The opening of the film reveals the numbers: 55,000 men and 187 women. The vast difference between men and women hired at Ford Dagenham draws into immediate focus this portrayal of sexual inequality.
It is 60s Britain, and the bright clothes and upbeat soundtrack give an outward impression of a carefree world. The female workers are in joyful spirits, laughing and bantering with one another in an ironically stereotypical masculine fashion. It is easy to get wrapped up in the celebratory tone of this film, with its comedic moments and positive approach to female sexuality. As witnessed in the opening scene with the factory women undressing themselves, without hesitation or modesty, in a simple quest to withstand the excessive heat of their work conditions.
Once they decide to confront the issue of unequal pay they enter a world controlled by men…
The sense of liberation, however, contrasts with the film’s underlying tone of restriction. The women’s dominant façade exists in their own environment: their factory room, their home, and their relationships. Once they decide to confront the issue of unequal pay they enter a world controlled by men.
This is aptly portrayed when male Union leader Monty, who represents the women’s case in a meeting with the head of Ford Dagenham, tells the “girls” that they must leave the talking to him, “I nod, you nod”. To the audience’s relief this frustrating and anger provoking scene quickly corrects itself as Rita speaks up for their rights; and yet, the ease with which this happens damages the significance of Monty’s line, and, as so often happens with real plight in film, understates the difficulty the women faced in their fight for justice.
The female machinists are led by the unlikely leader Rita, whose non-confrontational, shy demeanour is soon overcome by her strength of spirit and passion, which reverberates through the other women and warms the heart. The women’s strike leads to a standstill across the whole production line, and consequently a loss of jobs amongst the male workers. We’re directed to observe the financial strain this has on Rita’s family, who live on hire purchase, as they begin to have their possessions taken from them. The impact of their strike reaches the American owners of Ford who threaten to close the British plant.
Despite these moments of struggle which could undermine the positive tone of the film, there is never a sense of danger that the women won’t succeed, which is unfortunate as their ‘winning result’ at the end of the film is taken for granted, and furthermore, it ignores the fact that unequal pay is still a problem which persists in today’s society.
…the absence of gravitas prevents it from creating a lasting impression on the audience…
When one considers that today Britain has one of the biggest gender pay gaps in Europe it is perhaps surprising that this film ends on a high note. For a film which promotes sexual equality this fact isn’t raised, but rather sacrificed, for an audience-pleasing happy ending.
Whilst the film injects a lot of emotion, the absence of gravitas prevents it from creating a lasting impression on the audience. There may, however, have been a more ‘political’ reasoning behind this upbeat tone. In an interview, the director, Nigel Cole, reveals the difficulty at getting backing to make a film about a strike. He also explains his reasoning behind surrounding this serious subject with a comedic tone, “we wanted to make a film that had a mass audience, not one that only showed in art house cinemas”.
Whilst he could be accused of pushing the issue of sexual inequality into the past, he successfully avoids producing a film that could be considered as off-puttingly feminist, and makes it accessible to a wider audience, ultimately giving this issue greater attention.