Suffragette, a new movie about feminists fighting for the right to vote in early 20th century Britain, got a media boost last week at the London Film Festival when the red carpet premiere was disrupted by a group of feminists staging a colorful protest. As seen in the image, the women set off green and purple smoke bombs to highlight their anti-domestic violence agenda, then stormed the red carpet where Meryl Streep, who stars in the movie as suffragist leader Emmeline Pankhurst, was due to make a regal appearance.
At first, it seemed counter-intuitive: why would radical feminists disrupt the premiere of a film celebrating radical feminism? Wouldn’t it look as if they were protesting the movie itself? Not to mention that as a media opportunity, this one was risky: the protestors could easily have been seen as dour killjoys rather than as daring provocateurs.
After setting off their smoke bombs, the women—members of a group called Sisters Uncut—lay down on the red carpet chanting, “Dead women can’t vote!” They were referring to victims of domestic violence in Britain, who may no longer be able to access shelters and safe houses due to government cutbacks and new operating guidelines. The group believes these austerity measures put abused women’s lives in danger—a risk that they feel justifies civil disobedience, if not quite the violent tactics of the suffragettes.
The festival premiere offered a great chance for coverage, and for the protestors to point out that winning the vote was far from the end of the story. But did the optics work? Was the co-opting of the U.K. suffrage movement’s signature purple and green colors bold or disrespectful? And would people who’d lined up for hours to catch a glimpse of Streep and her co-stars—and the equally obsessed media—be annoyed by the disruption?
As it turned out, the Sisters seemed to win the day, with a couple of assists from the movie’s stars—who praised their actions—and the security forces, whose rough tactics showed a lack of basic media awareness.
Interviewed on the red carpet by Sky TV, actresses Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham-Carter, who play a working-class and upper-class suffragette in the film, expressed excitement at the protest. “It’s a perfect response to our film. This is exactly what our characters would do,” said Bonham-Carter. Gesturing at her couture dress, she added that she thought it was better to “lie down and protest [on the red carpet] than to wear a frock,” at which she and Mulligan dissolved into giggles.
Opportunistic as this might have been—and one could drive oneself mad speculating about who was best milking the moment—it was also an example of a star acknowledging her privilege and the artifice of red carpet events. It might even have smoothed over the ruffled feathers caused by a recent PR blunder where the movie’s stars were photographed wearing t-shirts that read, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” (The quote, a line from a Pankhurst speech, resonates differently in 2015 than it did in 1913.)
Meanwhile, police and security guards did themselves no favors with their rough treatment of the protestors. In a CNN video, a man was shown yanking one of the protestor’s arms and dragging her off the red carpet—an action that Sisters Uncut was quick to decry. “Some of the security guards were quite violent with a particular sister, there’s video footage of her being quite viciously dragged away,” said Sisters Uncut member Janelle Brown in an interview with Russia Today. “The irony there is that you’ve got a group of women protesting about violence against women, and the experience was violence against women during the protest.”
Tweets and news stories followed, some hailing Sisters Uncut as the suffragettes’ heirs. Final result? Radical feminists and Hollywood actresses: Well played. Uniformed officers and men in general: 0.
— Sarah Coleman
(photo:Tristan Fewings/Getty Images caption:A feminist group Sisters Uncut protesting against cuts to support for victims of domestic violence occupy the red carpet during a protest at the Suffragette premiere on the Opening Night Gala of the BFI London Film Festival at Odeon Leicester Square on October 7, 2015 in London, England; photo: John Phillips caption: Activists protest the Suffragette Premiere during the Opening Night Gala during the BFI London Film Festival at Leicester Square on October 7, 2015 in London, England; photo: Time Out, via Twitter caption: Suffragette stars Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep, Romola Garai and Anne-Marie Duff, who donned the sloganed T-shirts for a recent Time Out London feature.)