A Kick in the Ballots
Third wave feminism is now an indelible part of modern culture, challenging orthodox thinking in print, on social media, and yes, even in that last bastion of misogynist stupidity, the movies, where female representation has remained static since 1946.
Add to that the recent focus on women’s rights in the Arab States, or appalling lack thereof, and one might say a social history of the Suffragettes is timely and welcome. It’s also curiously overdue for such a landmark social movement – this being the first movie to concentrate on these early 20th century agitators in – well, ever. Mark the number of movies dedicated to, say, American civil rights, and you note the glaring omission. Perhaps the medium’s the culprit. It’s not enough for women to be invisible – in effect second tier human beings – in most films, their struggle for equality before the law (at least in terms of the franchise) must be ignored too.
What’s striking about Suffragette is how it’s both a world away, a time of excruciating poverty, employment abuses and child labour, and depressingly contemporary. We’re conscious that social change takes its sweet time, but watching the way men behave in this history – with a toe curling combination of infantile dependency and paternal condescension (Ben Wishaw’s husband to Carey Mulligan internalising both), there’s the sense we’ve been hopelessly lax in draining all the poison from our parent culture. Women still suffer sexual harassment at work, they’re still paid less than men, the majority must still bow to a male boss, and there are still many women under the yoke of idiot cocks at home, using an inherited sense of entitlement and superior purchasing power to keep the little lady under the cosh. Suffragette invites us to gasp at the archaic attitudes and naked injustice on display, but the tragedy is that much of it remains, now underground.
Though it hits all the social liberal beats you’d expect, prosecuting its case against history with award baiting earnestness, the movie remains lively and compelling thanks to the wise decision to get down and dirty with its politics early. Mulligan, whose matinee appearance only slightly undermines her casting as an everywoman, is the reluctant one – a put upon laundry woman with a predatory boss and unreconstructed hubby, who finds herself drawn into the movement one rally, wrongful imprisonment and legal setback at a time. It’s an effective way of telling the suffragette story; an approach that helps us to understand how the movement organised, planned its attacks and dealt with the jackboot of government.
A rough and gritty portrait, the movie it sometimes resembles is Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins. Indeed, talk of Fenian agitators by Home Office enforcer Brendan Gleeson, and later scenes dealing with the denial of political prisoner status to the women and subsequent hunger strikes, foster uncomfortable parallels with Jordan and other’s polemics on militant Irish nationalism.
Fortunately votes for women is an injustice that’s a great deal easier to identity with. It’s also nice to see the production remembering to include a sympathetic male character; a reminder that not everyone with a dong and balls saw the emancipation of our sisters as the end of civilisation.
Free of any controversy, Suffragette is a fascinating reconstruction of a campaign that’s no less relevant today when many countries in the world, notably Saudi Arabia (named and shamed in the closing captions) continues to deny women the most fundamental rights conducive to an equal and meritocratic society.