Pride and Present: Solidarities and Selective Histories in Progressive Social Movements

Pride and Present: Solidarities and Selective Histories in Progressive Social Movements

Casey Brienza (City University London)

During the British coal miner’s strike in 1984-85, a London-based group of gay and lesbian activists formed a support group dedicated for raising funds for the miners and their families. The, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners campaign, activities included community collections, reciprocal visits, and a high-profile benefits concert held in Camden called ‘Pits and Perverts.’ By December 1985, they had raised some £11,000 for the cause. Although the National Union of Mineworkers’ decision to end the strike in March 1985 was viewed as a victory for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, the NUM’s support, and bloc vote, is seen as pivotal in the Labour Party’s decision to formally support LGBT rights that same year.

Pride, a 2014 film scripted by David Livingstone and directed by Matthew Warchus, provides a glossy, feel-good dramatization of those events of 1984-85 and features star turns from world-renowned British actors such as Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton. The story is told primarily from the point of view of the gay and lesbian activists who decide to reach out to miners in South Wales, and as the title of the film would imply, it too has an agenda. The message to moviegoers, which perhaps has particular resonance now that the Conservatives are in power again 30 years later, is that disadvantaged groups need to put aside mistrust of petty differences and work together for collective social and economic betterment.

The film enjoyed considerable critical and commercial success after its debut. But by early 2015 Pride was again in the news for a very different reason: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment had evidently decided to ‘straightwash’ the DVD packaging for US distribution. A banner which reads ‘Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners’ had been Photoshopped out of an image, and a synopsis which on the UK edition described the characters as a ‘London-based group of gay and lesbian activists’ had been shortened to ‘London-based activists.’ A petition protesting the change attracted nearly 40,000 signatures.

Director Warchus, however, was philosophical: “Marketing Pride has proved an interesting challenge from day one, and there are many people in the mainstream who have yet to see the film. My guess is some of those people are imagining that the film is maybe ‘too political’ for them, and some others are imagining it could possibly be ‘too gay’. […] I look forward to living in a world where these kinds of marketing negotiations are neither valid nor necessary — but we’re not there yet. In a sense, that’s why I made the film.”

The story was even picked up by The Guardian as the latest in European-style social progressiveness losing out to American-style media prudishness, and I recall reading that article with a mixture of annoyance and resignation. As an American citizen living and working in the UK, this was yet another opportunity to feel embarrassed for my country, I thought. Yet when I finally got around to seeing Pride in April of this year, while (appropriately) on a transatlantic flight between New York and London, feeling embarrassed for my country was the last thing on my mind. Instead, to my utter surprise and disappointment, I found myself becoming annoyed – as an American – at the movie’s creators.

In one particular and pivotal scene of the film, there is a moving performance of the song, ‘Bread and Roses.’ During a miners lodge meeting, which includes the Welsh miners and their families as well as the LGBT activists, the women of the town are depicted spontaneously breaking into song. More and more people stand up and join with each verse, until the entire town is singing as the gay and lesbian characters look silently on, blinking back tears. The song is sung from the women’s perspective in support of their men and argues for the importance not just of fair wages (i.e. bread) but also of respect and human dignity (i.e. roses). You might reasonably conclude from the film that “Bread and Roses” is some sort of Welsh working-class folk anthem.

In reality, it is nothing of the sort. The song—along with the original poem which it adapts, and the historical context to which it refers—are all American. In 1911, 146 workers, over a hundred of them women, died in the Triangle Shirtwaist garment factory fire in New York. Many had jumped to their deaths, and some of the deceased were as young as 14 years old. The slogan ‘Bread and Roses’ is believed to have originated from a political speech given by the American labour and women’s rights activist Rose Schneiderman, which criticized the appalling working conditions that had resulted in the tragedy. This then inspired a poem by James Oppenheim published in The American Magazine in 1911. The poem was set to music in 1974 by American feminist singer/songwriter Mimi Fariña, and this is what is sung in Pride.
Still, so far, so appropriate—a song associated with the labour movement in a film about a miners’ strike. Rather, what bothered me specifically about its inclusion was the exclusion of the song’s fourth and final verse.

In Fariña’s version, identical to Oppenheim’s 1911 poem in all respects save that ‘come marching’ has been changed to ‘go marching,’ it reads:
As we go marching, marching
We bring the greater days
The rising of the women
Means the rising of the race
No more the drudge and idler
Ten that toil where one reposes
But a sharing of life’s glories
Bread and roses, bread and roses

The denouement of the poem argues, in short, that women’s rights are inextricably linked to human rights and socio-economic equality and that women, if so empowered, will be instrumental in ushering in a more just society. Oppenheim, a male poet writing about women, may have been hoping that the ‘rising of the women’ would overthrow the capitalist system altogether. Remarkably, this 100+ year old sentiment, published in its day in a periodical with mainstream circulation, is on the leading, bleeding, edge of feminist, left-wing radicalism today; it is probably too radical, in fact, even for a movie in the UK like Pride.

I don’t fault Pride’s creators for omitting the last verse of ‘Bread and Roses,’ but I’m frustrated by the way in which the controversy over the US DVD cover exposes a double-standard. I think it’s safe to say most Americans do not know the song; I only know the lyrics because I am an alumna of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and students there learn and sing it at graduation. But, in the same way that Sony polished out one of the British LGBT movement’s proudest moments for American consumers, the film itself unintentionally denied those same American consumers—along with everybody else—access to ideas about social justice born out of the US’s own proud history of labour and feminist activism. Moreover, without that fourth verse, women are mothers and martyrs, marchers but not leaders. Leadership, presumably, is for the future. It’s probably worth pointing out too that Rose Schneiderman was, as it happens, a lesbian. In reality, the urbane lesbians of the 1980s were far more likely to know ‘Bread and Roses’ than any Welsh housewife.

In the end, the point I wish to make in this article is not about accusations and counter-accusations. Instead, I would caution against overhasty interpretations of social progress and our own moral superiority in the present. When Warchus says that ‘we’re not there yet,’ he implies that we are at least making progress. But were people in the past really less enlightened? Can durable alliances truly be constructed upon easy assumptions and selective histories? It is ironic that a film written expressly to criticize the Left’s susceptibility to divide-and-conquer tactics does some strategic prioritizing of its own. Solidarities are easy to wish for but, it seems, much, much, harder to construct. The case of Pride would suggest, however, that a firm foundation, sensitive to complex histories of social movements and their ideologies, is a necessary first step for any progressive political project particularly in a world which, from factory fires to wealth disparities, has as much in common with 1911 as 1984.

Casey Brienza is a sociologist at City University.