Suffragette's Attempt at Celebrating Feminism a Miss
April, 2017 University of Colorado Honors Journal (find it here)
In the wake of Saudi Arabia granting women the right to vote in October 2015, a film about the women’s suffrage movement comes out in theaters. Presenting feminism with a film set in a prominently racist era of history with an all-white cast, which was marketed with insensitive language, is all too reminiscent of an era of exclusion we thought was long over. Despite critics congratulating its progressiveness, the film Suffragette actually ignores the racist nature of the movement of the first wave feminists and justifies the film’s whitewashing of history through its white feminist ideology. Setting the film in the UK, overlooking the historical women of color involved in the movement, and feeding into the white feminist hypocrisy of present day, the film fulfills a niche that allows it to still be considered “progressive.” Whitewashing a progressive era allows the film to be celebrated by its millennial target audience yet still accepted by the more conservative older generation. To critically examine this historical film, we must be aware of the history it is attempting to portray and start with the discourse surrounding the suffragette movement of the 1920s. Second, we must look at the film itself and analyze the choices and statements it makes regarding race. Finally, questions and theories of racism analyzing the film and the decisions it made in celebrating women’s suffrage will shed light on the film’s modern implications and its historical inaccuracies.
The history of women’s suffrage movements clue us into how Suffragette chose to portray history and why its portrayal is not only exclusionary, but inaccurate. While the early 1900s suffrage movement in the UK was less racially controversial than the movement in the US, it still reflected similar white supremacist attitudes. Suffragettes of this era from the US, like Susan B. Anthony, Anna Howard Shaw, and Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton, would often compare women’s suffrage to black suffrage, but not in a positive way. They argued that white women were more entitled to the vote than racial minorities (Ortberg, 2014). Many were openly racist, often proclaiming that women’s suffrage would strengthen white exceptionalism. For example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a suffragette who also protested slavery, and yet, when discussing women’s suffrage and the black vote, she said, “What will we and our daughters suffer if these degraded black men are allowed to have the rights that would make them even worse than our Saxon fathers?” (Ortberg, 2014, n.p.). Susan B. Anthony once claimed that the middle-class white woman’s struggle was more desperate than the black American man’s struggle: “Mr. [Frederick] Douglass talks about the wrongs of the Negro; but with all the outrages that he to-day suffers, he would not exchange his sex and take the place of Elizabeth Cady Stanton” (Ortberg, 2014, n.p.). Not only is this sentiment ironic, considering the disparity between the civil rights of Stanton and Douglass, but alarmingly, the rights of black women or Native American women did not come up, revealing how big name suffragettes had extremely limited intersectionality. According to sociologist A. Javier Trevino (2015), intersectionality is “the ways in which several demographic factors—especially social class, race, ethnicity, and gender—combine to affect people’s experiences” (p. 5). This means that people who are in multiple minority groups have different struggles than the groups they fit into do. Therefore, when Anthony and Stanton compared the black man’s struggle to the white woman’s struggle, they ignored the intersectionality black women in America face. The film touches on intersectionality by framing the issue from the perspective of working class women, but other representation stops there. This exclusion and lack of consideration was common across the Global North, but in the UK, the demographics allowed for the issue of race to be swept under the rug. Women of the early suffragette movement worked with women of color in the movement when convenient, but true feelings about race emerged later when the same women of color fought battles revolving around racial discrimination and the white suffragettes were not on their side. This is a reality the film’s writers and directors chose to ignore.
Using the social situation in the US as context for the entire western world at the time, we can see the inaccuracy between the film’s representation of the movement and the reality of the movement itself. Despite what the end of the film states and what is often celebrated as the year women achieved the vote in the US, 1920 was the year white women could partake in civil liberty. Minority women, due to property laws, the grandfather clause, and other unfair and racist voting limitations, could not vote. All women were able to legally vote in 1965 when the Voting Rights Act began removing barriers that prevented people of color from participating in the elections. There is a 45-year gap between the 19th Amendment and the VRA. This distinction is not a matter of semantics but an illustration of the exclusionary nature of the white women’s suffrage movement.
