Made in Dagenham: A Feminist Review

I’ll admit that I didn’t have terribly high expectations going into Made in Dagenham. The reviews had been positive but not glowing, but the complete lack of marketing for the film meant that it was barely on my radar, having accumulated no buzz whatsoever. The trailer also gave it a bit of a “Lifetime Movie” feel (a fairly misogynistic label itself, in the way it belittles films about women, but one that nonetheless has been imprinted in my brain). It was only my love of Sally Hawkins and Bob Hoskins that got me to the theater to see it, and I took my sister because it seemed lighthearted and fun and about women, so I figured at least both of us would find it inoffensive and cute, if nothing else.

Made in Dagenham is a dramatization of the 1968 strike at the Ford Dagenham car plant. The film follows the women at the plant, led by Rita O’Grady (a character not based on any real-life person, but rather a creation of screenwriter William Ivory) as they strike, at first only demanding to be classified as partially-skilled laborers, rather than unskilled laborers. However, they quickly set their sights on bigger goals, demanding equal pay and holding out against pressure from the Ford Motor Company, the government, and their own union.

No matter how you look at it, from a feminist perspective, from a historical perspective, or just as a film lover, Made in Dagenham is a great movie. It is a well-told story packed with compelling characters. It is perfectly paced so that at just under two hours it never drags and is always entertaining, with realistic drama perfectly augmented by the clever dialogue. Every performance is memorable, with particular standouts by the Ed Hoskins and the always-superb Sally Hawkins (if you haven’t seen Happy-Go-Lucky you should make it your top priority) as well as relative-unknowns Andrea Riseborough, Geraldine James and Daniel Mays.

There is not a single false note in the film; it never feels corny or excessively sentimental or forced. Every moment of sentiment is earned, which makes it really pack a punch when it delivers its message. And its message is one that, sadly, is still relevant today, when we are still living in a world where some women earn less than their male counterparts.

But in addition to being a thoroughly enjoyable film, Made in Dagenham is easily the best feminist film in recent years, not just because of its message, but because of the characters and how well they are developed. Considering how many characters there are in the film, none of them, the women striking or the men trying to stop them, feel like cutouts or cliches. There are no saints in the film, no invincible heroes storming in to demand what is rightfully theres, kicking down doors without a second thought and spouting platitudes at a moment’s notice. Had that been the case, Made in Dagenham would have been a much preachier, shallower, and more boring film.

But what makes it so great is that all of the characters feel so real, and that means they are flawed. The women are scared, and shy, and sometimes selfish and mean. When Rita attempts to tell her son’s teacher off for his use of corporal punishment, she is instead bullied and intimidated into silence, and then takes her aggression out on another woman, Lisa (Rosamund Pike) who was dealing the exact same issue. These women are not perfect, not fearless, but they are great characters because they are flawed, and have to overcome their flaws to achieve their goals. That’s the stuff great movies are made of.

And there are some strong, kickass women in the movie. Rita is a wonderful protagonist, finding her voice as the film continues until by the end she is able to stand up in a crowded room and demand the respect that she and her fellow strikers deserve. Secretary of State Barbara Castle (plated superbly by Miranda Richardson) is a domineering and fearless woman, willing to take down anybody who gets in her way without any fear. When she berates two of the men in her office she seems to relish her power: “Credence? I will give credence to their cause. My god! Their cause already has credence. It is equal pay. Equal pay is common justice, and if you two weren’t such a pair of egotistical, chauvinistic, bigoted dunderheads, you would realise that.”

And while many of the male characters are painted as the villains, none of them seem evil, just selfish or misguided. Throughout much of the beginning of the film, the female workers and their concerns are largely ignored by both the company management and the union. The union head who represents them mocks them during a negotiation, saying “I’d rather you didn’t speak for the girls, Mr Hopkins…None of us here knows what’s in their heads.” Yes, some of the men are serious jerks, but none of them seem evil, just trapped in a wildly misogynistic culture that encourages them to behave that way. And not all of the men are like that.

Two of the men in particular are rich, complex characters whose presence add a lot to the film. The first is Albert, the only union representative who is actually on the side of the women. He goes behind the backs of his superiors to advise and support the striking women, risking his job. His explanation for his support of the strike is one of the film’s most touching moments, when he explains:

“I got brought up by me mum, me and me brothers. Me dad cleared off when we were nippers, so she worked all her life at Ranley and Coopers. Ball bearin’s. She paid aunt Lilly for lookin’ after us durin’ the day and it was hard. Especially cause she got paid less than half what the blokes in the factory was gettin’. For doin’ the same work. But there was never any question it could be different. Not for her.”

This moment makes it clear that he is doing this not just for these women, but for all women dealing with discrimination in the workplace, and that is what the strike becomes about. “You’ll always come second,” Albert explains to Rita. “You’ll always be dependent, you’ll always be fightin’ for the scraps from the top table as long as-” and she finishes his sentence for him, “we ain’t got equal pay.”

The other memorable male character is Eddie, Rita’s husband. Eddie is a typical working man, trying to be a good husband and a good father, and he stands as a perfect example of a male victim of the patriarchy. He wants to be supportive of his wife, but in his mind she is still a second-class citizen, defined as a homemaker first and a person deserving of respect second. He loves her passionately, and treats her well, but can’t get past the societal roles they have been given.

So when she goes on strike, it makes his life more complicated. He has to take on more of the responsibility of raising his children, at which he is clearly incompetent. There is a sweet but sad moment when, wide-eyed, he explains to Rita that he is out of ironed shirts and has no idea how to rectify that situation. The moment that perfectly sums up the message and the power of Made in Dagenham takes place towards the end of the film, when Rita is going to a union meeting and she and Eddie get into a fight.

Eddie: I do me best. You know? Christ, I’m not out on the beer every night or screwin’ other women, or- I’ve never once raised me hand to you! Ever. Or the kids. And-

Rita: You’re a saint. That’s what you’re tellin’ me, Eddie? You’re a bleedin’ saint! Cause you give us an even break. That’s as it should be. Jesus! What do you think this strike’s been all about? It ain’t about us gettin’ special treatment, you know, kid gloves. It’s been about fairness. What’s proper. And you stand there now and lecture me about countin’ me blessin’s. Well, you’re right actually.You don’t knock us about, you don’t drink, you don’t gamble, you do join in with the family. That’s-as-it-should-be! Try and understand that. Please. What you’re talkin’ about now, what I’ve been fightin’ for, the last few weeks. Same thing. Rights. Not privileges.

There are several other women who also have an impact on the film in parts of various sizes. Brenda, one of the strikers, is known for being promiscuous, but there is never a sense that this is a negative trait. Indeed, she takes pride in her sexuality, and the other women tease her for it, but lightheartedly, and without any sense of judgment. Sandra, who dreams of becoming a model, has one of the more compelling subplots. She considers breaking the picket line when she is promised a modeling job by Ford, but strengthens her resolve at the last moment, another case of this film being better because of its characters’ flaws.

There is so much more that I want to say about this wonderful movie, but I fear this review is already getting too long, so I will just end by saying that Made in Dagenham is one of the best feminist films I have ever seen. Compared to North Country, which was melodramatic and dull, this film has a powerful message that it delivers well, but it still manages to be sweet and funny and moving all at the same time. The fight for equal rights for women is, sadly, an ongoing struggle, but a film like Made in Dagenham reminds us how far our society has come.

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