Identity

The Importance of Meryl Streep's Speech in the Age of Trump

A professor of feminist film explains why it's increasingly significant for celebrities to publicly hold the status-obsessed President-elect publicly accountable.

by Kimberly Lawson
Jan 9 2017, 8:10pm

Photo by Venturelli via Getty Images

Despite losing her voice "in screaming and lamentation" this past weekend, actress Meryl Streep delivered a speech Sunday night that was heard around the world—one that propelled President-elect Donald Trump to respond via Twitter this morning.

As Streep accepted the Golden Globes' Cecil B. DeMille Award for her contributions to film, she shared what she considered to be the most memorable performance of 2016, the one that "sank its hooks" in her: the moment on the presidential campaign when then-candidate Trump made fun of a disabled reporter.

"It kind of broke my heart when I saw it, and I still can't get it out of my head, because it wasn't in a movie. It was real life," Streep told the audience. "And this instinct to humiliate, when it's 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. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose."

Streep also used her time on stage to address the impact foreigners and outsiders have on the arts ("But who are we, and what is Hollywood anyway?" she said. "It's just a bunch of people from other places.") and also talk about the need to support the press.

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Following the show, Trump told the New York Times that he had not seen Streep's speech and that he was "not surprised" that he had come under attack from "liberal movie people." This morning, he expanded on his response via Twitter, calling Streep "over-rated" and "a Hillary flunky." He continued: "For the 100th time, I never 'mocked' a disabled reporter (would never do that) but simply showed him ... 'groveling' when he totally changed a 16 year old story that he had written in order to make me look bad. Just more very dishonest media!"

Susan Kerns is an assistant professor of cinema at the Columbia College Chicago and co-director of the Chicago Feminist Film Festival. She says it's not the first time someone has used the platform of a speech at an awards show to draw attention to a political situation. Probably the most famous example, she tells Broadly, happened in 1973, when Marlon Brando won the Oscar for Best Actor for his work on The Godfather, and Native American actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather took the stage in his place to refuse the award and talk about the unfair treatment of Native Americans in film and TV.

I think stars are going to be incredibly important in the next four years because I think in some ways their critiques of him are going to be the only critiques he will listen to.

But Kerns says Streep's speech will be one that people will go back to for years to come. "I think maybe feminists especially feel a little beaten down right now," she says. "Looking to somebody like Meryl Streep, somebody that's so incredibly respected in the world of film and seeing her give such a moving speech—I feel like it was the encouragement that a lot of people are looking for to keep fighting and to keep moving forward and trying to do our best in terms of what might be a really difficult four years ahead of us."

Kerns says women in Hollywood are becoming more confident in their ability to speak out about the injustices they face and bear witness to. "I think the hope is," Kerns explains, "the more that people say these things and do these things, the less likely women will be penalized for being political in their profession in the Hollywood environment."

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As for Kerns' thoughts on Trump's tweet storm this morning? "Shocking," she says jokingly.

"In many ways," Kerns says, "I think stars are going to be incredibly important in the next four years because I think in some ways their critiques of him are going to be the only critiques he will listen to."