My 17 year-old daughter goes to a school that prides itself on its social justice agenda. Gay couples can walk around holding hands and not get judged. Three of her friends are transitioning genders. Today she told me that during their class discussing racism a group of Jewish students wrote an angry letter of protest that Ava DuVernay’s film Selma did not include the Jews who were on the side of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Some student from some class writes an angry letter every week about a certain group being excluded from the topic at hand. This kind of debate at her school is encouraged, and should be.
For my daughter’s generation, on Tumblr every day is a new outrage, a new protest, a new issue coming up — someone is offended about something. The next day, that outrage has inexplicably vanished (though recorded and filed away on the what-not-to-do-list) and is replaced with a new and different outrage. 20,000 read-mores later, the birth of a hashtag as news filler, and maybe a story on the nightly news — but has anything really changed anywhere for anyone?
We’ve been living with reactionary outrage culture for a while now. Good or bad things can come from people assembling into large groups. It can turn into a protest movement or it can turn into an angry mob. Lately, though, it seems like the beast of outrage is getting hungrier.
Does it help anyone to overreact to something Gwyneth Paltrow said in an interview? It whips people up into a hashtag frenzy, only to be clarified the next day. Does it help anyone to latch onto a misspoken reply and then accuse Matt Damon of being a homophobe, a charge that anyone should know is false if they gave it a minute of thought. Or do we do it just because he’s the outrage meal of the day.
The problem with outrage culture when it comes to the Oscar race is that it can also help or do real harm to so-called progress. It took a long time to get to the point where a black female director had a strong potentially shot at a Best Director Oscar. Ava DuVernay became the first black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe. But because of one scene in Selma involving LBJ, white men everywhere banded together and formed an outrage mob. Because we still live in a patriarchy (despite the outrage cycles against it) that story made it to high places — CNN, TIME and even NBC Nightly News. Resist this as I did, the controversy still drew a sharp line between white men and everyone else.
If any bruised men were genuinely offended, they ought to have DuVernay brought forward to say, “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings,” with a schoolteacher standing behind her to supervise. Caught up in the sting of their own knee-scrape, they seemed unable to separate that scene from the bigger picture at hand — what Selma represented, who wrote it, who directed it, and the radical change it embodied just by its mere presence in the Oscar race. To me it was crybaby caterwauling that did nothing but destroy the potential celebration of DuVernay.
For people like me who have spent more than a decade advocating for black filmmakers and women directors — or, hell, even championing films ABOUT women — it’s been heartbreaking to watch the last two days of outrage all but destroy Suffragette, the only film in the Oscar race that is written by, produced by, directed by women; a film starring women, by and about women evolving, changing their minds and deciding to fight. Specifically, one woman who worked as a laundress whose own life was being smothered by the patriarchal strangle-hold on her rights.
Target: Meryl Streep
She says she’s a humanist not a feminist.
She plays Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette.
She wears a t-shirt for a photo-shoot, offensive to many, that says “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.”
Another offensive quote by Pankhurst is brought up.
Pankhurst made racist remarks, Streep plays that role, therefore Meryl Streep must be a racist.
Suffragette is a racist film because it doesn’t cover black suffragettes
What began as a stupid decision to have four white actresses wear that t-shirt spread like wildfire around the internet in typical internet meme fashion, shared here and there with millions of easy mouse-clicks. Essentially, for anyone who spends anytime at all online, we are all of us watching an ongoing daily slideshow of images and memes that serve to confirm or offend our beliefs. We watch this endless parade of images and react to them with the hair-trigger twitch of our fingertips. Thanks to sites like Buzzfeed, Tumblr and Facebook the images and memes become clickbait, driving traffic to websites to help pay their bills.
There’s understandable indignation over Pankhurst’s most potentially damning quote, where it was said that a society that denied women the right to vote had “grown the most appalling slavery, compared with which negro slavery falls into insignificance.” Although those words were apparently printed in 1913 in a pamphlet from the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union), there can be no clear defense of it because no one has been able to find the full context. Aside from a passing reference in a book by Christina Bolt, further details about its origins or precise authorship do not appear anywhere online, or in any biography of Pankhurst. Moreover, the footnote to the quote cites another book called “In the Company of Educated Women,” but a quick search of that text (which has the subtitle: A History of Women and Higher Education in America) does not turn up the name Pankhurst, nor the quote itself. Perhaps in some archival text somewhere it can be found — and I’m not saying it isn’t true. But as of now there is no way to double check its attribution or, more importantly, check it for context. In the absence of better evidence, can we not give her the benefit of the doubt? But no. Outrage culture does not allow for that. Stone first, ask questions later.
