If you’re a part of film or feminist circles on Twitter, you’re already familiar with the latest debacle in White Feminism™– those Suffragette cast shirts. You know the ones.
Yes, those shirts read “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave,” which is tone deaf as hell. However, a troubling number of people are defending the shirts, accusing those who are upset about them as being overly sensitive. So we whipped up this handy guide for those who are confused (or those who lack the time and patience to educate the shirt’s defenders).
[bctt tweet=”Yes, those shirts read “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave,” which is tone deaf as hell.”]
1. Yes, the quote is from Emmeline Pankhurst. That doesn’t make it any better.
The most widely touted defense over the shirts is that the quote in context of the shirts “isn’t really about slavery.” For reference, the full quote is “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave. I’d rather die than submit.” However, historically, the quote refers directly to slavery, with Pankhurst at one point asserting that women’s lack of the vote had “grown the most appalling slavery, compared with which negro slavery falls into insignificance.”
But you know who else would’ve rather been a rebel than a slave? Actual slaves.
Suffragettes were certainly important, but are also notorious for their exclusion of women of color. White women championing the vote were only fighting for themselves, believing their goals would be more palatable and easily understood without black and brown faces in the mix. By choosing a portion of Pankhurst’s quote that ignores the actual people of color, we obscure their struggles and further erase them from history.
There are SO MANY other quotes or phrases that could have been used on those shirts. Suffragette went with the most tone-deaf option.
2. Feminism is useless unless you engage with it as historical and intersectional.
There is a history of racism within feminism, and choosing to ignore that means putting the added struggles of being a woman and a person of color aside. I’ve written about Suffragette’s historical whitewashing before, and these shirts further enforce the film’s lack of racial/ethnic awareness. Ultimately, this benefits only white women. Contrary to popular opinion, the term “white feminism” does not mean “a feminist who is white.” It refers to a brand of feminism that only serves white women by refusing to recognize WoC.
Those who continually shout that it’s “just a quote” or “just a figure of speech” fail to understand that language and representation go deeper than what they’re simply “supposed” to be. Sure, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” might sound revolutionary and badass to a white woman, but to a Black woman, it is insulting and exclusionary.
3. If you are a white person defending the shirt…
It appears (in my Twitter circles, at least) that those defending the quote are white. The issue here is that it’s become white people policing what people of color are permitted to be offended or upset about.
WoC have perspective that white women do not. Because we are subjected to sexism and racism in conjunction, the sexism we face is different from white women’s (and even within WoC, the sexism differs based on your racial/ethnic group). If a WoC recognizes and calls you out on something, listen to us. Ultimately, we’re on the same team. Respect our perspective and concerns. Don’t silence us.
4. No, they are not quoting Star Wars.
This was my favorite contribution to the Twitter conversations surrounding the shirts. Most people were tongue-in-cheek about it, but some wonderfully naive Twitter users sincerely believe that the shirts were appropriating the Star Wars quote “I’d rather be a rebel than serve the Empire.” If only that were true.
Here’s to more PoC behind the scenes in the future to avoid other incidents such as these.
3 replies on “Here’s why this feminist hates those Suffragette shirts”
While I appreciate your sentiments, and in no way wish for what I’m about to say to be misconstrued as support for the “I’d rather be” campaign, you have erred in utilizing historical perspective in your rationale.
While it is true that Ms. Parkhurst was a suffragette it is equally true that she was an English suffragette operating within the parameters of the English perception of both slavery and equal rights. By failing to acknowledge that she was English and active in England, and not in direct communication with the nascent American movement(s) for gender equality, you link her to our American understanding of slavery.
While only slightly less odious, the English commonwealths experience and eventual retreat from slavery was much different, in form, application and outcome, as well as perception by the English themselves and trying to link this statement to American history is disingenuous. England has it’s own skeletons and I’m not defending their approach either but rather I’m pointing out that you are linking two spots in time that have no real contextual bearing to each other to make your point.
@Chris K: But Pankhurst herself made comments indicating her limited understanding, thus, she’s fair game for an historical perspective regarding her beliefs that white slavery was more insidious.
Weird, Shayan Farooq. Muslim Arabs enslaved over 20 MILLION People. Let me guess…not YOUR ancestors? bahahaha