I’ll start with the context, as it’s relevant. I’d had a long, draining afternoon at the hospital that had left me feeling tired and fragile, and the screening of Suffragette started at 8.40 p.m., a time when I’ve usually begun looking forward to getting into bed with a book. ( I get up very early.)
So there I was with my daughter Zoë, enjoying the whole experience – a night out with Zoë, her treat of a meal and then the cinema. The film was terrific: an important subject, powerfully told, evocative, beautifully shot, great acting, etc, etc. We got to the scene where a crowd of women is assembled outside parliament to hear Asquith’s decision on whether to change the law in their favour. He announces that it isn’t going to happen, and the women start shouting in protest, and a bunch of police rush into the crowd and start beating them up, (I think) with truncheons.
It was horrible and I shut my eyes, but I could hear the beating, the scuffles, the screams. Zoë saw my distress, and asked if I wanted to leave. She said it was fine: it was supposed to be my treat from her, my evening out. I didn’t want to spoil it for her, so I said no. But as the film progressed, I could see it was going to get nastier – we hadn’t even got the force feeding bit – so I changed my mind, and we left.
I was feeling vulnerable and tired, and if I’d been watching it on another day I’m sure I would have stayed.
But it did make me think again about how much I hate screen violence. I’m the woman who got so upset at the pictures of the Gaza bombing last summer that I stopped Twitter showing me photographs. You might accuse me of being an ostrich, but I’m not. I read the news and I do my best to work for social justice and peace. I sign petitions, write to politicians, go on marches, and I boycott Israel.
Suffragette has a 12A certificate, and the British Board of Film Classifications says it has “infrequent strong language, moderate violence, a scene of force feeding.” I thought the violence was shocking – but I realise now that my reaction was a combination of my mental state at the time, and the shock of learning about Black Friday, when the police beat up the crowd.
I get completely caught up in stories told on screen. I am not a detached observer. It all feels real to me, which is why I steer clear of violent films. I didn’t go to see 12 Years a Slave for this reason: I don’t have to watch a film about slavery to know it was obscene. That film has a 15 certificate, and the British Board of Censors labels it thus - “Contains strong violence, injury detail, sex, nudity, and racist terms.”
Why is it OK for 15 year olds to watch strong violence? Why is it OK for 12 year olds to watch police beating up women?
A friend was bemoaning the fact that her book club always chooses books that are miserable or violent, as if a book can’t be literary or important if it doesn’t trade in violence and/or unhappiness. We got onto the Man Booker Prize and the fact that the winner is about gang violence in Jamaica, and that the bookies’ favourite, A Little Life, contains what the Guardian says are “the most awful accounts of child abuse, cruelty and self-harm that most people are likely to ever read.”
My friend wondered if people can’t feel anything if they read something milder. Is this how it is? Is the world so violent and are most people so desensitised to violence that it has to be omnipresent on screen and in books?
And why do I feel as though I am opening myself up to criticism if I complain about this? I increasingly feel out of step with modern culture.
I’m what the Eysenck Personality Inventory calls tender-minded, but I’m not a total wuss. I did read A Long Long Way, a harrowing and moving novel by Sebastian Barry about the First World War. I had to take a two week break in the middle, but I did go back and finish it. The writing was beautiful, and it’s an important topic.
Perhaps I have too vivid an imagination. I told you in an earlier post that when Gil was 8 he was so upset by the Paddington film (which has a Parental Guidance certificate) that Zoë had to take him out of the cinema. He’d told Zoë that it was bad enough that the bear didn’t have a home, so they didn’t need a baddie as well. I asked him yesterday why he’d been so upset, and he said “Because the baddies wanted to skin the bear.” Gil feels stories in his heart. Me too.
And Suffragette? I’m really pleased this story of determination and sacrifice is at last being told in such a powerful way for a general audience. I know a lot about protest and the history of protest, but I didn’t know the facts about the brutality against the suffragettes. I shall order the DVD of the film, and watch it at home on a day when I’m feeling robust.
I have the vote. I am indebted to all the brave women who fought for it.