Suffragette & ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’ t-shirt controversy

Graphic of quote.The wave of popularised feminism-has launched itself on the big screen. Meryl Streep interviewed with Time Out London but her accompanying photoshoot made everything else insignificant. She has been criticised for posing in a t-shirt titled ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’ to promote her latest movie Suffragette. The quote can genuinely be interpreted as reference for slavery and the confederacy. The team who authorised this campaign either choose to ignore the backlash this slogan could bring or didn’t care. I am deeply disappointed in Streep, for someone who can read and understand, how did she not use her own intellect in this situation. Originally the line comes from a speech delivered by Mrs Pankhurst in 1913  who was one of the real-life founders of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

There is no excuse for ignorance, the quote: ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’ should not be on a t-shirt, or anywhere else.

I read a many articles about this debacle, one article I read stated: ‘Clearly the intention was to honor Pankhurst’s words and not to make an allusion to the Confederate States of America and slavery; but people are going to see what they’re going to see, and people saw that connection pretty quickly. It’s unfortunate that no one involved with the film or Streep’s team did.’  I refuse to acknowledge that every single individual involved in this promotional campaign realise a quote like ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’ could bring backlash. You do not get off that easy.

Another article stated: The folk behind Suffragette, an impeccably well-meaning study of the campaign for female suffrage in the UK, have walked into unexpected controversy concerning a promotional slogan. Sorry, come again? Well-meaning? Are you seriously trying to tell me that before this slogan was used nobody thought well hang on this could be interpreted in many negative ways? The word ‘slave’ should never be used lightly.

I am actually more upset after reading so many articles which position the promotional campaign as good-intentioned. This is yet another example of white privilege. A movie championing white women as role models in the feminist movement of the 21st century. But what about the women of colour who were in Britain and supported the previous movements at their own expense e.g. Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, whose godmother was the Queen. I mean there aren’t any random PoC strangers in the background.

The only article I’ve read which has made me want to hug my laptop is Halimah Manan’s: Suffragette – A “White Feminist” hit? who concluded things perfectly by saying: ‘…the inclusion of people of colour would not change that [Suffragette movement] story; it would only enrich it. So Suffragette joins a long list of films which unnecessarily whitewash or omit people of colour, historical or otherwise…’. 

In response to Halimah opinion piece the director of Suffragette, Sarah Garvon wrote back addressing the issues Halimah points out concluding: ‘Although our film SUFFRAGETTE does focus on a specific group of women, we know that the perspective is much wider. I hope that their story and their fight can still speak to our lives today. It is a local story, but with global relevance.’ 

I’m not convinced by Sarah’s piece. I feel like she’s trying to bargain with what the representation of feminism and who our representatives as women of colour in society should be. Why couldn’t the same story have been told with PoC front and centre showing the sacrifice they made during the Suffragette movement? Wouldn’t this have been a refreshing new approach. To finally give credit where it is due and has not been given before.

It is regressive to ask women of colour to see this movie and overlook these white women as role models for feminism, what happened to intersectionality? Have women of colour not been erased, sidelined and overlooked enough? We are in the 21st century there is no excuse that justifies white-washing or telling the same old story. Tell another story.

The entire Feminist movement is at risk of failing in today’s society unless it is realised very quickly that not every feminist is white and middle class. That is another blog post in itself but I will link to an article I read: ‘Intersectional feminism’. What the hell is it? (And why you should care) which is a great read to get you started on the subject.

What are your thoughts?