Film title: Made In Dagenham
Director: Nigel Cole
Screenplay: Billy Ivory
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Rosamund Pike, Miranda Richardson
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics (USA); Paramount Pictures International (UK)
Cinema Release Date: 19 November 2010 (USA); 1 October 2010 (UK)
Certificate: R (USA); 15 (UK) Contains strong language

 

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Set in 1968 in, yes, you’ve guessed it, a certain suburb of East London, Made in Dagenham is the light-hearted, feel-good story of a group of sewing machinists at a Ford manufacturing factory. Working in appalling conditions for little pay, the 187 women decide enough is enough when the company decide to reclassify their work to unskilled. Refusing to accept the pay cut, they call a strike and down tools. But when they realise the real issue is the pay difference between men and women, the stakes get seriously raised. With the quietly steely Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) becoming an unexpected spokesperson, the women take their cause and placards to the Houses of Parliament. The Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity is Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), a rare female MP in the male-dominated world of politics, and a reminder that the issue goes far wider than Ford’s Dagenham plant. The film is a bright kaleidoscope of 60s Britain, flung with Mary Quant hot pants, the giddy excitement of colour TV, and impressive beehives. It wallows, enjoyably, in nostalgia for a former Britain: candy-hued retro fun that does sometimes veer towards a ‘sickly-sweet mess’.[1] But the film’s light-hearted ability to explore its somewhat momentous subject matter with neither heavy-handed gravity nor insubstantial fluffiness seems an apt reflection of the women around which it centres.

Whilst it may appear to be all frothy fun, Made in Dagenham is a social justice film, and explores how we define ourselves, and create our identity. Loosely based on real life, and tightly anchored in 1960s society, it also charts what Rosamund Pike, who plays Lisa Hopkins, the wife of one of the Ford bosses, termed ‘a sea change in consciousness’.[2] The film exposes the underlying beliefs that enable the pay distinction, and the set, gender-defined roles around which British society was built. The Dagenham women are housewives, first and foremost. They define themselves in relation to their husbands. Connie (Geraldine James), Rita’s best friend, refuses to go to a union meeting because her husband is ill, saying, ‘I’ve got to put him first’. When Rita tells Eddie (Daniel Mays), her husband, that she’s going to a strike meeting with the Ford bosses, the first thing she reassures him of is dinner: ‘It’s all right. I’ll plate your tea up in the morning.’ That the wife does the cooking, cleaning, and looking after the children is an unquestioned norm, ‘bought into by men and women’. [3] The strike itself is because Ford executives have decided to reclassify the women’s job as unskilled. They want to change the name, and thus the identity of the job, because it is done by women. But as the strike progresses and the women realise that it is, at its core, a protest about gender discrimination, the characters begin to think about such discrimination in their personal lives. Rita tells Connie, ‘You got a life, too, you know? You gotta live it.’ She begins to give up leaving tea and lets Eddie cook (or burn) it himself, whilst her pale wardrobe gets replaced by red lipstick and shift dresses. Made in Dagenham questions how we form our identity, and what we define ourselves against.

More than this, however, it also raises questions about the actual process of creating our identity. The role of housewife is one that the Dagenham women never created; it was inherited, an accepted norm. Made in Dagenham portrays women who – inadvertently - refuse to let their identity be defined by men. Instead, they create their identity themselves, still as a group of women, but independent of others around them. The film suggests that the most basic freedom that the society denies the women is the freedom to be themselves, and to define what they actually are. This is interesting when considered from a Christian perspective. Whilst the women’s decision to define their own identity is unquestionably good, in Christian theology, the truest expression of your identity is defined in relationship to God. God created humans ‘to be like himself’, and Christianity suggests that you are only truly yourself when you are defined by God.[4]