In the US, women of color played a large role in women’s suffrage despite the active exclusion they faced from the white supremacists within the movement. These women were not made into historical figures and are often forgotten, especially in whitewashed historical reflections, such as this film. In the UK, Indian women had a part in women’s suffrage, led by the princess Sophia Duleep Singh, an anti-imperialist feminist advocate (Leszkiewicz, 2013). Mrs. Pankhurst, who we see as the film’s powerful suffragette leader, and Duleep Singh led a riot on November 18, 1910, which was violently intercepted by the police. However, “Sophia was not the only Indian suffragette. An Indian women’s group took part in the 1911 coronation procession of 60,000 suffragettes” (Suffragette, 2016, n.p.). These women were a real part of the movement and represented a significant group of women in the UK.
The 1920s women’s rights movement featured in the film paints a very different picture of feminism than the modern movement of today. Now the third wave focuses on securing rights for LGBT women and men, getting rid of gender roles and rape culture, and closing the gender wage gap. Many in the third wave also focus on issues specific to women of color, like the Black Lives Matter movement, and supporting women who wear hijabs who are often victims of Islamophobia. The second wave, which occurred from 1960-1990, is still dominant in the mainstream circles of feminist discourse and representation. Much in the same way, in the context of modern race discourse, the current mainstream form of racism is colorblindness. Colorblindness is the belief that we are in a post-racial society of equality. Ignoring the reality of racism as a present condition and claiming equality allows us to blame inequalities that still remain on their victims (Smith, 2013). Modern mainstream society is still catching up to the third wave feminism and its inclusion and often uses colorblindness to disregard race. It appears that popular media representations of feminism, like Suffragette, are behind the progressive times. This is disappointing for a film that celebrates the progressive and ever-changing movement of feminism, especially when focusing on a time of great social change. In fact, the film takes the role of historical correctionist or revisionist, as it whitewashes history to fit the colorblindness that is plaguing the current movements.
The casting choice lends insight into how the writers chose to ignore, misrepresent, or even completely erase the racism in the women’s suffrage movement in the 1910s. Many supporters argue that since the film’s director is from the UK, she simply wanted to reflect her own nation’s history. However, the setting hides this problematic era of history, as the UK had seemingly less racial tension and oppression inside its borders. This choice would justify an all-white cast and the ignorance of the controversies of the US. Despite the very white population of the UK at the time, the film erases the contributions women of color made. Duleep Singh and the Indian suffragettes were recognized by and worked alongside Pankhurst (Suffragette, 2016). There was no space for Duleep Singh even though Ms. Pankhurst was featured heavily in the film (Suffragette, 2016). The director, Sarah Gavron, gave her reason for whitewashing the historic movement:
We interrogated the writ and photographic evidence, and the truth is, it’s a very, very different picture from the U.S. The U.S. had a lot of women of color involved in the movement, some who were excluded, some who weren’t excluded. But in the UK, it wasn’t like that, because we had pockets of immigration...it was later, around the war, around the fifties, that really the UK shifted and changed in a really wonderful way to produce what we have today. (Erbland, 2015, n.p.)
Despite being set in a predominantly white nation, the film still whitewashes the events. In response to a casting director refusing him for a film set in 1800s UK, Gus, a character in the detective sitcom Psych, said, “So what are you saying? Black people hadn’t been invented yet?” Gavron's excuse has been addressed and questioned many times. Suffragette isn’t the first film to whitewash history. Hannah Flint (2015), writer for Metro.co.uk noticed the imbalanced representation of the film, saying, “If I’m to go by the historical accuracy of the film, then we’re meant to believe that there were no women, nay people of colour, living in Britain during the early 20th century” (n.p.). This isn’t true. There were many Indian and black people in the UK at the time as a result of Britain’s colonial history. In fact, “one-hundred years earlier the British slave trade had been abolished, with slavery following suit in 1833, and though the black immigrant population had declined due to continued scientific racism and discrimination from white society towards the end of the 19th century, there was still between 20,000 and 25,000 [black individuals] living in the capital in the early 1900s” (Flint, 2015, n.p.). This number only represents the people of African descent, not other minorities that lived in the UK, yet there isn’t a single person of color in the film.
