‘Suffragette’ Is Worth Watching, Even If You Don’t Like Its Politics

One way or another, Suffragette will probably make you angry.

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

Sarah Gavron’s film Suffragette is being promoted as a feminist touchstone: the first prestige picture to tackle the bitterly fought women’s suffrage campaign in Edwardian England. Such a film will never satisfy everyone.

But Suffragette’s celebratory tone and the bewildered reaction of the film’s creative personnel to the online rage that erupted after its stars posed for Time Out London in really unfortunate slogan T-shirtshas revealed that it comes from a place of privilege.

Still, what if the same things that anger’s critics also allow less politically engaged viewers to question their assumptions about gender and society?

Casting Off The Shackles Of Yesterday

As in any historical film, real events and people have been decontextualised, idealised or mashed together in creating Suffragette. The struggle for women’s suffrage in England was long – women were explicitly banned from voting in 1832, and only regained that right in 1928 – and waged by multiple groups with conflicting political philosophies. Suffragette focuses on the militant WSPU, led by Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, in a one-minute cameo role) during 1912-13, when its civil disobedience was at its height and the police response was most brutal.

Before it was even released, Suffragette was trapped between two competing calls to be representative. It had to capture ‘how the past really was’ as well as perfectly embodying the intersectional politics to which we now aspire. To paraphrase Jezebel’s Jia Tolentino, what feminists wanted from this film is “what women have learned to want from themselves: a trick mirror that carries the illusion of flawlessness as well as the self-flagellating option of constantly finding fault.” It’s a heavy ideological burden for any one film to bear.

Gavron wants Suffragette to contribute to “the fight against inequality wherever, whenever.” She hopes today’s activists might see it as a necessarily partial and populist story, but a righteous and important one nonetheless. It’s a lovely, earnest thing to want. But it’s also a white-lady thing to want.

Since I, too, am a white lady, I fretted about how to review this film. As a narrative of political radicalisation, it’s compelling. And those jaded by contemporary feminism’s pageant of media moments might find a refreshing power in the violent ‘deeds, not words’ tactics of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and a galvanising anger in the viciousness of the police counter-response. Gavron reinvigorates a political moment that viewers may still associate with the rather silly, self-absorbed Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins:

But this film was made for me. I have the luxury of not being forced to identify only oppositionally with its characters. Suffragette’s ingenuous whiteness looks especially lame next to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which has made a concerted effort to be inclusive of race and gender. Still, its failings allow us to ask ourselves why we like or dislike it, rather than dismissing it to the category of the ‘problematic’.

And Suffragette is vividly made enough – especially in its scenes of protest, arrest and prison force-feeding – that even if it glosses the full breadth of the suffrage movement, it still introduces viewers to the history of women’s activism, and gets them intrigued enough to want to learn more. It’s a political entry point rather than a reflection of the social inclusion to which we still aspire.

A Story of Radicalisation And Respectability

Rather than the Pankhursts, and other bourgeois activists such as politician’s wife Alice (Romola Garai), the film mainly follows working-class women. Their need to financially support their families, and run households without servants, meant they sacrificed much more by taking on organising roles and risking jail terms. If Suffragette neglects race politics, it clearly addresses class politics. But more powerfully – and troublingly – it’s about respectability politics.

Protagonist Maud (Carey Mulligan) is framed as a cockney everywoman, torn between competing demands to ‘do the right thing’. She’s a trusted worker in an East End industrial laundry – akin to Fantine’s workplace in Les Misérables, complete with sleazy supervisor. Her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) reminds her of her domestic obligations. And as Maud becomes entangled with the suffrage movement, Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson) paternalistically attempts to dissuade her by threatening the humble fabric of her respectable life.

Maud’s suffragette friends offer her another ideal of respectability – another kind of ‘right thing’ to do. Admiring a shop window full of clothing she’ll never afford, Maud is shocked to recognise her workmate Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) gleefully shattering the window with a pramful of rocks. Then she meets WSPA organiser Edith (Helena Bonham Carter), who runs the local pharmacy with her supportive husband Hugh (Finbar Lynch). And Emily (Natalie Press) passes on to Maud her copy of Dreams, by Olive Schreiner – an inspirational book among suffragists.

Right now, Western nations are striving to prevent radicalisation among their disaffected young citizens. There’s even been a provocative, though mischievous, fan theory that the original Star Wars trilogy narrates Luke Skywalker’s “path to jihad”. Radicalisation stories are fascinating because they constantly reframe moral positions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. In Suffragette, the Edwardian state views the WSPA as a terrorist organisation – and surveills them as such. And as in real life, we see some activists quit after deciding it’s just too militant for them.

Yet Maud’s radicalisation is represented as her dawning recognition that the current establishment will never protect the likes of her. Her activism hasn’t been ‘groomed’ by a suffragette cell as much as squeezed from her by a state that forces people to betray their natural allies – like Irish cop Steed working for the English, and the essentially good-hearted Sonny locking out his wife.

Still, Suffragette ignores its own, distinctly contemporary values of respectability. Violet – an itinerant mother, sole breadwinner and domestic violence survivor – is a much more complex and intriguing character than Maud, the audience surrogate. Yet Violet is depicted as an unstable foil to the stolid Maud and the clever Edith. There’s also an uncomfortably class-blind tint to the subplot in which Maud ‘rescues’ Violet’s young daughter by placing her as a maid in Alice’s household.

The film’s genteel ending also seems to betray an inaccurately rosy-tinted view of the WSPA’s capacity for fostering social mobility. Maud is shown setting out teacups and arranging flowers, wearing exactly the kind of outfit she’d earlier admired in the shop window.

Gavron seems to suggest that in hindsight, militant feminism wasn’t disreputable; rather, it was a necessary mechanism to civilise broader society. Respectability is still the aim, however it’s achieved. And for me, that’s a more insidious proposition than a failure of racial representation, because it implies that all political movements will only succeed by appeasing dominant cultural values.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic.  She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at@incrediblemelk.