Chris Pratt, the star of the blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World franchises, is facing criticism after he was photographed by paparazzi wearing a T-shirt with a mash-up of the Gadsden flag emblazoned with the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.” Students of American history will know the flag, its snake symbolism and its slogan originated in the era of the Revolution, as a message from the colonists to England. So, why is the Avengers: Endgame actor now drawing fire for the shirt?
Much like the Betsy Ross flag that Nike proposed emblazoning on shoes, what was once viewed as a symbol of American freedom has, over the years, been imbued with a different meaning. To someone who recognizes the Gadsden flag for its original purpose, the criticism of Pratt may seem ridiculous. However, we need to view the symbol in a broader context, including how it's been adopted in recent decades -- and by whom.
The Gadsden Flag and White Supremacy
As Page Six is quick to point out, the Gadsden flag has been used in recent years by the U.S. Men's Soccer team and the band Metallica. However, there's more to it than commercial usage: The flag, with its rattlesnake and slogan, have been embraced by right-wing political movements like the Tea Party and Second Amendment proponents. In addition, the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission determined in 2016 that, while the flag in itself is not a racist symbol, and originated in a non-racial context, "it has since been 'interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages in some contexts,' including its use by persons associated with white-supremacist groups who used the flag to drape the bodies of two police officers they had just murdered."
That same year, The New Yorker traced the evolution of the segmented snake, from "something of a Colonial-era meme" to a symbol of the Revolution, and compares the complicated resurgence of Gadsden flag's to the Confederate battle flag, which was "embraced by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists": "This association with racial hatred, and the flag’s historic roots as an emblem of a would-be government that embraced slavery, has long made the flag offensive to many."
So How Does Pratt Fit Into This?
When Pratt went for a walk Sunday in Pacific Palisades, California, with new wife Katherine Schwarzenegger, he probably didn't expect to draw criticism on social media -- where some labeled him a "racist" -- for his choice of casual attire. It's entirely likely the actor had no idea his graphic tee was loaded with racial and political implications.
Unlike some of his Marvel Cinematic Universe co-stars, Pratt isn't overtly political. He lamented in 2017 that, "The voice of the average, blue-collar American isn’t necessarily represented in Hollywood,"and that the country is divided into red states and blue states.
However, Pratt was publicly criticized in February by X-Men and The Umbrella Academy star Ellen Page for attending what she termed an "infamously anti-LGBTQ" church. Pratt denied the characterization, saying, "Nothing could be further from the truth. I go to a church that opens their doors to absolutely everyone."
Pratt has yet to respond to criticism of his T-shirt.