alone stresses the clear relevance of Suffragette‘s context in today’s society. In a society where, from 2009-2013, only 4.7% of directors were women, and in 2014, just 12% of protagonists on screen were women, it is evident that there is still a long way to go before full gender equality is achieved. That is why it is refreshing to note that Suffragette is not only both written and directed by women, but it also features a prominent female cast (led by the likes of Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter and it even features a brief cameo from Meryl Streep).
Screenwriter, Abi Morgan, made the resolute decision to focus on the uncelebrated women of the movement rather than create a biopic outlining the details of the wealthy and privileged Pankhurt family’s complex involvement in the plight of women. Some have labelled the result dull, but the clever decision to highlight the foot soldiers, consisting of ‘normal’, working women, has a much more powerful effect than if the educated leaders of the movement had dominated the plot.
This angle shows how women from all classes and walks of life were united in the fight for equality against a state that was so quick to normalise the blatant sexism and injustices women faced. Following years of peaceful protest to no avail, the suffragettes turned to a more militant approach fighting against all forms of authority. Whether it was the government, the police force, bosses and even husbands in the home, authority always had a male face.
The leading character is Maud (Carey Mulligan), a laundry worker who ‘knows her place’ and fits nicely into her male dominated surroundings. She is used as an example to show how everyday women were victims of misogyny, but as her eyes are gradually opened to the daily occurrences of sexism, she gets pulled further into the fight and refuses to acknowledge the way of life she has always dutifully accepted. Suffragette celebrates the unity of women as they stood in solidarity fighting for their voices to be heard. Alone, like in the case of Maud, they lacked confidence, knowledge and most importantly, the awareness to rebel against the social injustices.
Streep plays the charasmatic idol of the movement, Emmeline Pankhurst. However, her role is fleeting and despite cleverly highlighting how all women were affected (even Pankhurst was incarcerated and is in hiding throughout the majority of the film), Gavron and Morgan want to demonstrate that change may need leaders, but it can only be implemented if a variety of social figures, including the everyday individuals who are significantly affected, take up the fight.
Gavron floods the film with action, emphasising the suffragette’s motto to achieve equality through ‘deeds not words’. It isn’t until the climatic moment towards the end of the film where the true event of Emily Wilding Davison’s tragic death unfolds, that we see the full power of this statement.
As the women in the film progress to blowing up buildings and carrying out lengthy hunger strikes while being battered, humiliated and incarcerated, they still struggle to gain media coverage. This importance of media coverage is highlighted now, over 100 years after this powerful plot is set, as we live in a modern world where the national press continues to exploit women and is immediately ready to objectify them to satisfy the male gaze. The media wasn’t on the side of women then, and it is still yet to eliminate the double standards faced in 2015’s society.
It is frightening that it took a death to make the people of Britain tear their eyes away from their patriarchal tunnel vision, and even then in 1913, with all of the media attention the WSPU achieved following the event (the hard hitting footage from Davison’s funeral has a significant impact at the end of the film), it still took a further fifteen years to win the vote on the same grounds as their male counterparts. It forces the question: what will it take in today’s society for publications such as The Sun to end the blatant objectification of women in features such as ‘Page 3’?
Campaigns such as ‘The Everyday Sexism Project’ managed by Laura Bates where individuals are encouraged to relay their personal experiences of normalised sexism in everyday society also emphasises the need to continue to raise awareness of an issue that is very much alive in 2015.
The protesters who took to the red carpet to protest against cuts to domestic abuse services also demonstrated how the context of the film is still appropriate and relevant today. How many more examples must I give to to show that the fight is not yet won and needs to be highlighted to raise awareness?
Gavron and Morgan remind contemporary viewers of the sacrifices that were made to win the vote. Women were beaten, incarcerated, tortured, simply to achieve the same rights as their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons. Watching now, over 100 years later, the plight seems fictional, ridiculous even, and so the stats that appear as the film fades out have a significant impact on the relevance of women’s struggle for equality.
Gavron has avoided fancy, stylish techniques; the simplicity of the effects are to the point. She tells the story in a way that is easy to understand and hasn’t attempted to jump on the back of a thrilling plot to make a big-budget block buster, but instead simply tells a story that needs to be heard.
Suffragette may not be perfect, but it is personally an instant favourite of mine. Not just for the decision to celebrate women behind the scenes in an industry that so frequently fails to do so, nor is it for the moving acting by a cast of exceptional female actors, but mainly it’s for raising awareness to a subject matter that is so poignant in every British woman’s life and yet is so readily dismissed, forgotten and ignored.
Although ‘votes for women’ can no longer be heard ringing through the streets, there are still plenty of aspects of gender equality that are yet to be addressed and would benefit from being shouted from the top of city skyscrapers. So thank you, Gavron for momentarily giving women’s issues a voice.