“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 here 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.”
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