Topics in History: History through Film

Topics is a course at Southport High School, taught by Kevin Sanders, that analyzes major events from the United States and world history through Hollywood films that attempt to portray those events. Students investigate historical documents and other sources to determine if a film is historically accurate.

The goal is for students to develop deeper understandings of the historical discipline while generating questions about the way the world is around them, along with watching classical films that have graced American and international screens. This week, student Adrianna Cardoza reviews the made-for-television film, Iron Jawed Angels:

Director Katja von Garnier uses characterization in order to show the “radical” agenda of the women’s suffrage movement. Garnier adds depth to the characters in the film and uses that depth to show how despite their involvement in the movement, they are still women of their time and anything but radical in that regard. Behind their bold voices, they are still trying to conform to societal norms.

At the start of the film, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns are shown arguing over a hat in a shop window like children. They end up flipping a coin to decide who will receive the hat. Initially, this scene seems demeaning, but it pays off in the long run. It depicts the women as young and immature, giving the watcher doubtful thoughts on Paul and Burns’ impact in the movement. However, it allows the audience to see that they are just two young women. When we picture the leaders, we imagine strong and professional women who are headstrong. This scene helps show that they are more than the movement.

Garnier continues to show their lives outside of the movement by adding a love interest for Paul in the form of Washington Post editorial cartoonist Ben Weissman.  Paul’s relationship with Weissman is nothing but romantic, devoid of any suffrage business. Weissman is seen continuously asking Paul out for dinner when Paul would much rather be discussing the movement. The buildup to their relationship in the film, although historically inaccurate, helps show that Paul is a woman of her time. Although she is considered “radical,” she is still trying to fit those social norms, the idea of a woman settling down. The addition of Weissman makes Paul human. She has more emotions and feelings than meets the eye. Paul is more than the women’s suffrage movement.

Although Weissman helps show the different sides of Paul, he also serves as a reminder of the societal norms women are forced to follow. His lack of interest in Paul’s radical ideology and repeated dinner date invitations goes to show how, no matter how hard she tries, society catches up with her. This idea is eventually force-fed to Paul in prison, literally. The prison scene of Paul being force-fed is symbolic of the force feeding of sexist ideologies in society. Something she is forced to accept no matter how hard she fights back.

Overall, Iron Jawed Angels is a decent watch. Garnier’s effective use of characterization helps drive the film, while keeping the audience’s attention. Paul is depicted in a way I’ve seen no other film depicts her. Garnier draws watchers into the film by making Paul relatable, by making her more than the movement. Although she is strong and independent, she is still human and the film is great at showing her young, funky, yet passionate personality. For a woman so ahead of her time, she couldn’t have been more confined by the early 20th century.