Suffragette: not a feminist film
You cannot celebrate a movement through appreciating but a fraction of its force.
Author: annie trussler – contributor
“I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” Consider that statement alone. No context, no pre-conceived notions, just the statement as it is. Many of you, I am sure, thought similarly to the general public: this is a slogan that promotes, above all things, racial tension. It may as well have been rewritten as, “I would rather be a white supremacist than a slave.” The comparison I have drawn may seem somewhat severe, but the severe weight behind the use of this statement demand equal severity.
This statement appeared on the t-shirts of the cast of Suffragette, a historical retelling of the Suffragette movement in the early twentieth century. Or, so they say. Amidst the apparently “historically accurate” cast, only white, cisgender names appear; names like Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Anne-Marie Duff, Ramola Garai. The focus of the cast, of course, being the suffragettes themselves: women who, for promotional purposes, donned shirts that read “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” A cast of all white, cisgender women.
Now, if this film intends to historically recreate the Suffragette movement, there are already gaping holes. It is known (perhaps not widely) that a heavy percentage of the women involved in the movement were Women of Color (referred to here onward as WoC). By the names listed above, it is already obvious that this demographic was, yet again, ignored entirely in place of the hollow heroism of the supposed heroes of the movement.
I do what I can to avoid repetition, but to do so, these sorts of injustices will have to stop repeating themselves. While I could continue to dissect just how immoral it is to entirely disregard the daring of the WoC involved, the use of the above statement in its current context is beyond any disrespect I have seen to date. “I would rather be a rebel than a slave.” The use of slave when compared to being a “rebel” suggests a level of superiority, a hierarchy of the status. To be a slave is to be lesser, to be incomplete, to be wrong. Whereas to be, as they say, a rebel, is be more, to be above, to be powerful. The lack of WoC in this film, paired with the boasting of the comparative of this slogan with the faces of the white cast members, an obvious conclusion can be drawn. “In order to truly rebel, to genuinely succeed in these movements and their retellings, you have to be white.”
Protesters and demonstrators have, once again, been forced to lie down during the film’s premier, to take to the internet in their outrage, and again, those who continue to make these films refuse to listen. Rather than taking this anger to heart, they continue to blatantly ignore history, and the minorities that were involved in its making. Feminism is not feminism without intersectionality. Feminism is not white, cisgender women. Feminism is the contributions of all races, all gender expressions, all times, all places; however, those who profit from the denial of this intersectionality refuse to accept anyone other than the majority could make history.
“I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” A slogan that promotes inequality, that demonizes those who have known slavery, those who have struggled under oppression. Rebellion and slavery are far from mutually exclusive. It is those who have suffered under tyranny that have fought against social hierarchies. Those who have known slavery are rebels with loud voices, and purposeful messages. Yet, it is the same people that have known brutal suffering that ignored, and made inferior through whitewashing, through the use of this slogan.
What is ignored here, especially by excluding WoC, is the fact that WoC did not receive the same rights as white women did. The suffrage movement ended, white women gained the right to vote, and WoC were still denied these rights. Jim Crow Racial Segregation silenced their political voices, despite their heavy involvement in the movement. Even despite this disregard of human rights, the story of Suffragette still insists that this injustice goes unaccounted for. The only victory that matters to these modern audiences is the victory of white women. The “rebels.”
As elections approach Canada once more, it is more important than ever to honor every woman who fought for these rights. There is no progress made in a partially told story. There is no activism in the denial of true heroes. Suffragette is far from a feminist film, regardless of the pandering of ignorant critics, or what the makers of the film claim. You cannot tell a feminist legend by demonizing and ignoring the WoC who fought, bled, and died for the end product. You cannot celebrate a movement through appreciating but a fraction of its force.