Meryl Streep, ‘Suffragette,’ and feminism’s sin of erasure (COMMENTARY)

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Actress Meryl Streep arrives for the Gala screening of the film "Suffragette" for the opening night of the British Film Institute (BFI) Film Festival at Leicester Square in London October 7, 2015. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

Actress Meryl Streep arrives for the gala screening of the film “Suffragette” for the opening night of the British Film Institute Film Festival at Leicester Square in London on Oct. 7, 2015. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

(RNS) The actresses behind “Suffragette,” the new Meryl Streep-Carey Mulligan film about the struggle to get women the vote in early 20th-century Britain, have landed themselves in hot water.

When asked if she would consider herself a feminist in an interview with Time Out London, Streep declined to take the label, saying instead, “I am a humanist, I am for nice easy balance.” That is one thing you can say when you are doing publicity for your feminist movie, but it has upset plenty of people — probably the very same people who would have been excited to see the movie when it is released on Oct. 23.

After the interview came out, Streep and her co-stars (including Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, and Romola Garai) came under fire for photographs of them wearing shirts emblazoned with the words “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” The statement is part of a quote from Emmeline Pankhurst, the British suffragette Streep plays in the movie.

The full quote reads: “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.”

It’s a nice sentiment “in a bubble,” as Ira Madison III wrote over at Vulture. But neither Britain nor America exists outside of a bubble when it comes to things like rebels and slaves, and Streep or Mulligan or their publicists or someone in marketing ought to have thought of that before these women donned these shirts and posed with smiling faces.

“The message that Streep and company are co-signing,” writes Kirsten West Savali at The Root, “is that one cannot be both enslaved and a rebel; and tucked between those lines lies the erasure of a dual existence that black women have been forced to navigate in one form or another throughout history.”

Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. She is interested in the intersection of church and popular culture. Photo courtesy of Laura Turner

Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. She is interested in the intersection of church and popular culture. Photo courtesy of Laura Turner

White feminism in the West has a long history of erasure of women of color. When Pankhurst spoke the words she did, she was most likely pretty ignorant of what it meant to be a black woman in England. That mindset still plagues feminism to this day, so that the white women who too often grab the megaphones are unaware of or unwilling to listen to their sisters of color.

All of us — especially those of us who consider ourselves religious — have a duty to listen when we would rather speak, and to cede power where we would grab it. A slave can be a rebel, and a feminist can be aware of her shortcomings — but we have a long way to go.

(Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. In addition to being a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s “Her.meneutics” blog, she has also written for publications such as Books & Culture and The Bold Italic. )

LM/AMB END TURNER

  • Barry the Baptist

    Wow, those articles you referenced took a worthwhile cause and divided it right down the middle.

    White people say insensitive sh!t that needs to be corrected: I get that.

    What I don’t get is this “us versus them” attitude that encourages throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You may not like it, but “white feminism” is still feminism; Meryl Streep, Emmeline Pankhurst, and the like aren’t advocating rights for white women only but are being treated as if they were. If they need to be educated, so be it. But writing them off as if they will never be able to understand and contribute? That’s just shooting the movement in the foot.

    Also, there are a lot of non-Americans out there who think the “rebel/slave faux pas” is egotistical, American-centric nonsense. Check the comments of those links.

  • Dominic

    It’s a movie, for heaven’s sake. The word “slave” used here has no relation to the American Black slavery issue, but to the imagined status some women felt they were in pre-equal treatment. Why turn this PR event into a racist argument? Streep has been ranting over more roles for women in film for decades, yet has taken most of those roles herself. To think that this film or these tee shirts erases the needs of “women of color” is purely simple-minded. Colored women had bigger issues to deal with than voting back at the turn of the 20th Century.
    IT’S A MOVIE.

  • Thibodeau

    Radical feminists hijack virtually any argument by pretending we are defined by nothing more than sex and skin color, reducing humanity to warring factions with no common interests nor ability for mutual understanding. They also punch the judgmental rage button so frequently that even otherwise-sympathetic moderates are becoming numb to their arguments.