Last night, Meryl Streep won the Cecil B. DeMille Award (see: lifetime achievement), and used part of her six minutes onstage to call out the man we’ve all been forced to refer to as president-elect.
“There was one performance this year that stunned me,” she said. “It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good. There was nothing good about it. But it was effective, and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth.”
“It was at that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it. I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie it was real life.”
“And this instinct to humiliate, when its modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing,” she continued. “Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”
And then she delivered this:
“Once, when I was standing around on the set one day, whining about something — you know we were gonna work through supper or long hours or whatever, Tommy Lee Jones said to me, ‘Isn’t it such a privilege, Meryl, just to be an actor?’ Yeah, it is, and we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy.”
But holy shit, that one word: privilege.
Understandably, Meryl’s words were met with the enthusiasm typically reserved by Meryl herself during speeches given by Patricia Arquette. And that is exactly how any call-out of Trump should be received. Twitter exploded, most (keyword: most) of the Globes audience lost their minds and Donald had a temper tantrum on the internet, calling the actress “overrated” as though The Devil Wears Prada didn’t exist.
But at the same time, we need more words in that vein delivered all the time, particularly by those whose identities are defined by the type of privilege Streep was referring to. And in a real and tangible way.
It can be scary to speak up and to speak out. It’s also frustrating to see people of note consistently appeal to like minds as part of an echo chamber, particularly after said echo chamber made Clinton’s loss seem so surprising. Celebrities are told to stay out of politics (because Jesus H, more than a few certainly sound like Tom Hiddleston talking about how much his miniseries meant to the people of Sudan — holy shit), but as evidenced by the power and eloquence of Tracee Ellis Ross and Viola Davis during their speeches last night, it’s not a question of celebrities being silent en masse, it’s a question of saying things that matter at every opportunity you have to say them. So, think: less Hiddleston, more Ross.
Which means Meryl Streep did exactly what she should’ve done: she used the platform she’s been given and the privilege she lives her life by (particularly as a white, affluent, famous woman) to stand up for those who don’t have the same. Her speech was beautiful but, most importantly, it was what should be the new norm. Especially in a political climate where voices are being silenced, hate is a currency and white supremacy is a battle cry.
The majority of the world doesn’t have the luxury to pick and choose when and what to protest, which is why we need anybody who can to play the system to call out ableist, racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, elitist, etc. behaviour as it happens. And that means that Meryl Streep’s speech shouldn’t be an anomaly, it should be part of a chorus of call-outs from those who, like her, have the privilege of having a place at the table or the luxury of having millions of people tuned in to hear what you have to say.
And again, I’m sure that seems like a tall order. I’m sure that some may think that Meryl has “earned” her right to be political, or that those of us not not entrenched in the industry don’t know how risky it can be to say, “Nope, this is bullshit, and I’m going to say why.” And that may be true, but what’s also true is that Meryl is actually part of a bigger movement, spurred on by young musicians and actors like Zendaya and Rowan Blanchard and Amandla Stanberg who’ve proved that being an actor and being political aren’t mutually exclusive things. It’s actually up to the adults of the industry to catch the hell up.
So kudos to Streep for delivering real truth, but I hope it’s just the start of hearing from those defined by privilege who command an audience. Again, to stand up and speak out can be terrifying, but so is the reality of living the world we’re currently living in. And more terrifying, still: knowing you’re complacent in the building of that world.