The first I heard of Suffragette was reading an anti-review condemning it for white washing. So I dismissed it (I’m quick to dismiss. It’s a fault).
Then I read an article in the weekend paper discussing Suffragette. The issue of racial diversity in the film (or lack thereof) was implicitly referenced:
“No single film can be expected to tell the whole story. It is very easy, in fact, to blame Suffragette for everything it is not, simply because you want it to fill a century of cinematic silence. Gavron and Morgan have made a bold decision not to try”
– Stephanie Bunbury
This is a valid point. When there are dozens of historical films about a time in history, for example the second world war, the film-makers can afford to put their own slant on it. The Reader is about the perspective of a female Nazi worker and how her role was determined by circumstance as well as choice. The Book Thief sees the Nazi movement and the mistreatment of Jewish people from the perspective of a child with a politically conflicted foster father. These are nuanced perspectives. And that’s just the German perspective. Like the second world war, women’s suffrage happened all over the world.
The way films work is that they must have a fairly narrow focus, or the content gets muddled and lost. Even for all the criticism of what was left out, Suffragette squeezes a fair bit in, canvassing the lack of rights women had over their own children, the ultimate power and authority of husbands, the suffering of working class women in terms of the pay gap and also sexual abuse, and the class gap between fellow suffragettes.
However, what the writer in the original article was criticising in the film was a complete whitewashing. In 1912, there weren’t as many people of colour on the streets of London as there are now, but the population was not 100% white. Also, there were women of colour who played significant parts in the British suffragette movement, such as the Indian Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, but no historical women of colour were even given a bit part in the film.
What Suffragette is missing is more intersectionality. Intersectional feminism is a form of feminism, popularised relatively recently, that acknowledges the intersections of oppression and power. The film sheds light on the intersection of class and gender by showing the relative class privilege of fellow suffragettes: the main character, a laundry worker, is compared to an educated apothecary, and a woman married to an MP is even more privileged than all the others. But the struggles a woman of colour might have had in the suffrage movement are not explored.
Historically, feminism has been a movement that privileges the voices of middle-class to upper-middle-class white women and silences the experiences of lower-class women and women of colour. This occurred in the British suffrage movement as well as many other feminist revolutions. It was especially bad in the American suffrage movement, where the main suffrage associations recognised that their cause would gain less favour among white women as well as white men if black women were included, so deliberately marginalised them.
At the end of Suffragette, a list of the years in which women got the vote in various countries rolled before the credits. The US was marked as 1920. (TW: violence) But in reality, up until the 1960s, in various states in the US, African-American women faced deliberate disenfranchisement tactics to stop them from voting, from having to sit a test, to being forced to wait in line for 12 hours, to bodily harm and fabricated criminal charges (1)(end TW). And here in Australia, Aboriginal women were not able to vote until 1967, when they were recognised as citizens, along with Aboriginal men.
It seems that the whitewashing of Suffragette reflects a similar concern: the idea that feminism is hard enough to swallow, so we can’t challenge racism at the same time. Whether this was intentional on the part of the film-makers I cannot say. Given the fact that the film industry is notoriously conservative in regards to issues of gender, the film-makers of Suffragette would have had to fight hard to get it through even as it is. I strongly suspect that if they had tried to make it more intersectional, or even to put in one or two characters (or even extras!) who were not white, then it wouldn’t have been backed to be a box office hit.
Feminism may have taken on intersectionality to some extent, but like the film industry, society is still also very conservative. Society, even as it progresses, seems to only be able to handle chipping off one privilege at a time. Issues of gender are written about in the newspaper with increasing regularity, but almost always by middle to upper-middle class white women about issues that are relevant to their demographic. It seems that the gate-keepers can let through a white feminist writer, but an Aboriginal feminist or other feminist of colour, writing about issues relevant to their demographic? Forget about it.
In light of all this, I think it is fair to call out Suffragette for being completely white-washed. The streets of London were not 100% white, and nor was the Suffrage movement. It is certainly not good enough that a film has to be white-washed to put forth a feminist message. However, despite this, I still want to celebrate the fact that a there was a blockbuster film made about a feminist movement. I hope the next suffragette movie addresses issues of race.