One thing the women are not, and never have been, however, is politicians, and it is this that really defines the story of Made in Dagenham. The film’s producer, Stephen Woolley, first heard the story of the strike on a BBC Radio 4 documentary programme, which interviewed some of the original women. Woolley said that, ‘what struck me . . . was how innocent and unpoliticised they were. All they wanted was a fair deal.’[5] Made in Dagenham presents its audience with a straightforward message of equality. Woolley’s description of the film’s origin also identifies its appeal: its feel-good factor as ordinary people, the underdogs, triumph. But what is it that makes us agree so wholeheartedly, so easily, to the extent that we can forgive the film’s ‘saccharine’ sweetness?[6] Why are we so in favour? Woolley believes there is value in the women’s message, and their fight for equality. The entire film is built around the fact that the audience will agree. It works on the presumption that we will all mentally echo Barbara Castle’s scream of, ‘My God . . . equal pay is common justice and if you two weren’t such a pair of egotistical, chauvinistic, bigoted dunderheads, you would realise that!’ Made in Dagenham says equality between men and women is good, regardless of who you are, whether you are man or woman, working class or aristocratic. The film works from the belief that there is an absolute, universal moral code that applies to every human being. It relies for its success on the fact that, as an audience, we will celebrate the acts of justice and feel angry at the injustice.

In one interview, Sally Hawkins said that the women’s strength was that, ‘they don’t speak in that political language, they speak with their truth. . . . what makes you listen, when you hear people on a political stage [is if they] just speak truth, and [do] not try and frilly it up’.[7] It is interesting, however, that Hawkins calls it ‘their’ truth. There is no doubt that the women’s passion for the cause comes from the direct implication the discrimination has for their lives. However, their message of equality is not true only for them. The film itself demonstrates that. But Hawkins exposes how personal injustices, unfair events that affect us, are far more likely to spur us to into action. Politicians, for all their attempts at empathy, never speak as powerfully as those who are directly involved. This is shown in the film, too. There is no doubt that the women’s husbands love their wives, but they still feel aggrieved when they lose their jobs as a direct result of their strike. George (Roger Lloyd-Pack), Connie’s husband, sums up what many of the men think: ‘You tell her [Rita] to get her finger out. It’s gone on long enough, now. . . . I can’t be doing with this . . . strike.’ They do not feel injustice against their wives as injustice against themselves. Yet the film suggests they should, not least in return for the times the women have supported the men, but also because the women are fighting for something that is right. This distinction that Hawkins and the film both make highlights the discrepancy in human nature. The Bible teaches that we were made to value others as much as we value ourselves, to feel their injustices as acutely as we feel our own. But we don’t. We prefer our needs to theirs. Yet Made in Dagenham searches after this, and suggests we should try to act with the needs of others as important to us as our own. George does eventually back Connie, telling her to attend a meeting with the union: ‘I love you. Go.’ As does Eddie. But this is justice, not sacrifice: the audience feels injustice has been righted, rather than seeing George and Eddie as being particularly admirable in their actions.

Made in Dagenham has been criticised for not showing ‘much of the grimness and bitterness that you might associate with industrial action’. [8] This film is definitely not in black and white, but rather shot in the glorious colour of the new TVs which Rita’s daughter Sharon (Sian Scott) sneakily asks for. It is also true that it is more fiction seasoned with some historical fact, than the other way round. But to be honest, this is not really important. Made in Dagenham is jubilant, celebrating a changing Britain, a historical milestone, and a group of women who, in typically British fashion, just got fed up. ‘A bit sexed up’? [9] ‘This ain’t Knightsbridge, it’s Dagenham . . . you got to stand out’. ‘Feel-good panto’? [10] A British institution, ain’t it? But it is also a film about discrimination and equality a film that whoops and cheers at the triumph of underdogs, and which, securely held by its inherent belief in an unquestionable, universal moral code, is really just one big party.


[1] Michael Parsons, ‘DVD : Made in Dagenham’, GQ.com, 21 March 2011.

[2] Xan Brooks and Henry Barnes, ‘Interview with Nigel Cole and Rosamund Pike’, Guardian.co.uk, 29 September 2011.

[3] Xan Brooks and Henry Barnes, ‘Interview with Nigel Cole and Rosamund Pike’.

[4] Genesis 5:1.

[5] Made in Dagenham Press Notes, p. 8.

[6] Peter Bradshaw, ‘Made in Dagenham’, Guardian.co.uk, 30 September, 2010.

[8] Peter Bradshaw, ‘Made in Dagenham’.

[9] Peter Bradshaw, ‘Made in Dagenham’.

[10] Jenny McCartney, ‘Made in Dagenham: Seven Magazine review’, Daily Telegraph, 30 September 2010.

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Author: Hannah Bottom
© Copyright: Hannah Bottom 2011