Imaginative narratives of protest
The motion picture Suffragette, about the campaign of civil disobedience waged by British women in the early 20th century to win the right to vote, has finally premiered here in Sweden. It connects with several themes covered in Media and Politics in a Globalizing World.
Obviously, it is a new example of the sort of media text itemised in the chapter entitled ‘Infotainment’, which deals, among other things, with how political issues and actors are portrayed in drama – be it on the big or the small screen. And it illustrates tensions and challenges discussed in the chapter on activists and the media. But it is also a powerful dramatisation of how political elites in a particular temporal and cultural setting – namely, England in the years leading up to the First World War – sought to control ‘difficult publics’ and information flows.
The film brings us to a point in the struggle for votes for women where activists grow militant, after decades of peaceful protest and petitioning have gotten them nowhere. A branch of the suffragette movement decides to use the tactics employed by Irish nationalists seeking independence from the United Kingdom, and begins to smash shop windows, bomb government property (in the form of red letterboxes) and even blow up the country manor house of a leading government member, primarily to draw public attention to their cause. The political elites maintain steady pressure on the media to tone down and even ignore the actions of the women and deny them what someone who was to benefit from the risks they took – Margaret Thatcher, who later became prime minister – would one day call the ‘oxygen of publicity’. The film ends with what is portrayed as an act of martyrdom, when Emily Davison throws herself in front of the king’s horse at Epson Derby because the presence of both the king, the press, and the newsreel cameras will, she reckons, mean the women’s actions can no longer be ignored.
In this, the movie also speaks to the themes explored in the chapter entitled ‘Mediatization’, not just because the protests seem not to exist without being reported in the media, but also because the ‘popular culture’ version blends, at the end, with the real newsreel footage of Davison’s death and of the suffragette march that followed her hearse – a manifestation that finally caught the attention of the world. As the images fade, a list of countries and dates rolls across the screen, putting the struggle of the British women in a global context by itemising which countries gave women the vote, in which year. (At the screening I attended in Stockholm, moviegoers gasped as they realised how late the law change came in a number of states otherwise thought to be civilised.) The list ends with 2015 – the year Saudi Arabia promised to consider giving women the vote – and the take-home message that ‘The Time is Now’. This is a good example of what the sociologist and media theorist John Thompson (whose book The Media and Modernity is discussed in Part One of Media and Politics in a Globalizing World) called ‘mediated historicity’.
An analysis of the film would be a good research topic. Anyone thinking of attempting one should pay attention to how space is structured in the film – how the protagonist is shut out of the private realm when she starts to attend rallies, coming home to find her husband has locked the door and forced her onto the street. The world of politics – the parliament buildings – is of course depicted as an exclusively male space. More interesting is the depiction of the public space outside it, where the women gather to raise their voices. It is not a ‘common’ space, as often represented in political writings, but a policed space and, at one point, a space of violence and repression. Something to think about is how this compares with the ‘common’ public spaces in other cities and countries, where protesters gather in our own times to call for democratic reform.
Top picture: protesters calling for an end to single-sex voting rights gather in front of the British parliament in a scene from the Suffragette trailer below.
The newsreel that caught the death of Emily Davison at Epson Derby.
The funeral procession that was also a demonstration for female suffrage.