Gavron claims she and her team chose the time frame of the movement when women of color were less involved because she wanted to show “the period of these sixteen months where militancy was at its height and the state was more brutal to these women… [she] hoped to remind people of the battle that paved the way for the world that we live in now and how hard fought for it was” (Tangcay, 2015, n.p.). Sensationalizing an important movement and its violence instead of representing its diversity is not only harmful but disrespectful to the women who faced the brutality, especially to the women not represented in the film who, historically, were active members. Gavron claims that her team “went through [written] and photographic evidence” in order to decide who to represent in the film. However, it’s important to question why the photographs and papers were mainly white, and if they truly represented the movement (Tangcay, 2015, n.p.). The early suffragettes wanted media attention to promote their cause. The white suffragette agenda probably had a say in the framing of the camera to align more favorably with common white supremacist mainstream society. Gavron also admits Duleep Singh’s role in the movement but seems to have written her off in the film because she was an aristocrat. She must have forgotten that being an aristocrat was one of the only ways women of color had influence at this time. It’s also important to note that Pankhurst herself was much better off socioeconomically than the women Gavron wanted in the spotlight, undermining her excuse to exclude Duleep Singh. To many modern feminists, choosing to focus on working-class women with upper-class Pankhurst as a leader justifies the film’s pale demographic. The spotlight is essential and powerful, representing a group of suffragettes that have been previously excluded, but it’s a pretty thin substitution for the representation the film truly needs. Suffragette only excludes another group of women who have yet to be accurately represented in the mainstream media.
The “historical” film also overlooks the UK’s intense colonial involvement. The setting is in a British bubble, ignoring international movements and politics that extended beyond London. The women in the film are outraged, and rightfully so, about the treatment they receive in the workplace, in government, and in their homes. However, they never comment on the similar disrespect and dehumanization the British imperialists enacted on the people, especially women, of the nations they colonized. The characters in the film also fail to acknowledge that these suffragettes more than likely would have had imperialistic and supremacist attitudes. Instead the director’s modern day colorblindness swept these issues under the rug.
Suffragette created further controversy in its promotion, as the actresses Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, and Romola Garai donned t-shirts that read “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” In doing so, the actresses solidified the exclusion and insensitivity of the film, as well as bringing back the attitude the original movement had towards people of color (Abad-Santos, 2015). Pankhurst herself said this in a speech, which is also featured in the film, comparing white women’s situation and actual slavery (Sanghani, 2015). As we noted with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, this was a common pattern in the early suffragette movements. While many women did and do struggle to assert their personhood, it is not the same as slavery. Legally enforced slavery was not the women’s situation in the most powerful nation in the world at the time, and comparing the two was another way white suffragettes erased the struggles of women of color. Many black women in the US and the UK had ties to slavery, whether their parents and grandparents were subjected to it or they were themselves. As it had only been 30 years since slavery was abolished, these black women were (and are) still living in the shadow of slavery. Pankhurst reduced their experience in order to compare it to the situation of white women at the time: “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” She also implied that slavery was a choice. This ignores the intersectional experience of women of color by claiming that all women are “enslaved” by patriarchy, and racial oppression is erased. “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” was used to promote a film with the purpose of representing feminine inclusion. Meryl Streep and many others that approved of the film are indicative of the limited perspective, white privilege, and insensitivity second wave white feminists often retain from the 1960s movements.
Every historical film tries to represent a specific time period, but it’s impossible to remove a film from its roots in contemporary culture. As many human rights movements suffer a “lag” in their transition into recognition and acceptance in mainstream culture, it appears as though second wave feminism, the movement of the 1960-1990s, is finally emerging in the mainstream. The focuses of the second wave are family dynamics, sexual freedom, reproductive rights, and equal treatment in the workplace. These issues were most pertinent to upper middle-class white women. The problem is that the second wave’s exclusionary nature, which earned the nickname “white feminism,” focuses only on white, middle- to upper-class, straight, cisgender, non-sex worker women. This movie, released in 2015, reflects the movement as it was in 1925. The film’s timing and reception are also indicative of the current mindset of the mainstream feminist movement. The film avoids the problem of racism by plainly ignoring the role of women of color and eliminating their presence in feminist history. The film takes a colorblind stance by leaving out the presence of women of color so it doesn’t have to address the racism of the early suffragettes. The director's whitewashing of the cast is a literal representation of eliminating the historical women of color. This glorifies the imperialistic, racist women of the early 1900s suffragette movement. White women claim all ownership of the suffrage movement, ignoring the fight and struggles women of color suffered when walking alongside them. The film’s setting, 1900s Britain, was not a time of colorblindness but was still infected with imperialistic racism. Colorblindness is an updated kind of racism. The colorblindness the film describes is indicative of our time, not the past. As colorblindness is widespread now, the film’s colorblindness is accepted and celebrated, despite its damage.
