Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

15 November 2015

Votes for Women!

Suffragette is a fairly straightforward Hollywood-style movie, although Suffragette is a British film, perhaps more emotionally akin to last year's The Theory of Everything than to anything else I can think of at the moment. [The following may have some spoilers, but this is all historical fact, so none of it ought to be particularly surprising if you know what happened to British suffragettes in the years before the '14-'18 War.]

Sarah Gavron's film follows a young working woman in 1912 as she becomes politicized around achieving greater rights for women in a country (England) that doesn't extend rights to women. This fight about women's rights (especially the rights of working women) is fought under the banner of voting rights. In this way Suffragette has obvious debts (in style as well as structure) to last year's Selma. Gradually Maud Watts, the film's main character (played by Carey Mulligan) comes to understand that she actually has no rights whatsoever in England. She is beaten, imprisoned, tortured by London police, her child is taken away from her. She is disowned by her husband, fired, kicked out of her house, and reduced to homelessness on the streets of London. Her body, she finds out quite clearly, is not her own, and she has no recourse to fight any of these assaults upon her her person or her family. And so she decides to join the suffragettes, and the suffragettes decide to fight.

All of this is shown to the audience in an emotionally rousing, sentimental style, and the film does its best to spend time awaking all of the feelings we have about justice and motherhood and bodily integrity. In this way the film succeeds somewhat and is a crowd-pleaser, but it is not my kind of film. The older white-people crowd will love it – the audience I was with applauded when the film was over – and the film in many ways makes people feel good about beliefs that they already possess. Yes women should have access to their children; no one oughtn't to be fired for a political view; no one oughtn't to be sexually available to one's employer. Yes women are just as smart as men; no women oughtn't to be kicked out of their houses by their husbands; yes women ought to be able to vote.

But, then, these women are also terrorists, let us make no mistake. They become criminals, existing outside of the law, defying a government that affords them no protections. And here is where I am pretty sure that my read of the film differs from the read of its intended audience. For me, Suffragette became a film about unchecked state violence.

At numerous points in the movie, police literally beat peaceful protesters until they are bloody and then they arrest them and imprison them for any amount of time they wish. The police violence on the bodies of civilians goes absolutely unchecked. Here, for me, is where the film becomes more interesting. Watching this violence onscreen we might be in Harpers Ferry or Auschwitz or Selma or Ferguson or Baltimore in 2015. Police in Suffragette act with absolute impunity. They are the law and there is no law above them to check their actions because the bodies broken by their violence possess no rights of their own. In this way Suffragette, if it is a film about the struggles of working-class white women in Britain in 1912-3, can also be read about violent resistance to police brutality and unjust governments across the globe in 2015. It certainly called up for me police violence against black bodies in the U.S., the violence that says that people from non-European countries deserve no protections under the EU, and certain Republican presidential candidates' refusal to accept immigrants from other countries, including Mexico.

Ms. Bonham Carter
But the film also conflates "voting rights" with other problems, and this is where I got a bit confused by the film's politics. Many of the problems I articulate above – problems with the lack of rights attached to women's bodies in Britain before the first World War that the film addresses (men's presumed sexual access to working-class women, women's rights over their own children, the gender pay-gap) – are really unrelated to voting rights, or at least their links to voting rights are not made clear by Suffragette. This is, perhaps, one reason why one easily jumps to thinking about other injustices in the world rather than thinking deeply about the means the women took to achieve their desired political result. Because this is a sentimental film, the whole thing becomes about justice and injustice in the generic. These are women who couldn't get any newsmedia to cover their struggles and so they resorted to terrorism to get media attention, including suicide terrorism. The film, for reasons I find baffling, isn't really interested so much in these political tactics as it is in "good" and "evil". In this way Suffragette to my mind falls far short of a film like Selma, a movie that discusses political realities and the decisions with which activists must grapple when attempting to achieve political change.

In any case, Suffragette should do pretty well with Oscar, I'd wager. Expect a nomination for Carey Mulligan and maybe also one for Helena Bonham Carter (both are great). Ben Whishaw is also great, but his character is "bad" and in a picture this sentimental he won't get any awards love. A costume design nomination seems like an easy get, here, too. And Alexandre Desplat will probably get one for his score. In short, expect a couple. As I said, this is a crowd-pleaser.

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Oh! One last word. There was some brouhaha during the marketing of Suffragette about the film's (white) actresses posing in t-shirts that contained the phrase "I'd rather be a rebel than a slave" as a way of marketing the film. My opinion of this kerfuffle is that it was (like most things that happen on social media) a too-quick, knee-jerk reaction that practices both an anti-historicist view of political struggles and (as my reading of the film reflects) a too-strict view on readings of cultural products like films. For me, Suffragette was about the immigration crisis in the EU and unchecked police violence against black bodies and the gender pay-gap in the U.S. Representations always make meanings that vary from their ostensible subject matter, and to attempt to restrict the word "slave" to a particular historical period erases real instances of the enslavement of bodies that are ongoing in the world today.