So, university life is back with a bang, and with it comes the joys of seminar prep, lecture reading and research. However, sometimes assignments do not always consist purely of reading textbooks and researching articles; they are more unique and thus more interesting than that.
Take one of my assignments for my ‘Understanding Human Rights’ module. For Monday 5th, I had to read four chapters of my international Human Rights law textbook, two articles – but also watch a wonderfully moving and inspirational film, Pride.
My class was asked to watch this film, bearing in mind the theme of the previous seminar (that of ‘what is a Human Right?’ and ‘do we all have rights?’) and respond to a question posed by our module lecturer: Are all rights worth protecting? Are all human beings worth protecting?
I thought these questions were at once both simple to answer, yet also challenging – which is precisely what this module is about. We are supposed to have our thoughts and own views challenged by reading differing views and using different theoretical critiques to analyse and assess current Human Rights legislation, current affairs and case-law. I then thought that I would submit my answer to my module lecturer, but would elaborate upon my answer in a blog post.
I first watched Pride with the LGBT+ Alliance student society at the American college I was studying at last year, and I can remember feeling very moved by the evident passion of the gay-rights activists, in terms of both their own personal struggle to achieve equality and acceptance, and yet also in their brave –remember that workers tended to be those most vocal in condemnation of gay rights – decision to support the striking miners. I remember thinking that it illustrated so clearly how those who are denied rights can understand the suffering such oppression causes, hence their desire to help each other achieve their rights, and have them recognised and protected. It also made me realise that it is true that the vast majority of us within society are ‘safe’, in that our rights are never under threat and will always be protected due to our majority and thereby privileged status. We thus have a civic duty to show solidarity to our fellow citizens, and fellow humans.
It also made me realise that it is true that the vast majority of us within society are ‘safe’, in that our rights are never under threat and will always be protected due to our majority and thereby privileged status.
Conversely, minority groups, whether on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation or religion etc. will always endure a struggle to have their own human rights recognised and protected on an equal footing. From that perspective, the majority of society members are ‘privileged’ and therefore I believe that we indeed do have a moral and civil obligation to help our fellow citizens in their awareness/defence of their own rights. We have a responsibility to ensure equality in rights recognition and protection, otherwise what is the point in proclaiming that human rights are truly ‘universal’? How could we allow the justification of rights-suppression for a minority group, when we are all human and thus are entitled to rights-equality through our shared human dignity?
We have a responsibility to ensure equality in rights recognition and protection, otherwise what is the point in proclaiming that human rights are truly ‘universal’? How could we allow the justification of rights-suppression for a minority group, when we are all human and thus are entitled to rights-equality through our shared human dignity?
After our class on Monday, and through re-watching the film again (when my DVD copy finally arrived! Perhaps my postman was on strike himself) these thoughts came back to me, prompting me to continue to consider society’s attitudes towards ‘minorities’ today, and to determine whether the views expressed in the film (which is set in the 1980s) really have changed over the years.
I also note that whilst there are communities and organised groups to which the characters belong to, i.e. the striking miners and the activists, they are fighting to achieve their respective rights from both a communal and individual perspective. It highlights my earlier point regarding the suppression of rights: the suppression of a group’s rights should not merely affect and concern them, or indeed even others in a similar situation (e.g. the activists wishing to support the miners). The suppression of rights should concern all in society, most especially those who enjoy their rights with ease. To suppress the rights of one is to suppress the rights of all. This is why I found certain lines of dialogue particularly poignant, namely the line delivered by political and civil activist Mark to Dai, the Welsh miner: “why support certain rights, but no one else’s’?” In my opinion, this highlights the hypocrisy that is sadly too readily presence within our current society. We are quick to query the right to a safe life and security for asylum seekers. We are quick to condemn those who wish to uphold free speech, and the right to assembly. Rights are not something which can be cherry-picked, to be selected and/or dismissed at the discretion of the state or indeed my citizens. We are all entitled to our rights, in having them recognised and respected by the state and state institutions. Furthermore, we are all obligated to recognise and respect the rights of others, too.
