Suffragette: catering to narrow interests of identity politics over the real interests of people it claims to defend

Sarah Gavron, “Suffragette” (2015)

Of the recent plethora of British historical drama movies, Gavron’s film “Suffragette” is one flick that tries to be two things to two sets of people but fails at both. On one level, it’s a personal story of a fictional working-class girl, representing an everyday woman with whom the general public is likely to identify readily, who is swept up in a social / political phenomenon far beyond her ability to manage or cope with and which ends up destroying everything near and dear to her. On another level, it’s an attempt to bring to life the British suffragette movement of the late 19th century and early 20th century and its struggle to achieve political, social and economic equality between women and men, for the benefit of 21st-century cinema audiences. In trying to tie the personal fortunes of a young, impoverished laundress to a political movement that was essentially middle class in its orientation, “Suffragette” falters and leaves its heroine’s fate dangling in a harsh uncertainty, in which she has many foes and very few friends, none of whom can be said to be really reliable.

Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) has been working at the same laundry since she was a young girl, following in her mother’s foot-steps and being subject to her employer’s sexual predations. Watts is married to Sonny who also works at the laundry and they have one young child. One day Watts meets Viola (Anne-Marie Duff), a newly employed laundress who has been late for work a couple of times. Watts discovers that Viola has been attending suffragette meetings organised by a local pharmacist, Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). Both Watts, Viola and a few other like-minded women are drawn into militant and increasingly violent actions that Edith and her husband plan, including blowing up letter-boxes and lobbing a bomb at a politician’s unfinished summer house. Each time the suffragettes carry out violent incidents, the London gendarmerie, led by Inspector Steed (Brendon Gleeson), arrest the women and throw them into jail: the first time, the women are jailed for a few days and are harassed by prison warders; the next time, they are jailed for weeks and subjected to more humiliations; the third time, they are imprisoned for months and are force-fed brutally when they go on a hunger strike. Inspector Gleeson is not unsympathetic to the women’s cause but believes in enforcing the law; he tries to give Watts an escape route by encouraging her to inform on her fellow suffragettes.

At the same time Watts is drawn deeper into suffragette activity, she incurs the hostility of Sonny and her working-class community: Sonny rejects her, their marriage breaks up and their child is put up for adoption; and Watts is ostracised by both the neighbours and her fellow workers. She loses her job and home, and is forced to take refuge in a local church. Having lost everything that gives her life meaning and purpose, Watts becomes a loose cannon, easily manipulable, going deeper and deeper into violent action, and as the film draws to a climax in which she presumably plays a major role, the question of whether she will sacrifice herself to militancy over principle arises.

In separating Maud from her working-class roots and community, and pushing her into a middle class set, “Suffragette” gives up any semblance of plausibility and thus fails as a history lesson on the suffragette movement for 21st-century audiences. In real life, Maud and Viola would have been drawn to socialism and socialist activity, and one doubts that they would have been forced to give up their husbands and families to prove themselves as committed socialists. Most likely they would have been drawn into activities to improve working conditions and pay levels in the laundry industry, and they would have helped set up trade unions for laundry workers, and child care and schooling provision for laundry workers’ children so that youngsters would never need to follow their parents into work (and be exposed to sexual abuse) at an early age. The women would enroll at night school to learn to read and write, and eventually to learn how to negotiate for better pay and working conditions. The scenes of hard labour in the laundry and the sexual exploitation of women like Maud and Viola’s teenage daughter by their employer could have been dealt with more deeply in a completely different movie. “Suffragette” treats those working-class people who happen to disagree with Watts and Viola in a contemptuous way, and in doing so, privileges the interests of a subset of middle class women over the real needs and concerns of working-class people. The idea that ALL people, regardless of sex, class or background, should enjoy equal political, legal and economic rights, without one group being singled out for privileges or special treatment, is completely ignored.

There is a possibility that Watts’ radicalisation from an otherwise ordinary and passive onlooker into committed militant may strike a chord with those viewers who have experienced similar ideological radicalisation in their youth or who have children who are undergoing parallel transformations, and that one purpose of the film is to trace how ordinary people can be drawn deeper into violent actions through a series of misunderstandings that destroy their lives and leave them with no alternatives other than to give up their lives to social phenomena that engulf them and spit them out with no mercy. There is no shortage though of recent social, political and religious movements which have chewed up young people and spat them out when they have fulfilled their function as cannon fodder, and one would wonder why the suffragette movement would be singled out to drive this point home.

There are a few sub-plots and motifs in the film that get short shrift: the conflict between Inspector Steed and Watts is treated in a superficial way, ending almost as soon as it starts, and the film gives no reason, however unbelievable it might be, as to why Steed continues to follow Watts after she rejects his offer. Perhaps he really does see a fighter in her, and wants to persuade her away from middle class feminists who find her a useful foot-soldier but who might dump her as soon as their objectives are met. However the plot’s trajectory allows for very little character development in its major roles so we never find out if Steed becomes sympathetic to the suffragette cause. A sub-plot involving Viola’s daughter and the issues of rape and sexual exploitation that arise is extremely sketchy and its resolution is unconvincing: the girl is made to exchange her laundry employment for one of domestic service which still exposes her to a male employer who might abuse her. The film espouses the idea that actions are more important than words, which in its narrow context leads Watts deeper into morally questionable activity that not only endangers her life but estranges her from family and community. How does such a banal and ideologically empty notion of “deeds, not words” differentiate the suffragettes’ cause from, say, that of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s – 40s, or of the neo-Nazis in Ukraine and the ISIS-affiliated takfiris in Syria and Iraq?

Ultimately the film suffers in hanging Watts out to dry in an ambiguous future, in which she essentially recognises her alienation in the path she has chosen to walk, and no hope of reconciliation with Sonny or Inspector Steed. This is the cruellest blow dealt to an honest and innocent character that mocks her sincerity and her transformation from passive victim of circumstances to a passionate activist working for a cause she believes in. “Suffragette” left this viewer angry at its superficial treatment of its major characters and the way in which it uses one working-class individual as cannon fodder for middle class interests. The film treats everyone who happens to disagree with the suffragettes as either dangerous enemies or ignorant hoi polloi. I can’t help but feel that this film, like so many other recent British historical films that treat their subject matter in similar shallow ways, is catering to an agenda that upholds the interests of minority groups like radical feminists or radical LGBTI activists, over the real interests of the people they claim to represent.

On a more purely technical level, the actors in the film have their work cut out in trying to turn one-dimensional character stereotypes into real human beings in a story that falls apart in trying to sell a particular narrow middle class agenda posing as feminism to the general public through an everyday working-class heroine. The logical conclusion to such a story-line is too terrible for the script-writers to follow through so the heroine’s fate ultimately fades out behind the death and funeral of another suffragette. One questions why Watts, being a purely fictional character, should be made to deny her working-class roots and give up everything dear to her to toil for an essentially bourgeois movement that does not have her interests or the interests of her class in mind when there is plenty of injustice surrounding her at the laundry needing her energy. This comes back to the question of what agenda “Suffragette” serves.