The world of cinema has always been, and still is, dominated by men, who represent an overwhelming majority of film creatives and critics. Nevertheless, men were the minority at the screening of Suffragette organised by the Bechdel Test Fest. Even though the film was made by and for women, the absence of the feminist man is worrying.
Words: Alina Kay, Subeditor: Lauren Burgess
The sold-out screening of the film on the 23rd of October was followed up with a Q&A with Natalie Press – the BAFTA nominated actress who plays the renowned martyr Emily Wilding Davison, Faye Ward – the producer, Helen Pankhurst – the great-granddaughter of the infamous suffragette and Sophie Mayer – a respected feminist film critic and university lecturer.
The film about the struggle for women’s suffrage in Britain – a story told 100 years after the actual events occurred – centres on Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a fictional character that was based on entries from several suffragettes’ diaries. Ward’s explained how Maud is meant to represent a “foot-soldier” and “breaks the mould of Suffragettes”. She is a working-class mother, who joins the movement and becomes one of the leading figures, having to sacrifice her family and job at a laundrette in Bethnal Green. The character is meant to replace the funny and light-hearted image of Mary Poppins, so deeply ingrained into our society.
Director Sara Gavron’s choice to focus on a fictitious figure undermines the importance of the actual women who led the movement. As pointed out by the inevitable advocate for women’s rights Helen Pankhurst, the film fails to give a comprehensive portrayal of Emmeline (Meryl Streep) and her daughters Sylvia and Christabel. It also, quite understandably, succumbs to areal and timely limitations, focusing on a specific year in the fight for suffrage and a two square mile radius in east London.
“We are taught from the male perspective in history”, remarks Ward when asked about the conception of Suffragette; history lessons are dominated by men fighting for land, leaving no space for even the most important female narratives. Since these aren’t taught in schools, entertainment becomes the way to educate new generations of not only young post-feminist women, but also men.
This is exactly why the lack of men watching and supporting the film is worrying. And so is the fact that some male actors rejected roles in Suffragette because they ‘weren’t meaty enough’.
Equally frustrating is the fact that the film is the first attempt to bring some of the history of the Suffragette movement to the big screen since mini-series Shoulder to Shoulder in 1974. But since the amount of women in the film industry is few, this fact isn’t surprising.
The ratio of female to male characters in family-rated film is one to four and just 17% of crowds and extras on screen are women, a figure that has remained static since 1946, according to Geena Davis’ Institute on Gender in Media. And as Ward rightfully points out, these figures continue in male-dominated industries in real life. Women tend to occupy most of the care-taking positions. Film reflects reality and reality is reflected in film. This is why empowering role models are crucial to change in society.
Sophie Mayer suggests that the reason why this film hit such high box office numbers is because of the surge in ordinary people getting involved in protests in the recent years. Women in this country have been subject to various austerity measures since the banking crisis, and are now “hungry for change and ready for this film”.
The Bechdel Test Fest is a festival headed by Corrina Antrobus that celebrates films that pass the Bechdel Test. Corrina and the team organise events to raise awareness about sexism in the film industry, and to celebrate authentic portrayal of women in the cinema: “with the Bechdel Test Fest I aim to highlight films that portray women in a positive, honest and dynamic light. We aim to prove that the complexities of women go beyond simply being somebody’s wife, mother or sexual aid and we want to hail the films that contradict what so many Hollywood films would lead you to believe about female experiences. We want better representation for all intersectional groups in cinema and we celebrate the brilliant films and the people who make them through screenings, discussions and editorial on our site and social.”
Despite the lack of historical figures and context, Suffragette ticked all other boxes: from cinematography to passing the Bechdel Test with an ‘A’ by telling the story from the female perspective as well as being made by an (almost) all-female crew.
The good: acting, cinematography, set design and costumes
The bad: storyline, lack of pace/urgency