As the release date for Suffragette drew close, the amount of criticism the film was receiving seemed to be growing greater and greater by the day, without the film having even hit the screens. Unless you have been absent from the internet for the past week, you will already have an inkling of why.
Observations that Suffragette movement has been whitewashed as well as Meryl Streep claiming to be a ‘humanist’ rather than ‘feminist’, were both given a fair amount of negative press. But it’s the photoshoot of the cast in T Shirts bearing the Emmeline Pankhurst quote ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’, which has by far caused the most anger and backlash.
I’ll admit I initially did not recognise the problem with the t-shirt slogan. When I saw the quote I smiled and nodded in agreement, seeing it only as powerful and inspirational. Therefore I can empathise with the poor misguided souls who thought this photoshoot was a good idea. Perhaps it was because, like me, they have the privilege of not having their race in the forefront of their mind, and so did not immediately see how the quote can very easily and rightly be seen as horribly, horribly offensive.
The problem with the quote is that it is comparing the oppression of not having the vote with that of slavery, something which is absolutely inarguably much greater in severity. I’ve seen people compare the quote with essentially meaning, ‘I’d rather over-exaggerate my own oppression than acknowledge yours’, and I cringed at my own ignorance when I realised how accurate this is. In defense of Emmeline Pankhurst I can understand what she was trying to get across with her use of the word ‘slave’: slave to the patriarchy, women being slaves to their husbands, slaves to society. But in using it she overlooked why it’s such a powerful word in the first place; because slavery was so dehumanising, so barbaric, so wrong. Along with the fact slavery and sexism are incomparable things, the quote also introduces a nasty implication of choice when it comes to slavery. ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’ implies that you are fully capable of escaping slavery if you just make the choice to be a rebel instead. Again, this is clearly both wrong and insensitive.
However, after fully taking on board that putting this quote on a pedestal was a mistake, I’m not sure that other criticism towards the film is as fair. For example, take the news that the film has been ‘whitewashed’ (saturated with white actors and actresses in a way which is disproportional and inaccurate). Admittedly this is a complex issue because, when looking at the cast of Suffragette, clearly there is indeed an abundance of white men and women, making it yet another film that is choosing to not represent men and women of colour. But whilst many argue that there is no excuse for this, I wondered whether or not this was not so much a case of ‘whitewashing’, and more a case of trying to stay as historically accurate as possible. When I did a little research into the Suffragettes, the photographs that came up are of white women on their own, white women in pairs, white women in groups, or white women being taken away by white men. Although some sources claim some Indian women were a part of the suffragettes, most historians seem to believe that if a black woman had wanted to join up, she would not have been met with open arms.
Therefore, I cannot help but feel it may have more offensive if the film portrayed black feminists as welcomed into a movement that, in reality, they were not welcome in. Could this not be seen as attempting to rewrite history, trying to pretend that the Suffragettes welcomed women from all races, classes and backgrounds? Trying to present these white women as not racist, when there’s good evidence that they were, seems disrespectful in a whole different way. Another thing which seems to be distinctly strange is why this film in particular is getting critiqued so harshly on this issue, whilst other films seem protected in some way from this kind of criticism. The Intern, The Hunger Games and Burnt, all out around the same time, launched whitewashed posters, whitewashed trailers, but yet not one of them have received criticism of this nature.
It seems with Suffragette people are looking for things that are wrong, rather than things that are right. I think perhaps in an age where feminism is seen as a bit of a dirty word, we should be celebrating that this film made it to the screens at all, rather than continue shaking our heads because it is not entirely perfect. At the end of the day, it’s still Hollywood, and the problems surrounding that aren’t going to go away overnight just because they make a film about feminism. The T-shirt was a horrible mistake, but the film still might be something truly wonderful.