Dir. Nigel Cole
By Callum Hughes
What came first, political or social sexism? Do we live under a patriarchal society because of the capitalist system or is it a sexist system because of the influence of wider society? There is only one film I can claim to have seen that asks this question; the excellent Made In Dagenham. A feel good British comedy drama that is rarely subtle but often profoundly moving and gives a populist but never compromising face to the feminist movement.
That face comes in the form of Sally Hawkins, for my money one of the most underrated actors currently working in film and television, playing Rita; a working class mother, she’s not overtly political but she speaks her mind. For me what makes Hawkins’ performance such a powerhouse is that Rita is obviously influenced by her emotions; her frustration at the sexism she faces is often at the forefront but she rarely lets her emotions cloud her judgement. It is easy to relate to the experience of being belittled like Rita is and the anger and humiliation that drives her. There’s an excellent scene early in the film where Rita gives a teacher a very justified piece of her mind for hitting her son, only to be left speechless by his patronising dismissal of her. Rita’s uncontrollable anger, resulting in her telling her boss’ wife to fuck off, is entirely understandable as is how one things leads to another and the eventual strike she leads, not only for better pay but equal pay. It might seem like a simple concept but the film’s power comes in showing how quietly revolutionary these women were.
In this sense the film could be seen to be as much about socialism as it is about feminism; it makes clear that the Ford Workers Union represent working men but not working women, clearly seeing women’s rights as a separate issue. Yet, the film suggests the two can and should go hand in hand, pointing out that Marx only believed true equality and power to the workers could be achieved if women were equal. The film addresses intelligent issues then, but never in a way that is dry or preachy, ultimately this remains Rita’s story; her feminist and socialist principles included.
There’s a flaw and strength with the film in the representation of male allies. The sneaky, undermining character of Monty is beautifully put down by Rita and the other workers but there’s something faintly uncomfortable about the character of Albert who first gives Rita the idea to fight for equal pay, encouraging her a bit like you might encourage a puppy to pee in the garden. Of course this may be an accurate depiction of how the events actually transpired, but it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed by the way the clearly intelligent and capable Rita is prodded along by these somewhat patronising old white men, the very class of people they are ultimately rebelling against. When it gets it right though the film soars. There’s a great moment where Rita’s husband tells her she should give him a break for never hitting her and basically being a good guy; “Jesus Eddie,” she replies “that’s how it should be”. Her anger and emotion is once again at the forefront but always as a benefit to her character; “Rights not privileges.” She tells him, “It’s that easy. It really blood is.”
Fortunately, the film’s best moments are saved for the people that really matter. Lisa, played by Rosamund Pike is one of the most interesting characters, even if she is a little under explored, and she’s given one of the film’s best scenes. Originally she helps Rita with the campaign against their children’s awful teacher but more of her character is revealed as the story progresses; she is the boss’ wife but she is entirely on Rita’s side; “I’m Lisa Burnett, I’m 31 years old and I have a first class honours degree from one of the finest universities in the world, and my husband treats me like I’m a fool”. Some might dispute her character, pondering the fact that a middle class woman has to be included in what would appear to be a story about working class rights, but what her character shows is how sexism affects all women and that Rita and her co-workers were fighting for all of them.
Which is why this is still Rita’s story and the story of the women around her. At heart this is an underdog story, as basic as you can get, fighting the corporate machine. Some might not see Rita and her friends as feminists, it’s perhaps a flaw of the film that the word is never openly used, but it’s exactly what they are; knocked down by men, capitalism and the status quo. Rita sees how unfair the world is, like she sees a dark cloud that no one else sees. It is her and the machinists that changed the world for the better, not the unions or the government they finally influenced. That’s what makes Rita in particular such an uncompromising, relatable and inspiring character, she is a human being who believes all human beings should be equal. I can think of no better face for feminism than that.
Callum is a screenwriter and essayist who studied film at the University of East Anglia. He is the editor of the Feminist Film Blog.