Overall however, the film provides an optimistic outlook on that issue: the potential for humans to rally around for each other, to help assist one another is vast. There is hope that rights are realised as being an entitlement of all humans, and thus truly ‘universal’. Therefore human rights are worth protecting, as they ensure our lives can be lived to the fullest and we can achieve our potential. This can be evidenced through the powerful line: “realising you have a friend you never knew existed – it’s the best feeling in the world.” This comes at the film’s conclusion, when the Welsh miners essentially invade London to walk with the ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’ activist group during the annual Gay Pride.
This scene echoes the continuous theme of friendship and solidarity recurrent in the film, namely through Dai. Dai had consistently referenced the slogan on the Dulais Valley Miners’ lodge banner, which essentially states a ‘you support me, and I will support you’ line with the added symbolism of two held hands. He promised the gay rights activists and the gay community during his address at the ‘Perverts and Pits’ concert in London that the miners would not forget their kindness, generosity and friendship, stating that the miners would be with them when they were needed, just as the gay community assisted the miners in their time of need. Thus to have the film conclude with this promise being upheld ensures a message of hope regarding our approach to human rights activists, and hope that we who are fortunate to have our rights realised and respected can then extend the hand of friendship to those who need our help, and show solidarity with those who have their human rights suppressed.
During the first class for this module, we briefly touched upon the various theories we would be using throughout the module to critique the concept of ‘human rights’ and current existing Human Rights legislation, at both a national and international level. I decided to select two theoretical perspectives to view the film through, and ultimately selected upon the Marxist view and the Feminist view.
From a Marxist theoretical perspective it could be argued that the miners – the proletariat – were being denied their right to strike due to the bourgeois order; here rights were in theory provided to all by the order but as a means of subtle control, and more importantly such rights could be curtailed. Rights therefore were a promised fantasy, aimed at subduing the proletariat in to accepting the status quo by promising better conditions, etc. (It is also reminiscent of the current bill proposed by the Conservation government to limit strike action.) It is interesting to note the review of the film from the FT: it was branded ‘a parade of tricks, tropes and tritenesses, designed to keep its balance for two hours atop a political correctness unicycle… Nothing in modern history is more amazing than the cultural rebranding of the UK miners’ strike as a heroic crusade, rather than a Luddite last stand for (inter alia) union demagoguery, greenhouse gas and emphysema.’ Evidently the reviewer viewed the strike as a protest against the state and the status quo; his review is eerily similar to what one may expect from a bourgeois dismissal of the strike.
The use of striking songs throughout the film, such as ‘solidarity forever… The Union makes us strong’ emphasises that there is power in the masses; a subtle reminder that the proletariat outnumber the bourgeoisie. The use of state institutions to control the workers, to monitor them and subdue their striking efforts would again highlight the dominance of the bourgeois order. This can be witnessed in the film when Mark comments after the Pride parade in the opening of the film, “where have [the police] gone? They went somewhere else to pick on someone else.”
Marx always spoke of the shared suffering and thus shared support to be found within the proletariat. The film illustrates that this is not always so straightforward: the miners originally are hesitant to accept the support from ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’ because of the negative publicity and consequently political damage it would cause to their striking campaign. It also stemmed from stereotypical and traditional derogatory views of gays and lesbians. Yet over time, the majority of the miners come to accept ‘the gays’, realising that they are not so different from each other after all, and that their struggles are the same – a struggle against the oppressive status quo and the establishment which refuses to acknowledge their rights. Marx’s hope of solidarity is thus realised at the film’s conclusion, with the miners travelling to London to walk with their gay supporters during the annual Gay Pride.
