Monday 18 October 2010

Icons and History: Made in Dagenham

You know something must be historically significant when there’s a film made about it, right?! But what is more difficult (and especially mind blowing for historians) is to tease out whether a film produced about a historical event has anything to say about History. (For example, Braveheart had revealed a lot about Scottish tourism but not a lot about anything historians had ever written!)
As a historian of the womanly persuasion I, of course, went to see Made in Dagenham. A film set in 1968 about a group of female machinists at Ford, who went out on strike in a campaign for equal pay. I liked it, and I’ll tell you why -not as a film critic (I am an awful film critic- exemplified in the fact that I am the only person in the world who likes Sophia Copolla’s Marie Antoinette) but as someone interested in women’s participation in society and pop culture past and present.
...As an aside, the reviews I read of this film made wide use of the word “perky”. I may be a radical sceptic, but I feel this has something to do with the fact that the major roles were played by women and film critics are predominantly male. The four lead characters were generally not involved in ‘steamy’ sex scenes, and so said critics appeared to be at a loss to describe them and the film as anything other than “perky”...tells us something about the persistence of gender stereotypes in the film industry?
Anyways, despite the critics’ lacklustre reactions, I thought this film failry tactfully referenced the major points of present-day interest in the ‘sixties’ –access to grammar school education and opposition to corporal punishment in school, life on post-war housing estates, furnishing flats ‘on tick’, debates on the virtues of Biba over Mary Quant and, of course, the myriad of issues surrounding women in paid employment. Being a film, the story of ‘what happened’ during the women’s industrial action at Dagenham was not what you’d find in published histories. It did also contain some pretty shoddy representations of contemporary politicians and trade unionists, but it wasn’t a film about them.
It was a film about working women. The working conditions in the factory, the juggling of paid work with housework, the derision women faced for defying the economic dominance of ‘male breadwinner’ all came though. Perhaps one of the most valuable aspects to the film is how the women’s actions at work challenge their relationships with their husbands at home. In one particular scene, Rita’s husband challenges her continuing participation in the strike action. He argues he is a good husband, helps out with the kids, doesn’t drink or sleep around, and doesn’t beat her. Rita (the hero-leader of the striking women) replies that that’s how things should be, that not getting beaten-up shouldn’t be a privilege.
Since seeing the film I’ve been asking myself: how would this film have looked if it had been made in the ‘sixties’? Would the women have been portrayed as ‘ditzy’, would the men have ‘slapped them around’? One thing I’m certain of is that everyone would have been smoking more! Thinking of the film in this way, the telling of the Ford machinists’ story is valuable -not because it gives recognition to ‘women’s struggles’ in a long line of historic events- but because it shows how the ‘real life’ actions of the women in the 1960s was important bringing about changes in how women can be represented in popular culture today. I’m not suggesting that women are not often sexualised by numerous outlets in today’s media and pop culture, but films such as Made in Dagenham offer do offer counterpoints.
I’m convinced, this film would have looked very different in the sixties, but because of women’s increasing engagement in the workplace, politics and the pop culture since then, the Dagenham strikers can be visualised in a very different way today than the female protagonists of sixties film culture.