Filmfestival Assen – Sufragette: a critical look
“I’d Rather Be A Rebel Than A Slave”
For its October 2015 cover, the magazine Time Out London had invited Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff and Romola Garai from the movie Suffragette to be photographed. The actresses got to wear t-shirts with the slogan “I’d Rather Be A Rebel Than A Slave”, which was a quote from one of the most important British suffragette leaders, Emmeline Pankhurst (quoted in the movie). The choice to let the actresses pose in these t-shirts was met with a lot of unforeseen criticism.
Meanwhile, many blogs and news articles have been devoted to this topic, and it has even dominated the news on social media for a while. After the viewing of the movie at the film festival in Assen, I decided to dedicate this blog post on this topic as well and connect the history of feminism and the history of slavery that obviously come together in this debate..
Screening during Dutch Film Festival
Mid March 2016, a Dutch filmfestival, themed “Women in Film” had screened the movie Suffragette.
The film is starring Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts, a lower-class working mother in London in the early 20th century. Slowly but surely you can see Maud’s “radicalization” into the suffragette movement: women striving for their right to vote. The movie aptly shows how the movement was different for women of different classes, and the impact it had on the women who were affiliated with the suffragette movement.
I was fortunate enough to go to the festival, since the screening was followed by an important and interesting panel discussion. The discussion was led by our very own Nancy Jouwe, and in the panel were Berteke Waaldijk (Professor and Education Director at the Utrecht University), Mercedes Zandwijken (Keti Koti Dialoog Tafel) and Berna Toprak (Master student Gender&Ethnicity at the Utrecht University).
The main topic that was discussed in the panel, was the lack of proper representation of British women in the early 20th century, especially in London. Not one woman of color was shown during the entire movie, while they definitely lived in London during that period. Not only did they live in London, but during that same period, black women were actively fighting for their own rights, and their presence can be tracked down to several Black Women’s Movements. These movements were highly needed, since in the early 20th century racial discrimination was still not illegal. This meant that black women were not only discriminated based on their gender, but also based on their skin color. This led to black women not getting the right to vote at the same time as white women: this small but significant fact is often ignored in historical accounts. Thus, whenever we say “women got their vote in…” (enter a date), we actually mean white women. Women of color had to fight much longer before the society they lived in allowed them to vote, own a house or even have a bank account. Which is why the slogan “I’d Rather Be A Rebel Than A Slave” is such a painful thing to read, and especially to see being endorsed by women who fight for women’s rights. Because once again, those who are fighting for “women’s rights” are ignoring the painful history and current situation of black women. This comes back to how the movie represents the women’s movement, which is as an entirely white movement. The under (or rather: non-) representation of black women in the movie, made it seem as if their stories did not exist, as if their experience did not matter. A story supposedly about the feminist struggle was framed to only represent the white feminist struggle, and the struggles of black women were ignored.
Another point that came up during the panel was the “radicalism” in the movie. The film follows Maud Watts, a woman who slowly “radicalizes” within the suffragette movement: however, no violence against actual people is ever used. The fact that the movie showed radicalized women fighting for what they believe is right is noteworthy on its own. Not often do we see women in such a position depicted in movies. At the forefront of movements, going after their ideals and fighting for change. Seeing women in these powerful position matters, because it can empower current generations to fight for their own struggles. This brings us back to how little women’s activism is represented in general around the world; so the film is a reminder of the lack of representation about women’s rights activism as a whole. This movie is one of the very few that have been promoted widely, and so while it was nice to see a big production about women’s rights, it was a shame that they only focused on the struggle of white women (and with that, discarding and ignoring the struggles black women had to go through for much, much longer).
Why re-using the slogan in modern feminism is problematic
The slogan, especially when worn by white, upper/middle-class women not only seems to ignore the victims of slavery, but also ignores the fact that not everyone has the ability or “luxury” to be a rebel. Thus, the criticism it got was mainly about the insensitive nature of the magazine covers. Time Out Magazine has responded to all the critique: “The original quote was intended to rouse women to stand up against oppression – it is a rallying cry, and absolutely not intended to criticize 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.” 
Even if the original intent of the slogan was only to rouse or to be a rallying cry, it does not mean we can use it without rethinking the connotations attached to it, especially not in a time where feminism is finally working towards a more inclusive, intersectional approach. It puts the experience of white feminists above all else, above the experiences of black women, of women who are not capable to be rebellious, and of people who have actually been victims of slavery. For many, this is not the kind of feminism they identify with – but rather the kind of “white” feminism that has been criticized for centuries.
The magazine covers fell in line with the whole movie production (making it part of the PR campaign surrounding the film) and while the intention might not have been inherently bad, there does not seem to be any though behind it about the experience of non-white women (And of course, in the end: bad publicity is publicity as well). So while the campaign has gotten a lot of negative comments, it might not have completely failed in the eyes of the team behind it. This should however in no way encourage this way of campaigning. The main argument that came up in the panel was one mentioned before: both the slogan and the movie revolve solely around the experience of white women, and do not take in consideration any other lives or experiences. I think it is a good one to conclude with, because in the end, don’t we want to work towards a feminism that works for everyone, one that does not exclude or ignore certain people? It shouldn’t be a choice to focus either women’s rights or on racial equality. As mentioned before, women of color are not able to “choose” which inequality to fight: for them it is a reality they have to face each and every day.
This especially is why it is so important to highlight women’s struggles from a more intersectional approach. Not to only show white women, but also women of color, queer women or women with disabilities as I have mentioned in earlier posts. In the end, representation matters and ignorance does not make a problem fade away. It is always important to look at what stories are being told, for whom and by whom. By using a slogan such as this, those involved in the campaign chose to ignore struggles of non-white women, and thus represented (once again) a mostly white-centered form of feminism. It is time, however, to fight for a more inclusive representation of women and the feminist movement, and I truly hope that by keeping a critical lens, the movie industry can become a bit more aware of this problem too, step by step.