From a Feminist theoretical perspective, I thought it was interesting to see that perhaps the lens of liberal feminism as noted by Dembour illustrates that rights were created for men by men. I mean this in the sense that the striking miners are male, and the women in their lives and communities suffer alongside their male counterparts for a right they personally do not have either. The men were the ones who openly protested, by standing on the picket line and confronting the police and thus the state. The women were confined to the homes, in charge of food banks and committees. They had a role, but although it was a vital one, it was perhaps overlooked and indeed taken for granted by the men. However, the character of Hefina shows a woman who ensures efficient organisation and communication; she manages men and women alike and so characterises the definition of feminism: she is an independent, able and strong woman on a par with men. She represents equality, in that men and women are equal with each other and can thus work together to ensure rights recognition and protection. The Welsh women collectively represent the potential of female empowerment; this can be witnessed in the film when they start singing together to express solidarity, and a shared strength to continue in the strike.
Furthermore, society was still lacking in gender-equality at this point in time, and this was accepted as ‘right’ and the norm. This is evident when Sian answers Jonathan’s question of what she will do as the strike had finished with, “I’m a wife and mother. My life goes back to normal.” Jonathan urges her to use her abilities, her talents at organisation and speaking to her advantage. The film’s conclusion informs the viewer that Sian attended university and obtained her undergraduate degree, and would go on to become an elected MP – the first woman from her region to do so. I personally found this rather inspiring, in that Jonathan, as a gay HIV positive man recognised that society not only marginalised him, but Sian because she was a woman – hence his urging to make something of herself as a means of defying society and instigating change.
I also thought it was interesting to see that the lesbian activists were more ‘combatant’ in terms of challenging gender roles and societal expectations. This is perhaps due to the fact that as women, society laid down restrictions and expectations, and as lesbians, society would generally deride them and deny them recognition and respect. Thus the lesbians set out to create their own place in society, with the double challenge of achieving equality both as women and as lesbians.
Steph mentions her desire for female independence, and insisting her ‘status be recognised’; she frequently comments “and lesbians” during the film whenever the gay men comment about “gays”. Steph also freely discussed sexual liberation whilst challenging the concept of sex as being ‘only for men’ whilst talking to a miner’s wife. Steph presents herself as a strong woman with a passionate belief in feminism, equality and rights-recognition. She is also presented with traditional feminine characteristics, displaying a caring attitude behind her bold exterior e.g. she alone goes to Joe’s house to enquire if he is okay after he was absence as the group headed to Wales. She also informs Joe about life in society as a member of the gay community, providing educational advice, “you’re not legal. It’s sixteen for the breeders, 21 for the gays.”
The lesbian couple was more militant, demanding that there be a women’s only committee within the Welsh village, “for women’s issues” which the gay men, Mike and Mark in particular, could not understand the need for. They also pressed for a women’s only support organisation for the miners, and eventually break away from ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’ to establish this women-only organisation themselves. This illustrates that perhaps even gay men are in a more privileged position that lesbian women due to their make gender, and thus cannot understand the need for women to achieve equality.
I wish to conclude via the discussion of a symbol which, to me, speaks volumes. On an interesting note, I thought I would mention this observation I made when in America. In January 2015, it was reported that the cover of the US DVD release of the film makes no mention of the gay activist content within the film. Furthermore, the plot summary was edited. The standard description of ‘a London-based group of gay and lesbian activists’ which was to be found on the UK release was instead modified to say ‘a group of London-based activists’. I also noticed that the ‘Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners’ banner was removed from a photograph on the back cover; this is still present on the UK release.
The symbolism behind such a marketing move is evident, but also saddening – and frustrating. The true story, the real-life activists and their unique, inspirational stories were removed from the US release which not only dismisses their work within the film, it de facto removes them from history, and from society. Their very right to exist is being eradicated through the suppression of their banner and their mention in the film’s summary.
Human rights are worth protecting, because they protect humans who are classified ‘different’ by society, when in reality they are not ‘different’ at all – we are all human, and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect as human rights provide.
Pride ultimately is a message of hope, and after the film ended, I was left sitting staring at my laptop screen, with a strong desire to do something good, and to help people. Mark Ashton, the leader of ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’ was a fella with a Northern Irish background and personal experience of life during the Troubles. He desired to see everyone treated with respect, free from discrimination and contempt. I feel motivated by his message and inspired by his actions, and can only hope that someday I can do something worthwhile which can help others.