“I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”: Meryl Streep’s Suffragette slogan stirs racist outcry

Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan pose in T-shirts to promote new movie. In the US, many interpret the T-shirts as sympathetic to the losing side in the US Civil War

Suffragette stars Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep, Romola Garai and Anne-Marie Duff, who donned the sloganed T-shirts for a recent Time Out London feature. Photograph: Time Out, via Twitter

Suffragette stars Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep, Romola Garai and Anne-Marie Duff, who donned the sloganed T-shirts for a recent Time Out London feature. Photograph: Time Out, via Twitter

 

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.

Meryl Streep, who plays Emmeline Pankhurst in Sarah Gavron’s picture, and Carey Mulligan, who stars as a working-class woman radicalised by everyday oppression, both posed for the cover of Time Out in T-shirts bearing the slogan “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.”

The line comes from a speech delivered by Mrs Pankhurst in 1913. Jessica Kiang, who writes for the respected film site IndieWire, remarked amusingly: “Hm, PROVOCATIVE. I’d rather be a really cool thing than a super horrible thing. I prefer cake to Ebola”, but there were, initially, few expressions of offense in Britain. “It has been read by at least half-a-million people in the UK and we have received no complaints,” Time Out later remarked.

Meanwhile, in America
When the image registered in the US, however, significant degrees of fury broke out. More than a few commentators felt that the quote showed disrespect to African-American slaves. A Twitter user from Brooklyn remarked: “’I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’ shirt is suggesting that black people had the choice of enslavement, when we didn’t. So disrespectful.”

Whereas this response could, perhaps, have been foreseen, the further suggestion that the word “rebel” evoked connotations of the Confederacy must, surely, have taken the UK producers entirely by surprise. The editors of Time Out, a perennially right-on publication, which originated as a counter-culture bulletin in 1968, certainly can never have expected to find themselves identified with the wrong side on the US Civil War.

“The original quote was intended to rouse women to stand up against oppression,” the magazine’s response continued. “It is a rallying cry, and absolutely not intended to criticise those who have no choice but to submit to oppression, or to reference the Confederacy, as some people who saw the quote and photo out of context have surmised.”

As if things weren’t already tasty enough, the premiere of Suffragette at the London Film Festival on Wednesday was disrupted by activists from the Sisters Uncut movement, which campaigns against domestic violence. It is estimated that more than 100 protestors jumped the barriers and invaded the red carpet on Leicester Square. Helena Bonham Carter, unflappable as ever, responded: “I’m glad our film has done something. That’s exactly what it’s there for.”

The media foreground
The controversy over the tee-shirt demonstrates how cautious film-makers and their publicity warriors must be in the age of instant mass offense. Whereas the producers will be happy to see the their film appearing in the news pages, none will enjoy the (admittedly absurdly overstretched) associations with the Confederacy. The story also confirms the extent to which online debate is still driven by US commentators. In an earlier age, when copies of Time Out rarely made it outside greater London, it is likely that no significant furore would have been generated.

At any rate, these satellite debates have done much to nudge conversations about women’s rights into the media foreground. Gavron’s picture, which has received generally positive reviews, is the first dedicated study of the UK suffragette movement to play on the big screen. Nobody can say it is now being ignored.

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