Suffragette Ad Campaign: You’d Rather Do…What Now?

Feminist films, you can do better.

The new film Suffragette will be released next weekend, October 12. Starring Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan, the film is receiving a lot of buzz as a raw and “unfeminine” depiction of the women’s suffrage movement in WWI-era London. As an Americanist and African-Americanist, I do not have the knowledge to say much about the historical accuracy of this film. But as a smart-ass female grad student of color who has read and re-read enough slave narratives and who is consumed by the issues of race, gender, sex/sexuality in media representation, I’m bound to inject my opinion into an ad campaign like the one below.


My immediate reaction:

Rich white women donning t-shirts with the word “SLAVE” on them = hell no. Meryl Streep GRINNING like a fool wearing a t-shirt with the word “SLAVE” on it = double hell no. On a purely visual level, the whole thing bums me out.

Hmm, I’m also having issues with the wording.

When I take the word “slave” to its most obvious (for me) referent, that of a black person abducted from Africa and forced to work for free in American plantations, the phrase makes no sense. Why can’t one be both a rebel and a slave? There were plenty of slave rebellions that prove that one could. Does a rebellious slave cease to be a slave? Does resisting the status quo remove your legal status as property of another person? To whom exactly is this t-shirt referring?

Ok, let’s back up. Why is this my reaction? Well, I have a friend…

One time a black female friend of mine told me a story. She has told me lots of stories over the years, but this one is relevant: she went to a white female friend’s house for dinner. As other women complimented the host on the food, she laughed and yelped, “It better be good. I’ve been slaving away in the kitchen all day!” My friend repeated that line and my stomach immediately tensed. I knew that feeling. TFW you are the only person of color in an all-white space and someone makes a joking reference to slavery and you have no fucking idea how to react. Do I frown? Do I pretend I didn’t hear it? Do I laugh? Do I get on my soap box? Do I make an awesome clap back joke in response? I’m sad to say that I’ve responded with silence more times than I can probably remember. The moral of this story is that if you are a white person, unless you are presenting a well-researched paper on slavery or quoting a black person, avoid analogizing yourself to a slave at all costs.

But it’s not just personal. This phrase raises important historical questions about the relationship between white men, white women, and black people pre-and-postbellum that a t-shirt cannot answer.

It is irresponsible to publicize this image without a nuanced historical context. I may not know much about British history or the suffrage movement in England, but I know that there is a long history of white men and white women in America using the word “slave” and slave allegory/analogy to promote their own freedom movements. And people in England would have been all too familiar with this trend. The forefathers of the 18th century referred to themselves as ‘slaves to the King’ during the American Revolution, white women in favor of temperance (which was closely bound to anti-domestic violence activism) wrote about alcoholics as ‘slaves to the bottle’, and white American women fighting for the vote certainly spoke of themselves as ‘slaves to men’, bound to a system in which they had no political stake. But they weren’t referring to themselves as black slaves. Shudder to think!

Our forefathers and all of these groups knew that if they used the “slave” analogy as a way to demonstrate for their own freedom they might imply that this same rhetoric held true for African slaves. And then white people would be forced to reckon with the wild hypocrisy of asking for rights while enslaving and disenfranchising an entire group of people! Of course, some of them were forced to do such reckoning. White men panicked plenty and publicly about the possibility that they might not be so different from slaves. White men like Thomas Jefferson, who devotes almost all of Query XIV “Laws” in his racist-as-all-hell Notes on the State of Virginia to the topic of slavery. In this Query, Jefferson explains how America is establishing laws that will be different from the ones that they lived under as subjects of the British empire. Jefferson must insist upon the overall inferiority of black people in order to solidify his place above them :

“…among the Romans, their slaves were often their rarest artists… But they were the race of the whites. It is not [African slaves’] condition then, but nature, which has produced the distinction.” (237)[1]

Ugh, fucking Jefferson. Anyway, white women took note of these exclusionary tactics when raging against the patriarchy.

During slavery, white female suffragettes in America used abolition to equate their position under men with that of slaves under whites. However, this was always a fraught relation. Once black people were freed, white women largely changed their tune. After slavery ended in 1865, white women fought for the right to vote on a strategy of exclusion like that of Jefferson. During Reconstruction, the brief period in which black men gained the right to vote, white men and women played upon racist fears of the mythical “black beast rapist” invading white homes to miscegenate the population. Similar myths about “black nature” were disseminated about black women as hypersexual prostitutes. Although these racist myths worked to erect a public image of white women as helpless victims—and therefore maybe not the best candidates for voters—they also, directly and/or indirectly, worked to raise the public profile of white women. The rhetoric went, ‘If white women are getting raped by black men, white men may need a woman’s touch in the voting process to prevent such things from ever happening again.’ In other words, white women found opportunities to gain freedom on the backs of black men and women.

Editor’s note: Don’t forget, white women also made the argument that they should be enfranchised to overwhelm and “cancel out” the black vote, since there would be more white women enfranchised than both black men and women combined. 

Alright, that’s a lot of stuff. But one more problem: I don’t need an intellectually complex context, but can I get any context at all?

Where did the phrase, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” even come from? According to the few news outlets who reported positively on the ad campaign, the quote is from a speech that Emmeline Pankhurst (leading suffragette played by Meryl Streep in the film) made at a London rally in 1913. This speech is nearly impossible to find online so I do not know how anyone has verified this information. As someone who likes to have a full text to work with, I want to find the actual speech and see what the context may have been for this phrase.

For now, let’s do some math and add up what we know about the impact of this ad in the present:

  • There’s a movie about a largely white movement for the right to vote coming out called Suffragette
  • White celebrity women (who may or may not identify as feminists) wear a t-shirt that says “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”
  • Most white women for whom the ad is probably intended, who may not know the context of the quote, embrace the obviously intended “badass” message as in favor of girl power and all that jazz, just as this blog did:

‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave,’ is what Emmeline Pankhurst said at a London rally in 1913. ‘Emmeline Pankhurst chained herself to the railings so you could vote,’ is what my mild-mannered mum said, when at 18 and first eligible to vote, her lazy, idle, good-for-nothing daughter couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed, to do so.

Even a generous reading such as this leaves me cold. It still doesn’t address the modern-day racial ties of the word “slave.” Given the subject of the film being advertised, it is likely that “slave” means “woman as slave of man.”

Let’s not forget that as this film comes out, riding a wave of support for feminism in pop culture, the conversation is still really exclusionary. Celebrity white women have been speaking out about the gender wage gap in America in ways that continue to shut out women of color (see: Patricia Arquette’s Oscars speech and post-Oscars speech

MATH: Uncomfy visual + poor phrasing + lacking historical awareness or nuance = a thoughtless ad campaign

Will I see this damn thing?

A promotional campaign for a film centered on the rights of women that fails to take the perspective of people of color into account is not exactly making me want to run to my nearest movie theater on October 12. But, I will probably still see Suffragette for research purposes. Or… maybe I will torrent it for being-petty purposes.


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