Released last month, Suffragette has been receiving praise from critics and emotional reactions from viewers. In the run up to the release, I was excited about a film dealing with this subject. But, I was also puzzled when I realised that nothing quite like it has been produced up until this point. In fact, it has taken more than 100 years to tell the story of the Suffragettes. Yet, it feels more relevant than ever.
Overdue but necessary
On the Suffragette promo posters that have been scattered around the underground, I saw the stirring images of the female leads and a striking caption. Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep are staring straight at me. They are strong and resolute in their depiction of the women in the not so distant past, who sacrificed everything to give us women the choices we have now. I have to admit that this was a rather thought-provoking start to my morning commute. Beneath the image it said “The Time Is Now” and indeed a film about feminism and women’s suffrage does seem to be rather apt. As the director Sarah Gavron states, it felt both “timely [and yet] overdue”.
Feminism has changed
Over the past couple of years in particular, feminism has undergone what one may call an optical makeover. It has not changed- what it means to be a feminist. The ways in which people are now perceiving it has however undergone a dramatic shift. From being a blackened taboo subject to a buzzword and ‘trending’ topic. Pop culture and celebrities have had much to do with this.
In 2012, we had the emergence of Lena Dunham in the HBO hit Girls, followed by Beyonce in 2014 who made her stance pretty clear at the VMAs. Not long after, Emma Watson’s HeForShe UN speech captivated millions around the globe. Let’s not forget the whole Taylor Swift-Nicki Minaj Twitter fiasco. Although we have clearly become more comfortable talking about feminism, when do we stop to actually think about it?
What you didn’t know you didn’t know…
Suffragette forces us to think deeply about the history of the movement. Beyond the glossy magazine covers, music videos and light-hearted TV shows, there’s a gritty story to learn about. For Elle’s recent feminist issue, Carey Mulligan spoke about her leading role in the film. She noted that “it’s the first time I’ve made a film saying something important”.
Let’s talk briefly about the details of the film itself. It is powerful, emotional and a must watch for everyone (regardless of your sex). Firstly, it was refreshing to see women involved in action and playing serious roles with a political core. What I expected was something reminiscent of a BBC period drama involving corsets, extravagant hairpieces and overtly polite mannerisms. Instead, Suffragette offered an unfiltered and unglamourized glimpse at our history. Carey Mulligan expressed disbelief herself when she read the script. Telling Elle, Mulligan said she was “shocked at the police brutality, the hunger strikes, the force-feeding, the destruction of property”. I’m glad the film didn’t shy away from such scenes. Like Carey, it made me confront my own ignorance about the plight of early feminists.
Maud (Mulligan), is a working class wife and loving mother. The Suffragette Movement inadvertently takes her in when she sees the injustice and cruelty by society and the government. Exposed are the harsh realities for women in the early 1900’s through her eyes. It’s clear at first Maud has resigned herself to an existence where she works an underpaid job during the day, and does domestic chores at night. Her money is not her own and her voice has never been represented. As the story progresses, we begin to follow her personal journey as part of a national movement. Maud transforms from an ambivalent bystander denying any suffragette affiliation to a passionate activist. An activist who is willing to sacrifice everything for her new found political convictions.
I’m not exaggerating at all when I say Maud has to make some extremely traumatic choices and sacrifices in the film. This was a reality for many women, who had to choose between having a political voice or the traditional path of marriage and childbirth – I couldn’t even contemplate having to make this decision.
True to history
The film does of course contain some empowering and stirring speeches from the female characters but if you wanted a truly cathartic ending, then look away. The film ends true to history, and there is no quick resolution or tidy ends. We are instead drawn back to the current day. Just before the credit sequence begins, the film ends with a rolling timeline of all the countries that have granted women the vote. Switzerland only granted the vote in 1971! It really puts into perspective how this story is still so relevant to us today.
The problems women still face today
Suffragette is what we needed right now – not because it’s now acceptable and popular to talk about feminism but because with all its current attention, it’s about time we’re reminded of where feminism and the fight for equality came from, what was sacrificed and what is still left to be done. There are still women in other countries fighting for the basic human rights we often take for granted.
This film awards an heroic status to those ordinary women who dared to dream and act beyond what was deemed ‘acceptable’ for their sex. In our day and age, the label “feminism” has been overused, misapplied and thrown about without much regard for the original meaning. So this film came at the right time, to provide a stark reminder of how women fought hard for the title and how it is now our job to be a Feminist with entitlement and self-awareness. It’s a disservice to call ourselves’ feminists without thinking about the history and hopefully Suffragette serves to educate and remind people of that.