Meryl Streep, who recently outed herself and her friend Emma Thompson as “rabid, man-hating feminist[s],” has signed on to play British feminist icon Emmeline Pankhurst in the Sarah Gavron-directed, Abi Morgan-penned Suffragette. The actual Pankhurst, arguably the UK’s most famous agitator for women’s right to vote, died just a few weeks before the British Parliament granted female suffrage in 1928.
Morgan also wrote The Iron Lady, the Margaret Thatcher biopic that won Streep her third Oscar, and last year’s The Invisible Woman, a drama about Charles Dickens’ much younger mistress.
It’s unsurprising that Suffragette‘s core background players — Gavron, Morgan, and producers Faye Ward and Alison Owen — are all women. What is surprising — and notable, and worthy of outrage — is that there are so few movies about suffragists in the first place. Other than the 2004 HBO movie Iron Jawed Angels, starring Hilary Swank as real-life firebrand Alice Paul, this incredibly dramatic, inspirational, and movie-ready slice of history has been utterly ignored by Hollywood.
Earlier this year, I blamed George Clooney for contributing to the ongoing erasure of women from the screen — “the fictitious villages and jungles and kingdoms and interplanetary civilizations [in the movies] nearly bereft of female population” that Geena Davis recently described as the film industry’s norm — and thus also from our collective memory of history.
But of course, Clooney’s not alone. Whether it wants the responsibility or not, Hollywood is a major contributor to how we as a culture decide whose stories are important — and whose are not. And the numbers show an ongoing decline in the rate of movies about women: only 11% of the top 100 grossing films in 2011 featured girls and women as the main characters, down from 16% in 2002. So of course Suffragette is an important step in the right direction — and believe me, I’ll be the first in line when it’s released — but it’s clear we have a long way to go.