Yesterday, I came across an article that totally blew my mind. My Facebook newsfeed was advertising posts concerning three-time Academy Award winning actor Meryl Streep, quite possibly one of the most recognisable faces in Hollywood, getting called out for the heinous act of… wearing a t-shirt!
Living in the post #shirtgate world, this didn’t actually come as much of a surprise. So many people online are practically lining up to be offended by the smallest things that it’s a wonder there’s any joy in their lives at all.
This, however, is a new low.
The shirt in question, was worn by Meryl Streep alongside a few other cast members of the recently released film Suffragette. As the name suggests, the film deals with the British suffragettes, who sought to gain the right for women to vote. Upon the shirt is a quote from Emmeline Pankhurst, the movement’s leader, played in the film by Meryl Streep. It states: “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.”
And that’s it. That’s all it says.
I guess my mind isn’t quite so corrupted by cynicism that the cause of all this outrage could immediately jump out at me. I actually pondered this for a while, wondering if maybe it was irritation at the commercialising of a quote from so prominent a figure, but seemingly this is not the case.
No, you see, it’s because, in the minds of the mouth-frothing keyboard warriors of the internet, “slave” = black and “rebel” = Confederate.
Now if, like me, your first reaction was uncontrollable laughter, don’t be alarmed. That indicates only that you are still sane. It’s ludicrous. It’s such an incredible stretch. It hurts my brain trying to reach the point where this massive logical leap could ever possibly make sense.
For starters, what is the obvious implication here? That Meryl Streep secretly supports the Confederates? That she’s a closeted racist? Or that to use the word “slave” is to misappropriate black culture? As though no other people in the history of the entire world have ever been enslaved. Seriously, is this the reality that these people think we live in?
Let’s get some context all up in this post. As stated before, Emmeline Pankhurst was a British suffragette. She was not a part of the American Civil War. The quote in question was taken from a speech she gave in 1913, intended to rally to action her fellow suffragettes.
Now, I’m not going to pretend that the suffragettes were without flaws. I’m not enough of an expert on the history of the movement to make a claim like that. The times in which they operated was far removed from the present and its undeniable that values have changed greatly since then. To pretend otherwise would serve only to do a disservice to all we have achieved.
But the problem is that this outrage over a simple quote goes far deeper than mere comment trolls. To date I have seen articles on many major news websites on this topic, such as the Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, Guardian and Telegraph, to name but a few. Apparently this is a big deal.
The sheer tonnage of outrage over something as innocuous as a t-shirt baffles me. The word “slave” is not inherently offensive. It is a word, like many others. It doesn’t belong to one group or another. It belongs to everyone.
This t-shirt does not endorse slavery. It doesn’t endorse the hardships endured by black people – and any other ethnicities – sold into lives of enforced labour and it certainly doesn’t endorse or even acknowledge the actions of the Confederates whose role in the affairs of the world hold no bearing whatsoever on the context of the quote. It is merely a t-shirt, referencing a line spoken by a historical figure who – regardless of anything else – played a key role in helping women in the United Kingdom to gain the right to vote.
If you’re reading anything else into it… then I pity you, and the miserable life you must lead where you see only hatred in a message only ever intended to inspire hope and much needed defiance in a time of inequality.
It’s not even that great a shirt.
A few examples of articles on this subject:
Cosmopolitan – http://www.cosmopolitan.com/politics/news/a47309/ava-duvernays-suffragette-t-shirt/?src=spr_FBPAGE&spr_id=1440_250608208
The Daily Mail – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3261464/Meryl-Streep-lambasted-d-rebel-slave-t-shirts-promoting-film-critics-say-white-washes-women-s-suffrage-movement.html
The Guardian – http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/oct/05/meryl-streep-backlash-suffragette-t-shirt-slogan
The Huffington Post – http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/10/05/suffragette-film-whitewash-poc_n_8247510.html
The Telegraph – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11914757/Racism-and-the-suffragettes-the-uncomfortable-truth.html