Meryl Streep is such a paragon of feminine Hollywood power it’s hard to understand how she could have made such a huge misstep in promoting her new film Suffragette as she did this past week.
Streep has angered the Internet by posing in a T-shirt that features the seemingly insensitive sentiment “I’d rather be a rebel then a slave.” She’s not alone in the photo but is flanked by her costars, including Carey Mulligan. All four of the women are wearing the shirt.
— Batibat The Sleep Demon (@yosoymichael) October 5, 2015
As you can see from the tweet, some are interpreting the photo to be a sign that white feminism is alive and well and getting shoved down our collective throats by a woman most of us consider a strong proponent of feminism (even though she refuses to use the term to describe herself). All four of the actresses in the photo are white, and the shirts they are wearing appear to make light of slavery.
— Loh (@rfloh) October 5, 2015
— Shazzarazza (@shazza_razza) October 5, 2015
the suffragette t-shirt advert is literally the worst thought out advert and the biggest white feminist crap i have ever seen
— martha (@witchyqueer) October 5, 2015
Obviously, the shirt is a poor choice, and I’m amazed that none of the women in the photo — or their publicists — anticipated the probability of a negative reaction. It seems they were so wrapped up in the world of the film that they completely lost sight of the times they’re living in.
And that’s the crux of the problem: Unless you are acquainted with Suffragette or its real-life heroine, Emmeline Pankhurst, you have no way of knowing that the shirt is quoting Pankhurst at a time in history when all women were disenfranchised.
Emmeline Pankhurst was a British political activist and founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union, which led the British suffragette movement. The group was not polite in their fight for equal rights, and they employed violent tactics that got Pankhurst jailed on multiple occasions.
The quote that the T-shirt is using is actually from a longer speech she gave at a WSPU meeting that included the following:
“I know that women, once convinced that they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion. I would rather be a rebel than a slave. I would rather die than submit; and that is the spirit that animates this movement… I mean to be a voter in the land that gave me birth or they shall kill me, and my challenge to the Government is: Kill me or give me my freedom: I shall force you to make that choice.”
So, obviously, the quote has historical import and relevance that makes it clear the decision to wear the shirt wasn’t coming from a place of racial insensitivity — of course, that doesn’t mean that looked at through today’s lens, it isn’t still problematic.
They just did not think that through.
A strong quote by a Suffragette =/= a cool saying on a t-shirt.
— 🤷🏾♀️ (@paigee79) October 5, 2015
The suffragette movement, while a step forward for women in general, wasn’t particularly concerned with racism — so the suffragette movement did a lot more for white women in their fight for equal rights than it did for women of color. While I don’t think Streep (or her costars) meant any offense, their lack of awareness and sensitivity to this historical discrepancy still makes me cringe.
I’m no marketing genius, but my guess is we won’t be seeing a rollout of these T-shirts anytime soon, and that’s probably a good thing.
Suffragette hits theaters Oct. 30, 2015.