Oh, Suffragette. I want to like you. In fact, when I first heard about the film, I was downright ecstatic. Helena Bonham Carter, Carey Mulligan, and Meryl freaking Streep– three talented, capable women who would definitely kick ass in a surely feminist film. Those posters were enough to sell it.
The film is directed by Sarah Gavron, who is best known for directing Brick Lane (2008), a film about a Bangladeshi woman who moves to England after marriage. Gavron is reunited with Brick Lane screenwriter Abi Morgan, who also wrote screenplays for The Iron Lady and The Invisible Woman. Additionally, Morgan co-wrote Shame with director Steve McQueen (which is one of my favorite films).
[bctt tweet=”Those posters were enough to sell it.” username=”wearethetempest”]
A glance down the cast list on IMDb revealed that the only actors in the film are white, turning my hopefulness into crushing disappointment.
We’re already painfully aware that history is whitewashed, and Suffragette is falling into the same detrimental cycle. Despite what our history books may have taught us, there were suffragettes of color, they just weren’t given much attention.
This is Sophia Duleep Singh, the daughter of the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire and a vocal suffragette in the UK. She held a leading role in the Women’s Tax Resistance League and participated in several other women’s rights groups such as the Women’s Social and Political Union.
[bctt tweet=”Nowhere in the film is there a South Asian face.” username=”wearethetempest”]
Singh’s father abdicated the Sikh Empire to the British, forcing Sophia and her family to move to the UK, where the daughters were made into Edwardian ladies, attending debutante balls and cotillions. However, Sophia secretly maintained contact with the leaders of the Indian nationalist movement, and is credited as one of the leading South Asian-British feminists.
In fact, here’s a whole slew of South Asian women in the UK participating in a massive march demanding equal voting rights.
The population of South Asians in the UK at the time was significant, and these women were just as active in the fight for equal voting rights. Nowhere in the film is there a South Asian face.
This is Ida B. Wells, an American sociologist and suffragette who took her frustrations with Americans to Europe, including two well-documented trips to the UK. Wells was successful in rallying the British against violent lynchings in the United States, pushing the U.S. government to secure protection for black Americans in the South, sparking this controversy around the same time British suffragettes were rallying for voting rights. Wells’ domineering presence in the U.K. at the time is a significant detail in the timeline of U.K. suffrage– completely omitted from the film.
[bctt tweet=”It poses a difficult feminist catch-22.” username=”wearethetempest”]
White suffragettes were certainly not intersectional, but that doesn’t mean that suffragettes of color didn’t exist. White women were granted the right to vote in 1920, but women of color didn’t get the vote until the late 1960s. As a Pakistani woman, this erasure of South Asian women from a film that is lauded as a feminist powerhouse is insulting. Including women of color is not optional. We are not a footnote in history.
Of course, this doesn’t mean white suffragettes are undeserving of our respect or of depiction in media. Suffragettes (regardless of race) were courageous and strong-willed, and made important strides towards equality that are entitled to recognition. But let us not forget– if it ain’t intersectional, it’s bullshit.
From a filmmaker’s perspective, this is lazy storytelling. It’s a historical drama– for the most part, we already know how the story will end. Why not make it more interesting by depicting conflict and characters that we don’t hear about as often? The filmmakers were perhaps wary of depicting these female heroes in any sort of negative light; an understandable concern, as female-led films are often used to gauge the success of all female-led films, so female filmmakers tend to tread lightly. Scrubbing history clean of the uglier parts, however, is not the proper way to handle it. Female characters are allowed to be complex. Female characters are allowed to be antiheroes. Female characters are allowed to be (and should be) multifaceted, rather than boxed into heroines, love interests, or villains.
[bctt tweet=”Female characters are allowed to be complex. Female characters are allowed to be antiheroes. “]
This somewhat dubious portrayal of a crucial moment in women’s history coupled with the film’s lukewarm reception makes me further disinterested in seeing it– but I still intend to. Suffragette is a film that is written, directed, and produced by women, something that is still (unfortunately) incredibly rare in the film industry. Even with box office sensations such as Mad Mad: Fury Road and Pitch Perfect that feature a largely-female cast and crew, women are still fighting to prove that they can pull an audience. It poses a difficult feminist catch-22; I only hope that some Hollywood executive greenlights a Sophia Duleep Singh biopic while we’re all discussing the feminism of Suffragette.