Probably no one bothered to research Pankhurst’s own writings on slavery, which can be easily found. This is from her autobiography:
“Young as I was—I could not have been older than five years—I knew perfectly well the meaning of the words slavery and emancipation. From infancy I had been accustomed to hear pro and con discussions of slavery and the American Civil War. Although the British government finally decided not to recognise the Confederacy, public opinion in England was sharply divided on the questions both of slavery and of secession. Broadly speaking, the propertied classes were pro-slavery, but there were many [Pg 2]exceptions to the rule. Most of those who formed the circle of our family friends were opposed to slavery, and my father, Robert Goulden, was always a most ardent abolitionist. He was prominent enough in the movement to be appointed on a committee to meet and welcome Henry Ward Beecher when he arrived in England for a lecture tour. Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” was so great a favourite with my mother that she used it continually as a source of bedtime stories for our fascinated ears. Those stories, told almost fifty years ago, are as fresh in my mind to-day as events detailed in the morning’s papers. Indeed they are more vivid, because they made a much deeper impression on my consciousness. I can still definitely recall the thrill I experienced every time my mother related the tale of Eliza’s race for freedom over the broken ice of the Ohio River, the agonizing pursuit, and the final rescue at the hands of the determined old Quaker. Another thrilling tale was the story of a negro boy’s flight from the plantation of his cruel master. The boy had never seen a railroad train, and when, staggering along the unfamiliar railroad track, he heard the roar of an approaching train, the clattering car-wheels seemed to his strained imagination to be repeating over and over again the awful words, “Catch a nigger—catch a nigger—catch a nigger—” This was a terrible story, and throughout my childhood, whenever I rode in a train, I thought of that poor runaway slave escaping from the pursuing monster.”
Even if the offensive quote was written by Pankhurst, and even if she indulged in rhetorical hyperbole in her feelings that women’s lack of the right to vote was more significant than the plight of African-American slaves — it would rightly reveal her insensitivity but should not necessarily condemn her as a racist.
Suffragette is about one woman whose mind is changed to become a suffragette. It is not about the entire movement.
If there is any good thing about the hysteria whipped up yesterday, it may be to provide a platform to the deeper and essential discussion about how minorities were marginalized during the suffragette movement. Unfortunately though, it seems that this could not be discussed without generating that catchy hashtag — “#feminismsowhite” — as though nothing in feminism was of value anymore. One woman said that white women got the right to vote before black women did — and this is not technically true. It’s just that black women, like black men, in hardcore racist Southern states were disenfranchised because of the Jim Crow laws. While it’s true that many white feminists 110 years ago did not fight as hard as they should have for their sisters of color and deserve to be held accountable for that, I’m not sure the filmmakers behind Suffragette are the right targets for that rage and criticism.
The thing about the Oscar race, though, is that controversy can make all the difference between whether a film is even seen or not. Last year, the pseudo controversy that flared up rather suspiciously around Selma gave voters a handy reason not to watch the movie, audience members a reason not to buy a ticket, and a pitiful segment of chronically defensive white folks everywhere a chance to feel victimized. Now, women will have a reason to buy a ticket to a film starring a white man (because almost all of them always do) rather than buy a ticket to #feminismsowhite Suffragette.
Today, Meryl Streep and Emmeline Pankhurst are the racists du jour. But the worm will turn. You have to ask yourself, when will it turn on you? More importantly, what does protesting a movie that barely got made in the first place do for your larger cause? And where were you when films by and about black women, for instance, hit the box office? I know I dropped the ball on Gina Price-Bythwood’s Beyond the Lights while my friends Kris Tapley and Mark Harris did not. Guess how much that movie made at the box office? $14 million.
Why didn’t more people buy a ticket to see the movie about the Mexican American track team called McFarland, USA — which made a respectable $40 million. The clickety click of outrage culture is reacting to the slideshow.
Last year when the #oscarssowhite hashtag made news, it probably helped get Selma a Best Picture nomination, but receiving only two nominations assured it would go no further than that. And guess what? There are three films this year headed into the Oscar race with black leads — Beasts of No Nation (still the best film of the year), Creed and Concussion. If none of them get in we will once again be headed for #oscarssowhite.
Controversy puts a stink on something that takes years to wear off. Selma was just a movie. It didn’t threaten LBJ’s legacy any more than Suffragette diminishes the suffering of slaves (ask yourself how stupid a person would have to be to look at that t-shirt and think it let white people off the hook for slavery) and the ongoing struggle to emerge out from under the many remnants and reiterations of devastating Jim Crow laws. They’re movies. Right? You know, art? Open to interpretation and discussion?
If you were one of the people who was genuinely offended by the t-shirt Meryl Streep was wearing, it is not my place to tell you how you’re supposed to feel. But if you looked at that t-shirt and saw a cackling racist witch dancing on the graves of millions of dead African American slaves? Well, that’s a different story entirely. Can’t the debate take place without reckless character assassination? I guess not because in the end no one really minds the patriarchy in charge it if means they can spend an entire day pointing an accusatory finger at someone and watching them go down.
The wheel of outrage goes round and round. Where it stops, nobody knows. The reason there are so many articles that accuse people of things they’re not guilty of is that it draws eyeballs. Outrage is clickbait profit for many websites with no end in site. I think we pay too high of a collective cost for this — we destroy too much in the process.
Coming soon to an outrage twitter feed near you: any film not about straight white men who have all the freedom in the world to remain in power.