Working Class Heroine

Sally Hawkins as ‘Rita O'Grady’ in “Made in Dagenham”[Contains sassy historical SPOILERS]

In an online review of Made in Dagenham (2010), one churlish critic suggested the film was only fit for “knee-jerk feminists and the soft in the head”… thankfully I qualify on both counts, so I ended up rather enjoying it.

This fictionalised story of the 1968 machinists strike at Ford’s Dagenham plant – where female workers walked out in protest over sexual discrimination and pay disparity – is weighted heavily in favour of the female characters, who are depicted across-the-board as noble, upstanding and good-humoured, while their male opponents are weak, unscrupulous and dim-witted (or downright evil in one particular case). It isn’t exactly subtle, and I’d prefer to keep things a little more balanced in my own work , but considering the way that women have generally been depicted over the centuries, it’s barely a drop in the ocean as far as cinematic sexism goes. I doubt this approach is likely to change the minds of any real-life chauvinists out there (assuming they have minds worth changing), but that isn’t really the point. The point, as I see it, is to inspire, motivate and hearten those already engaged in progressive political action.

Sally Hawkins as ‘Rita O'Grady’ in “Made in Dagenham”I know a lot of the critics like to sling the word “didactic” around as an insult, but I always appreciate it when a writer has a strong, sincere point of view to express through their work, however clumsily. Speechifying can often upset the dramatic and/or comedic flow of a script, but as the film’s heroine (played by Sally Hawkins) asserts, when you’re faced with inequality and injustice, “Well, you’ve got to do something, haven’t you?” Why waste your time and your talent writing wishy-washy dishwater, where everyone’s point-of-view is respected, no matter how patently stupid and wrong? I’ve always found that famous-but-apocryphal Voltaire quote intensely annoying: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” If you only have one life to give, wouldn’t you be better off giving it to defend an opinion you *do* agree with? Gah! It’s not like there’s ever going to be a shortage of righteous causes to motivate you…

Miranda Richardson as ‘Barbara Castle’ in “Made in Dagenham”The film’s big happy ending sees actual, factual Employment Secretary Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson) agreeing to meet the strikers’ demands, and bring into force the Equal Pay Act of 1970. Hurrah! Case closed, job done, roll credits, right? Well, not exactly, no… because according to an article published in The Guardian the same year this film was released, “despite four decades of equal pay legislation, Britain has one of the worst gender gaps in Europe. Women in the UK are paid 79% of male rates, while across the 27 countries of the European Union the figure is 82%, according to a report earlier this year from Eurobarometer… Women in the Midlands fare the worst, taking home £10,434 less than men, while those in the north-east fare the best, where the gap is smallest at £8,955… Different sectors also varied greatly and women hoping for equal pay were advised to think twice about jobs in IT or the pharmaceutical industry, where the gaps were the largest, at £17,736 and £14,018 respectively.” Meanwhile, “Women have also been harder hit by the recession, with more female workers than men being made redundant in the past 12 months… Over the year, 4.5% of the female workforce lost their jobs compared with 3% of men.” So, um, everybody out… again?

Rosamund Pike as ‘Lisa Hopkins’ in “Made in Dagenham”Enough ranting… back to Dagenham: Hawkins is undoubtedly the star of the film, flashing that cheeky grin of hers, and orating her heart out, but Richardson also has some strong scenes as the “fiery redhead” standing between the factory girls and victory. Meanwhile, there are fine supporting turns from Jaime Winstone (as ‘Sandra’, a saucy co-worker with dreams of modelling) and Rosamund Pike (as ‘Lisa’, a frustrated graduate who left academia behind to become a housewife and baby-mama to one of the factory’s ungrateful bosses). On the manly side of things, it was fun to see Andrew Lincoln playing a teacher (and a Brit!) again, after all these years as a zombie-killin’ sheriff… I almost didn’t recognise him without his stubble and sweaty clothes on!

Fun fact: When this production was first announced the working title was “We Want Sex”… in reference to a scene in which a protest banner reading “We Want Sex Equality” fails to unfurl properly, much to the amusement of passing motorists. Thankfully the title was changed for the UK market… but not for its release in several European countries, where that provocative (and totally misleading) title remained intact. I can imagine a lot of unhappy pervs angrily demanding their money back at the ticket booth afterwards…

About Dee CrowSeer

A comic book writer with an interest in feminism, philosophy, and affirmative action. He/him.
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