With all films that take a political or philosophical stance, we must ask, “What message is being sent?” With historical films, we also can ask “How is glamorization keeping old ideas alive?” Second wave feminism has been “out” of progressive feminist discourse since the 1990s and was replaced by the third wave, but in the mainstream it is being kept alive. In the film, Gavron shows us the first wave movement through a second wave perspective. As the second wave is exclusive, this perspective suggests who deserved progress in the 1900s and who deserves it now. White women are shown having fought the hard fight for women everywhere, and therefore are deserving of the vote earlier than women of color as well as credit for liberation. This illusion is only encouraged by the colorblind stance of the film, censoring the racism of the movement. As Stuart Hall (1997) claims in his chapter “The Spectacle of the Other,” “naturalizations” are formed through representation in media (p. 245). Naturalization is the idea that differences of the “other” are made naturally, as opposed to situational or cultural (Hall, 1997, p. 245). In Suffragette, we see the naturalized idea that white women were the women strong enough to fight for suffrage, while absent women of color are naturalized as if they did not have a part in the movement. The film chose to highlight a part of history that was very hostile towards non-whites, and in a new era of racial tension and awareness, its colorblindness takes the side of exclusive white exceptionalism. This representation allows women of color to be simplified as helpless victims of the patriarchy, freed by the progressive white women. This is a primary concept of the second wave.
The film’s efforts to keep white feminism alive and whitewashing history is also very indicative of the white privilege of white women then and today. In a time when the UK was colonizing and exploiting thousands of people of color, though still at risk, white women were able to vocalize the inequalities they faced. Also, the fact that white women are the women represented and not women of color is a huge indicator of their current privilege. However, it could be hard to watch the violence and inequality affecting the women in the film and cry “Privilege!” especially in the face of the poverty of some of the women featured. The question of poverty and discrimination on one hand and privilege on the other is an important part of the discourse of intersectionality (Crosley-Corcoran, 2014). While being poor and working-class made the suffragettes secondary citizens, being white probably kept them from being killed in custody or deported. While the struggles of the women in the film were real and the movement important, the directors chose to take the path of simplification and ignore the reality that for suffragettes of color, the violence would have been more and the reward less.
The film uses white privilege as a means to ignore the racial situation of the setting. This is reminiscent of one of the points of Peggy McIntosh’s (1990) essay “White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack,” “I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection” (p. 1). The film, choosing a predominantly white group of women to focus on, does not have to contextualize its setting in the racist and imperialist society of the time. Being able to choose colorblindness is a white privilege that also perpetuates racism, as ignoring systematic racism is a first step of naturalizing racist ideas. At the conclusion of the film, there is a list of different countries and the year women in those countries earned suffrage. For the US, it says 1920 is the year women gained suffrage, which is only true for white women. Many American and British women of color cannot say that the white suffragettes of the early 1900s gave them the right to vote. The film’s intended audiences are white women, who will be able to celebrate a century of voting rights in 2020. The intended audience of the film was never meant to include women of color or queer women. This film reverts back to the age when white cis-gender women were the only women mainstream feminism represented, leaving no room for women of color and trans* women today in its feminist celebration. This exclusion continues the whitewashed representation of the women’s history movement and reflects the old ideology of white people being the heroes of women’s liberation history.
The film Suffragette and its director, Sarah Gavron, choose to represent a narrow aspect of the women’s suffrage movement that whitewashes the history of women’s rights and excludes women of color. Not only is the film historically inaccurate but it takes a backward stance on issues relevant to women today. The film uses colorblindness, white privilege, and naturalization of white people as the saviors of the movement to present a subplot of white exceptionalism in a film that is supposed to fall under the genre of civil rights historical fiction. Could Gavron have portrayed a more inclusive era of feminism and still made a statement? It would have been historically accurate to do so. In light of the progressive and inclusive feminist movement of today and the historical inaccuracies of the film, the film attempts to present a different reality than our reality and the reality of the early 1900s. The implications of this disconnect are exclusive to women of color and self-congratulatory for white women.
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