Meryl Streep’s Suffragette T-Shirt Disaster: What Were They Thinking?

Sometimes context isn’t just important, it’s everything.

Take the white, liberal celebrity fail of the week, this time starring critical darling and very talented actress Meryl Streep. Streep and her (white) Suffragette co-stars — including two of my personal favorites, Romola Garai and Carey Mulligan — were looking blithe, powerful, and fashion-y as they posed in crisp, white T-shirts bearing the slogan, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave,” for Time Out London. The words are a quotation from pioneering British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst, who is portrayed by Streep in the upcoming film.

And hey, in the context of a century ago, Pankhurst sounds pretty good:

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.

But to a contemporary American audience — or anyone familiar with American history — the juxtaposition of the words, “rebel,” “slave,” a T-shirt, and slim, white actresses talking about fighting for the vote reads quite a bit differently.  “This is not a 20th-century voting rights rally — it’s a highly produced fashion shoot which features beautiful, famous white women promoting a film with a quote that references slavery,” wrote Zeba Blay. “Perpetuating the idea that sexism and racism are somehow the same thing, especially when it comes to the history of slavery, is pretty damaging.”

For a loose comparison, imagine almost any line from Sylvia Plath’s dark poem “Daddy,” which uses the Holocaust as a metaphor for a twisted family relationship, lifted right out of the context of a poem and emblazoned on a commodified designer T-shirt. Brilliant on the page, the phrase “Not God but a swastika,” wouldn’t read quite the same way if an actress portraying Plath in a biopic wore it on a magazine cover, would it?

I monitored the Internet reaction to the pictures with fascination. There were degrees of frustration, naturally. While some of the strongest voices said that a person with Streep’s privilege should avoid employing the word “slave” as a metaphor, others people were simply shaking their virtual heads and admonishing the stars and their teams to think a little bit more .

“Slavery,” “shackles,” “bondage,” “holocaust” without a capital H — all of these words can and should be used when they’re needed to make a strong point. But it’s wise, and ethical, to have an understanding of how specific words might hurt people and what they signify in terms of an entire group’s experience before we employ them blithely. It’s 2015. American racism has been a major news story, unavoidable even in Hollywood or the UK. How did no one — not anyone at the magazine, or on the film’s or actresses’ publicity teams — see those two words and consider the context? No one said, “Hey, guys, maybe let’s pick another line from the speech!” The logical conclusion is that nearly everyone involved in the effort was so white that no one even noticed. If so, that reveals a bigger problem with the film effort. Because British suffragists weren’t all white, either:

And beyond being racially diverse, the original suffragists weren’t saints. Both stateside and in the UK, there were uncomfortable alliances forged by some early feminists with racists, fascists, and other unsavory elements. Pankhurst made the slavery comparison elsewhere in her work, and those other words come across clearly and disturbingly, whatever the context:

As with all radical movements, flaws, fissures, and splits over tactics and ideals marked the fight for the women’s vote. Yet the way the T-shirt uncritically adopted Pankhurst’s line makes me worry that the film — which I’d anticipated as a strong look at an interesting moment for radical activism — is a “You go, girl!” biopic that will glamorize the suffragists, without showing the warps and knots that in fact make them interesting. Maybe that’s not the case. But I certainly hope that in 100 years, a film about today’s generation of feminists won’t reduce us to a slogan that papers over our failures, disagreements, and shortcomings, all while offending another group in the process.