Regular contributor Laura Tansley tells us why she chose Sicario over Suffragette, and how everyone should demand more when it comes to female film roles.
I don’t know a lot about the suffragette movement except for the big moments we’re all familiar with, some of which I invoke every time anyone asks the men in my office, instead of me, to help lift something. We all sat through the same manual handling training thank you very much – so I carry boxes of photocopier paper with pride and say, ‘Thank you, Ms Pankhurst,’ in my head and, ‘Look how my lack of penis is un-preventing!’ out loud. I’m not being glib; it really is important to me that I’m called on to do these tasks. It’s part of my everyday attempt at addressing equality, something that I’m afforded the opportunity to do thanks to the sacrifices and efforts made by the generations of women and men that came before me and currently surround me.
Last week, Suffragette came out in cinemas and as a true blue feminist I suppose I should be interested. Perhaps I know so little about women’s suffrage partially because the last notable film to feature one was Mary Poppins, so I’m sure there’s some valuable history to drink up even if it is strained through Meryl Streep’s increasing collection of bouffant-y British wigs.
But it concerns me how simple the trailers make the film seem, how it pits the sides in the most obvious Hollywood way. It feels easy to go sit and watch Suffragette and congratulate myself for being on the right side of history. It’s easy to have the women in that film be fierce and brave and the men violent and abusive, to wrap feminism up in a neat little mass-consumable bow after which everyone can feel smugly satisfied saying ‘Shame on those Edwardians!’ to each other as we all walk by a poster for the new Ghostbusters and reflect on how far we’ve come.
Packaged as it is, with clips of women getting felt up by their bosses and punched by police, I can tell there’s not going to be nuance. And for me, right now, that’s not good enough. I don’t want the prescribed poignancy of this predictable drama. Because I’m sure suffrage was difficult and the debates complex and I feel like I deserve the opportunity to consider them. Compositing up a martyr in Carey Mulligan seems easy – let’s take bits of this person being abused, bits of this person blowing up stuff, and bits of somebody else’s body – when I’m sure there were real women they could source who would make compelling viewing. Where are the fibres of this in the trailer? The detail? The discussion? The mess and mistakes?
The story of suffrage is important to me and it’s essential to history. I don’t want to diminish its power or the fact that mainstreaming the fuck out of this subject might make equality more palatable to people which would be no bad thing. It’s the film itself I fear I’d be critical of. There seems to be no value here for me in its obviousness. I would rather try something new. So that’s why this week I decided to watch Sicario instead.
Sicario is a totally fictional story about the war on drugs starring Emily Blunt who is a non-fictional badass. Blunt plays Kate Macer, an FBI tactical operative – she kicks down doors during drug busts – who gets picked up by Josh Brolin to be part of an under-the-radar Department of Defence team going after a Juarez jefe. They aren’t playing by the rules and Blunt is concerned about the lack of proper procedure. If you want to, it’s easy to boil this down to renegades trying to get ‘real work’ done versus a rookie trying to regain some control over an impossible situation.
I can’t tell you how cool it is to watch Emily Blunt shoot the shit out of people in the horrifically tense first two thirds of this film. It is so satisfying to me that she doesn’t wear makeup, that she’s dressed comfortably and/or appropriately in riot gear that swamps her tiny frame seeking to remind us all the time that she’s a woman. She’s in and out of her depth, baffled and compelled, scared but still able to shoot straight, and she isn’t patronised, she’s used, which to me is so much more difficult an idea to reckon with than whether to give women the vote.
In the second act of the film Blunt is used as bait to lure a crooked cop (Jon Bernthal) out of his rat hole. He seduces her in a bar, she takes him home because her partner (Daniel Kaluuya) figures she needs to get laid (it’s been something like a year since her divorce). Presumably, Bernthal is hoping for some post-coital pillow talk. Instead, Blunt twigs and tries to subdue him. He overpowers her and almost kills her, only unable to succeed because Benecio Del Toro has snuck in and put a gun to his head. Benecio beats him to a pulp then uses, I kid you not, an extreme wet willy to extract information from him (I almost barfed).
It turns out the only reason Blunt is on the case is so they can use her; as a honey trap and an excuse to say they’re on the right side of the law because she’s FBI. So, did they use her because she’s a woman and they had the plan in mind all along? Or did they use her because as a woman they think she’s a more easily manipulated member of the FBI? Or was she just in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught up in something much bigger than her, and having a vagina’s neither here nor there, just a happy coincidence? Or was Josh Brolin manipulating Benecio Del Toro in to becoming a sicario (it means hitman) by hiring a woman Brolin knew would remind Del Toro of his daughter who was murdered by the cartel they’re hunting?
I really don’t know. The last third of the film was pretty unclear in terms of plot. There was a brief but momentous POV shift from Blunt to Benecio and the film lost me as a fan after that. But I know that my preference for this over a period piece with a foregone conclusion was the right way to invest my time because Blunt was brilliant. Quiet, sweaty, awkward and astounded at what she was witnessing, she felt like a real woman to me, not a caricature. If Suffragette wanted me to take it seriously, that’s what they should have done too.
I might be wrong about Suffragette; the reviews have been positive and there’s already Oscar buzz around Carey Mulligan. One day I’m sure I’ll rent it and, if I’m blown away, I’ll be happy to eat an enormous Edwardian hat. But I’m so glad I opted for Blunt; it was harder, realer and more challenging to reckon with gender roles in Sicario than it would be to root for the everywomen they’ve made out of real revolutionaries in Suffragette.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Laura Tansley‘s creative and critical writing has been published in a variety of places including Short Fiction in Theory and Practice, The Island Review (with Jon Owen), Kenyon Review Online (with Micaela Maftei), New Writing Scotland and is forthcoming in NANO Fiction. She recently co-edited Writing Creative Non-Fiction: Determining the Form (Gylphi 2015). C.J. Cregg is her TV inspiration, Jonathan Ames’ insecurity is her reality.