Focus Features

The marketing materials for Suffragette have included not just a series of unfortunate t-shirts, but also a series of Banksy-esque posters. One of them, set against a hot-pink background, features a smart phone thrust into the air by a hand that, judging by the hot-pink nail polish that decorates it, belongs to a woman.  

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Another relies solely on text to make its point. “DO SOMETHING / CHANGE SOMETHING / FIGHTSNOTOVER.COM,” it reads, a tad confusingly.

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They go on in this way: “FIND YOUR VOICE.” “DEEDS NOT WORDS.” “NEVER GIVE UP.” And then, in the end: “THIS IS YOUR MOVEMENT!” they all insist, reassuringly and aggressively at the same time. “POST THIS AND TAG 3 WOMEN WHO NEED TO SEE THIS MOVIE,” they continue, apparently lacking the picas for a polite little “PLEASE.”

The posters make clear what Suffragette is trying to be: a movie that is not just about a specific thing—votes for women in Britain, long fought for and finally won in 1928—but about, instead, very broad things. Equality. Justice. Feminism. (Or, if you’re Meryl Streep, humanism?) And also, more literally, about very broad things. Suffragette is, the marketing makes clear, a chick flick. It is a movie that is for the most part, of, by, and for the ladies. The marketing here doesn’t even try to appeal to men—or, for that matter, to anyone who wouldn’t be roused by a bland encouragement to “FIND YOUR VOICE.”

Suffragette is also, in all that, extremely optimistic about the role movies can play in bending the arc of history. The campaign, with its faux-graffitied images and its fortune cookie-esque messaging, reveals basically nothing about the movie itself—its story, its stars, its quality as an artistic product. The focus here is, instead, on the viewers. And, more specifically, on the act of viewership. The campaign is treating the simple, traditionally passive act of watching a movie as a political act unto itself. There are women, apparently, who NEED TO SEE THIS MOVIE.

While that may be a canny marketing trick, this message of the morality of movie-ing is, it’s worth noting, ridiculously at odds with the movie itself. The story of Suffragette—partially fictionalized, for purposes of narrative convenience—focuses on working-class women who sacrificed the few comforts they had (and in some cases their families, and in some cases their freedom, and in some cases their lives) for purposes of, in poster parlance, actually CHANGING SOMETHING. As the critic A.O. Scott puts it, “One of the ways Suffragette escapes the traps of its genre is to focus not on the leadership but on the rank and file, on an ordinary woman whose life is changed by political engagement.”

It’s true. The point here is the very commonality of the women in question: the fact that, perhaps—had I lived in a different time, or a different place, or a different circumstance—I might have become one of them. Maybe you might have, too.

And so: Suffragette is satisfyingly small in scope, a human-scale story of epic change. And that allows it to, among other things, portray with depth and respect the deliberative aspects of progress itself. Suffragette, ultimately, is the story of the hard work that is required to bring about political change. And that’s refreshing and productive. There’s a pernicious view in the culture right now—perpetrated not just by the denizens of Silicon Valley, but by a general, corporate-influenced obsession with “innovation”—that progress itself, the forward march of history, can fairly be taken for granted. The spate of shows that revel in the ironies of time’s trajectory—Mad Men and the like—help to solidify that view. They endow “the future” not just with the sheen of inevitability, but with the promise of inevitable improvement. So: Progress being what it is, we will get healthier. We will get smarter. We will get more respectful toward each other. We will stop smoking at the doctor’s office.

Suffragette fights against that assumption. It reveals the often painful physicalities of progress; in fact, it revels in them. For one thing, it is so lush in its production that you can almost smell the sweat that lingers in the air of London’s factories and city streets. More importantly, though, the movie emphasizes the many arguments that the suffragettes had over the best ways to bring about the change they’re fighting for. (Was violence the best strategy? Passive resistance? Better PR?) And, perhaps most importantly: It suggests, in the end, that only some of these methods would have successfully altered the status quo. The suffragettes could have, ultimately, failed. Progress’s march could have easily been halted, because it takes a combination of extremely good luck and extremely hard work to change the course of history.

Which is why the marketing campaign surrounding Suffragette—one premised on the self-satisfactions of slacktivism—is so frustrating. They belie some of the best aspects of the movie they’re meant to advertise. “THIS IS YOUR MOVEMENT,” they shout, without clarifying what the “this” might entail. And they suggest that, whatever the movement may be, it can be moved forward through air-thrust smartphones and the posting of images on one’s Facebook page. The best thing about Suffragette is its insistence that political change requires struggle and sacrifice. (As Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) puts it during her brief appearance in the movie, “Now we have realized that deeds and sacrifice must be the order of the day.”) The worst thing about it is the way it is being presented to the public: with an implication that political change, contra the lessons of the movie and of history itself, can be won with the click of a button.

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