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Why I'm reluctant to watch Suffragette

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Progress comes in stages. As a history student, I am aware that it’s one of the most obvious aspects of any movement. From the Civil Rights movement to the various waves of feminism, laws have been passed incrementally.

However, in the case of the feminist movement, those laws and that progress have undeniably favoured white women above women of colour (woc).

This was clearly illustrated in the divisions of the left in the 1970s and is something which still plagues the movement today. In colloquial terms, the elevation of white women’s issues as universal feminist issues and the ignorance of the unique struggles of women of colour, is known as ‘white feminism’.

Suffragette, a highly-anticipated film depicting the struggle of working-class suffragettes, has been lauded a ‘feminist hit’ by the mainstream media. Certainly, as a favourite for awards season, it’s likely that it will be a hit. It has even been suggested that Carey Mulligan (Far From the Madding Crowd, The Great Gatsby) is in the running for at least an Oscar due to her starring role.

However, when it comes to the label ‘feminist’, I am decidedly less certain.

Image: Pathé

In July, my first look at Suffragette was published by the Boar.

In it, I explained that, while Suffragette looked set to be a ‘white feminist hit’, there were still various aspects which could renew its favour in my eyes.

As the weeks close down on its inevitable release on 12th October , I find it increasingly difficult to excuse the lack of representation of people of colour in the film. Especially considering much of the early audience are lauding the film as something to educate women, while the producers remain notably silent as to its inaccuracies.

So, though I tried to remain positive in July, there are a number of reasons for which I have changed my mind: the need for accurate representations of the presence of people of colour before mass immigration; the racial bias of progress and the elevation of white women’s issues above those of woc; and Suffragette’s somewhat ironic advertisements.

Amid the mounting refugee crisis and, until recently, negative attitudes towards ‘migrants’, not to mention general attitudes towards people of colour, it has never been more important to present our diverse past.

This diversity reaches past slavery, to the presence of visitors and residents of colour in Britain during the time of the suffrage movement. From the visiting Begum of Bhopal, to Princess Sophia Duleep Singh and the Indian or Chinese nannies in between, Britain was not short of women of colour. Not only did they live in Britain, but some of them even contributed to the cause of suffrage – most notably in the Women’s Coronation Procession.

When Suffragette will feature Emily Wilding Davison’s death and the most remembered aspects of the middle-class suffrage movement, the film has no excuse for neglecting the only event in the movement which united all of the suffrage groups.

Except, perhaps, lack of proper historical research. And, for a historical film, what kind of excuse is that?

Paradoxically, Suffragette’s advertising campaign has featured women of colour, most notably in the #InspiringWomen competition.

I am speaking, of course, about Malala Yousafzai. While the film and its makers remain silent on the issue of poc, it is clear they have no qualms about using a well-known person of colour to bring attention to themselves.

Why is it acceptable to feature her in advertisements for a film which purposefully neglected to feature any of her (our) people onscreen? What’s the difference between using the image of inspiring women of colour to encourage audiences while ignoring them in the film, and the suffrage movement’s racist stereotypes of Indian women as a reason for the vote?

While some of you may suggest I should be happy that a mainstream film centred on women is being released at all, this screams of the continued elevation of white women’s progress (or issues) above women of colour, such as the focus on #FreeTheNipple rather than issues like the gender and race pay gap.

The supposed success of Suffragette as a film by and about women only rings true if you are a white woman. Therefore, despite being celebrated as a feminist hit by an early audience, the film lacks the intersectional representation and narratives of the suffrage movement which would make it so; it can only be white feminist.

In the end, I am reluctant to watch Suffragette because I am disappointed. Disappointed that a film about women hitting the mainstream is being celebrated, while the part women of colour had to play is ignored and left unknown to the thousands who will watch this and refer to it as history in the years to come.

It is a reminder that the progress of white women will always take precedence over women of colour, rather than being equally valued. And that is not acceptable. Overwhelmingly, I am frustrated that I am expected to be happy despite this, while the resounding message is that this film is not for me.

While I hope that Suffragette will reinforce that films about women are lucrative, I am under no illusions that this will not be the last of progress. And I can only hope that when people remember the film, they also remember those it ignored and never represented.

Read Suffragette director Sarah Gavron's response to this article HERE.

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