“I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.”
That’s the text on t-shirts that actresses Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan and others donned in support of their new movie Suffragette, a film that focuses on the white women behind the British suffragette movement of the early 20th century.
In the United States, the word “rebel” has a different connotation than it does in London.
When Americans hear the word “rebel,” especially in proximity to the word “slave,” they think of the Confederate Army during the Civil War, the people who actively sought to keep black people as slaves. Londoners attach no such context to that word, but “slave” is certainly one that they know well.
The text on the t-shirt is an excerpt from a speech by British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, a white woman who Streep plays in the film.
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.
Those were Pankhurst’s words at a 1913 rally and surely at that time in London, that was a powerful statement that resonated with her fellow white Brits. It’s an important part of her story and will undoubtedly be included in the film.
However, to proudly wear such a statement on a t-shirt in 2015 is beyond tone deaf. Streep and her fellow actresses wore the t-shirts as promo for the film in a TimeOut London spread and interview.
It’s one thing to be historically accurate for a film portraying real life people and actual events. It is quite another to take a very dated thought (that is at best insensitive to the African diaspora and at worst a blatant and taunting use of white privilege) and emblazon it on a t-shirt in the 21st century.
Streep is a well-respected, Oscar–winning American actress. She’s been in the business for decades. It’s difficult to understand how neither Streep nor her team saw any issues with promoting an image of smiling white women wearing t-shirts saying “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.”
There many people on this earth today who are descendants of people who didn’t have the luxury of that option. Black women in particular during that time period were fighting the good fight on all fronts as women, as black people, as poor people, as people of a certain class, etc.
That fight continues today.
As noted, the quote is from a London woman of a bygone era and it has its place in history for better or for worse.
White women have said a lot of terrible things over the course of history, doesn't mean you wear it on a shirt. https://t.co/Y02pmmnJCL
— #sistah jamilah (@JamilahLemieux) October 5, 2015
I respect Meryl Streep, but she is a privileged White woman wearing a t-shirt with the word "slave." Stop with the shenanigans y'all.
— ReBecca Theodore (@FilmFatale_NYC) October 5, 2015
— StayCalm&Resist (@DEEPTHOUGHT1970) October 5, 2015
Please don't make any excuses for Meryl Streep or the person she is playing Emmeline Pankhurst who said "I'd rather be a rebel than a slave"
— Yukio Strachan (@boldandworthy) October 5, 2015
Never a good idea to wear a t-shirt with the words slave and rebel. Won't be surprised if #MerylStreep has a new publicist by tomorrow.
— Beatrice-Elizabeth (@MissBeaE) October 5, 2015
“History” being the operative word. Pankhurst’s work was clearly and unapologetically on behalf of white women and white women only. That is a historical fact that should be kept intact for the film. Her once powerful sounding words, are more like nails on a chalkboard in today’s embrace of true feminism, intersectional feminism.
Also, to be clear, the Parliament abolished slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833, but just like in the U.S. and other places around the world, the effects of slavery did not vanish upon the legal victory. The vestiges of slavery were very much still evident in early 20th century London, so even in the historical context, Pankhurst’s words are not easily swallowed. (Side Note: Those enslaved in the British Caribbean did not see freedom until 1838.)
In her interview with TimeOut London, Streep says “Grace, respect, reserve and empathetic listening are qualities sorely missing from the public discourse now.” Perhaps she should have listened to her own advice.