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'Suffragette': How Many Firsts For Women in Film Can One Movie Achieve?

By Alice Lytton | /Bent March 8, 2014 at 2:47PM

As has recently been reported (and much to /bent's delight) Meryl Streep has accepted the role of Emmeline Pankhurst in upcoming film "Suffragette", written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron. Pause for a clap and then think back to the last time this topic was taken on.... Silence? Well, quite.
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As has recently been reported (and much to /bent's delight) Meryl Streep has accepted the role of Emmeline Pankhurst in upcoming film "Suffragette", written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron. Pause for a clap and then think back to the last time this topic was taken on.... Silence? Well, quite. "Suffragette" is the first feature film to address the British voting rights movement, despite the deep cinematic potential of that story. Can "Mary Poppins" (1964) really be the only other film to include any notable storyline concerning those activists? The alternative is "Kind Hearts and Coronets" (1949), which I love, but surely Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne struck from the sky doesn't exhaust the representation this vital, inspiring movement deserves? 

Now the news has come in that "Suffragette" will be the first film in history to be allowed to shoot in the Houses of Parliament. Most outlets reporting this story have commented that this is notable for its novelty, and for the gravitas it will lend the film (all other cinematic shots inside those buildings have been reconstructions). But the importance of this move, of finally letting the suffragettes "in" to parliament, goes far further than this. The Houses of Parliament - the iconic buildings themselves - played a crucial role in the history of the battle for suffrage. As the visible symbol of the British state's power, and the situated place where governors of all stripes refused to pass reforming legislation, they became the focal point for much direct action. Women chained themselves to the railings around the Palace of Westminster, to statues inside St Stephens Hall, and they gathered in the gallery to heckle reactionary Members of Parliament. Protests assembled in the square outside and in 1908 Pankhurst herself (Streep's character) led a rush on the House of Commons to demand attention for the cause. Another two decades would pass before women received the vote. Emmeline Pankhurst did not live to see what they had all collectively achieved. 

Filming in Parliament, then, is another way in which "Suffragette" represents an exciting first for women in film. It is as much a first for those being represented as it is for the representatives themselves. The institution that for so long forced them out is inviting them back in. Indeed, there is something haunting and poignant about the prospect of a return for Pankhurst et al to the actual site of their adversity; not a recreated set in Pinewood but the very stones those women trod whilst transforming the world into the one that lets me run for office should I choose. They were kept out for too long, just as their story has been kept from the cinematic canon.

It matters, too, in this, that Meryl Streep herself is an avowed feminist. We can hope, perhaps even expect, that the film will prompt conversations often side-lined or ignored about the continued need, internationally, for a women's rights movement. Whereas "The Iron Lady" (another collaboration with Morgan) was a film in which Streep's feminism had to be downplayed in order to make a monster human, in this it can be a platform for debate. The politics of "Suffragette" are not stuck in the early 1900s. Filmmaking and screenwriting needs feminism - especially intersectional feminism - as much as most other sectors, more so perhaps. In today's cinematic climate, just making the film is a political statement. Cate Blanchett used her Best Actress acceptance speech at the Oscars to address those "in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences". As she pointed out "They are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money." But this is a lesson that will be hard learned whilst systematic prejudice still reigns. 

With these significant firsts already under its belt, and with an ignored story just itching to be told, "Sufragette" has the potential to be one of the most important films in decades. If it pulls it off it could add to its list another significant first: will 2016 be the year a female screenwriter and a female director beat the statistics and pull a double at the Oscars? For a film that has achieved so much before it has even wrapped it doesn't seem too bold to hope that it might continue on this already stellar trajectory.

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