Feminism in Film, 2015: Suffragette + The Intern

In 2015, two movies came out a month apart. Both were directed and written by women with strong feminist under (and over) tones. The first was The Intern, a comedy about a business woman and her new intern. The second was Suffragette, a British historical period drama, chronicling the early 20th century Suffragette movement. They are wildly different in tone and story, but both have significant correlating themes and messages.

Suffragette

suffragette

Directed by Sarah Gavron, Written by Abi Morgan

Suffragette is a story about a moral and political movement, told through the eyes of (fictional) Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a working class woman with a husband and son. Maud is slowly brought into the Suffragette movement, eventually giving up everything to be a footsoldier for the cause. Through the movie, she meets fictional (but inspired by real women) Edith Ellen (Helen Bonham Carter) and real-life figure Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep). Streep is only in the movie for two minutes, but her moral authority is significant; if Meryl Streep told me to go burn down a governor’s house, I would probably do it, too.

Suffragette is a beautifully crafted film. There is plenty of heart and earnestness in it. All the actors are wonderful. Carey Mulligan shines through as Maud. Her expressions say everything, and she has a powerful arc of fear to bravery. She never loses her humanity though, or her grip on the audience.

The only thing that is a drawback to this kind of approach of telling such a big movement through one person is that the scope is small. We don’t know anything about what other suffragettes are doing. We don’t know what causes Edith, or Emmeline Pankhurst, to join. We don’t see the beginnings or ends of the cause. It is also exclusive to working-class white women of the time, when in reality there were all sorts of women in England and all over the world fighting for the right to vote.

But as it worked in 2014’s Selma, having a narrow focus allows for more emotional connection. There were plenty of painful moments in the film, and seeing it through one person’s eyes made it even harder to watch.

I also want to appreciate how the movie didn’t villainize too many people. Yes, there were a couple of men in and out of the government who were actively against the women in the Suffragette movement. But those men made points that they were just following the law. They had been taught their whole lives that women were inferior. They didn’t know anything different. Many women felt that way too, that to be a suffragette meant not being a “good woman.” That just points to the greater enemy- systemic sexism and conditioning. Any film that is able to get to the heart of an issue, while still showing the complexities of the situation, is a fine one indeed. It’s more than just a good movie, it’s a painfully relevant one, and that makes it important.

The Intern

The-Intern

Written, Directed, and Co-Produced by Nancy Meyers

Ben Whittaker is a great guy. He’s well off. Competent. Loyal to a fault. Thoughtful and nurturing.

Jules Ostin is a bright young entrepreneur. She owns a fast-growing e-commerce clothing store. She’s creative and smart, and has enormous potential.

One day, Ben and Jules meet. They form a special bond, and soon realize they are just what the other needs.

Because Ben is a 70 year old retired widower who wants to intern for Jules, and Jules is struggling with her marriage and work and needs a confidant and friend. Oh, you thought this was a romantic comedy?

The Intern is a polished, sweet, aesthetically beautiful movie about life, business, and friendship. Anne Hathaway as Jules and Robert De Niro as Ben are both extremely likable and well-cast, with natural chemistry. The movie has nice messages about the importance of every generation, what they bring to the table and what they can learn. While there are some jokes about Ben’s technology skills, and the frivolity of youth, everyone ends up being well-respected by the end.

Nancy Meyers injects some interesting observations into the film. (Disclaimer: I haven’t seen any other Nancy Meyers movies, so I can’t compare the views shown in this movie to her other ones.) At one point in the film Jules observes that “girls have become women, and men have become boys,” pointing out the difference between Ben and her male colleagues. Long lost are the days of gentlemen.

This is an interesting view on how modern feminism has brought down men. Her husband is a stay-at-home dad, and (spoiler alert), is found to be having an affair. The movie never excuses this behavior, but it raises the question of, does this have anything to do with Jules’ absence and him not feeling like he’s living up to what it means to “be a man”?

I personally think that these are both worthwhile things to muse on, because modern feminism has gained a reputation for degrading men’s accomplishments in order to favor women’s, instead of simply shining an equal spotlight on both. Yet in the same movie, there are some contradictions. At one point, Ben tells a younger man to always carry a handkerchief for when women cry, (which at least two women do). Ben says, “I hate to be the feminist here,” which will rub some people the wrong way as a form of mansplaining. And the fact that Jules, while earnest, still totes a lot of the “overworked business woman” cliches is unnecessary.

It’s these, and a few other more spoilery things, that give me pause on The Intern. It has the right overall idea, but there are things here and there interjected into the movie that seem contradictory, or at least questionable. But on the other hand, our world is just as confused about feminism as this movie is, and if it’s supposed to be portraying real life, then I guess it is successful. But this has a whole lot of shine and convenience for a realistic movie.

Now I would like to draw some comparisons between these two 2015 Fall releases. Suffragette is about the beginning of feminism, and The Intern is about how we use it today. The Intern has some conflicting ideas about feminism, reflecting on the push and pull of the modern movement. Suffragette shows that at no point in time were these issues easy, or these rights achieved without compromise. Some women in the suffragette movement did some terrible things. Maybe for a good cause, but does that justify it?

For those who are uncomfortable with feminism, especially being labeled as a feminist, I am completely sympathetic. Modern feminism is associated with some unfortunate things (just like any broad movement), and is often most viewed through the voices of radical feminists. I understand not wanting to be associated with those things. But the idea that men and women are equal is what needs to be told through our media, even if it’s not under the umbrella of being called “feminist.”

That’s why it is important to evaluate these kinds of movies. Just because a movie has a “strong female character,” is about women, is directed by a woman, doesn’t mean it’s feminist. A movie that isn’t directed or “starring” a woman isn’t necessarily not feminist (i.e, Mad Max: Fury Road). We have to evaluate a movie on its art and message. It’s difficult to have these conversations. It’s tiring and frustrating, especially in this age of social media. But it is more important to have these conversations than to not. How else are we supposed to get anywhere? How are we supposed to get to a point where we don’t have to evaluate a movie based on its gender politics, Bechdel Test results, or the gender of the people behind the camera without starting the movement towards that? A place where movies don’t have to carry an agenda. But for now, we have to, and I applaud movies like these that take up the challenge of being conversation starters.

-Madeleine D

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