IT WAS a joy to behold women from the protest group Sisters Uncut causing havoc at the London premiere of the movie Suffragette last week. Their gesture of defiance might not have been as dramatic as chaining themselves to railings or throwing themselves in front of the king’s horse, but it brought a bit of gritty reality to what could otherwise have been a superficial exercise in Hollywood self-love, and served as a reminder that there are still many battles to be fought by the latter-day bearers of the suffragettes’ torch.
The die-in – which involved setting off purple smoke bombs before lying down on the red carpet – was aimed at drawing attention to domestic violence and the number of women killed every day by their partners. But similarly disruptive campaigns on FGM, equal pay, Page 3 or under-representation on the boards of FTSE 100 companies would all have been equally fitting tributes to the radical women who risked their lives for our votes.
A less appropriate response to a movie honouring the achievements of the suffragette movement was Meryl Streep’s attempt to distance herself from modern-day feminism. During interviews to promote it, she said “I am a humanist, I am for nice, easy balance” and claimed many young women felt feminism “alienated” them from people they love. This seems an odd stance for an actor who has played strong women all her life and who, rightly, rails against the fact her male co-stars earn more than she does. It makes you wonder if she is labouring under the illusion that the suffragettes’ campaign of civil disobedience won them universal affection as opposed to turning them into social pariahs. Or that their victories came at no personal sacrifice.
Yet Streep is far from the only one. Right now, rejecting feminism appears to be the hot Hollywood trend. Marion Cotillard – currently winning great acclaim for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth – has said there is no place in film for feminism because “sometimes in the word, there’s too much separation”. And not so very long ago, Susan Sarandon – a hero to so many women for her work on human rights and reproductive issues – branded feminism an “old-fashioned word”, used to minimise women.
These powerful figures insist they have not jettisoned equality as their goal; rather they are rebelling against the label and the growing stridency of some of the debate. But their rejection of the word – and therefore the movement – is a cop-out and a betrayal of other women: and here’s why. If the word “feminism” has become stigmatised then it has happened mostly at the hands of men who want to de-legitimise it and prevent the battle from being won. It is men (albeit a minority) who portray the most vocal campaigners as “harridans”, men who penalise women for speaking out, so abandoning it is an acceptance of their narrative and a capitulation to their agenda. You can see this when Streep makes a point of mentioning that she is married and has a son. “I love men,” she goes on. But why is she saying this and to whom? Feminists don’t see other feminists as man-haters. By suggesting they might be, Streep is buying into someone else’s propaganda.
Perhaps it suits these actors to renege on once firmly held beliefs because identifying as a feminist in a sexist profession places you out on a limb; how much easier to utter platitudes about feminism being divisive than to speak out.
As for the internecine fighting, well, I can see that’s off-putting; while there’s nothing wrong with fierce debates on intersectionalism and trans rights, abusing and no-platforming those you disagree with is counterproductive. Still, the answer is to call out offenders, not abandon the cause. In an industry where women can be turned away from Cannes for not wearing high heels and the number of female directors to have won an Oscar can be counted on one finger, it’s important not to lose sight of your common goal.
Compare the mealy-mouthed fence-straddling of Streep et al to the guts of those who wear their feminism with pride. There’s the gloriously outspoken Maggie Gyllenhaal who told how she was turned down for a role because at 37 she was considered too old to play the love interest of a 55-year-old man; Emma Watson with her #HeForShe campaign, not to mention the fabulously forthright Helen Mirren who recently branded ageism and sexism in the film industry “f***ing outrageous”. And what about Rose McGowan who was fired by her agent for tweeting about a casting call for a female role in an Adam Sandler movie which asked those auditioning to wear a “form-fitting tank top that shows off cleavage”?
Better still, compare the Hollywood apostates to the leaders of the SNP and Scottish Labour: Did Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale ask themselves whether their feminism would “alienate” them from people they love – or the voters – before they signed up to the Women 50:50 campaign for equal representation in parliament?
Last week, at the Women in the World conference, the UK’s youngest MP Mhairi Black talked about the boys’ club atmosphere of Westminster, while Sturgeon reiterated her belief that quotas are necessary to speed up the pace of change. Asked by the Glasgow Guardian if she would call herself a feminist, she didn’t witter on about how she was married and loved men, she answered simply: “Yes.” You can’t imagine Black or Dugdale or Sturgeon shying away from a word because others have tried to sabotage it or settling for a “nice, easy balance”. It is women like them, who own their feminism, that set the world alight and are the rightful heirs to the suffragette spirit. «