The Ultimate (White) Privilege? Being Meryl Streep

Somewhere deep in the drafts folder for this site is a post called “The Privilege of Being Meryl Streep.” I started it when Meryl and the very white cast of Suffragette donned “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” shirts and didn’t see the very obvious issue with using this actual quote in our modern era. And then Streep doubled down by saying she wasn’t a feminist, but a humanist.

I just couldn’t quite find the hook for it. It was a rant, plain and simple. But I felt like I’d gotten the words out of my system, and moved on with the news cycle. I owe the title of this post to a discussion I had with my mom when working on that draft. She’s awesome, and a lot of my best blog posts come from bouncing a conversation around with her.

I’m bringing this up because Meryl has done it again. She’s presiding over the jury for the Berlin International Film Festival, one that she said is diverse… but is made up entirely of white people, though it does have white women. At the press conference, she was asked by an Egyptian reporter if she felt she could judge a movie from the Arab World or North Africa. It’s a fair question, given the ongoing discussion about diversity and representation in the media.

Her answer? She said ‘while she didn’t know much about the region, “I’ve played a lot of different people from a lot of different cultures.”‘ Then went on to talk about “the core of humanity that travels right through every culture” and ended with the gem that “we’re all from Africa originally.”

I would imagine that most people who live outside the Bubble of A++++ list Hollywood would realize that while there is a grain of scientific truth to it (humanity does stem from Africa), that the millions of years since then have brought about a lot of cultural and historical shifts that make that statement ignorant and downright offensive.

But the sad truth is that her comment is pretty indicative of what’s wrong with Hollywood right now. When people provided clear statistics that showed that women were underrepresented, Hollywood’s answer was to increase the visibility of white women. Which while it’s a step forward, it isn’t a very big one. Hollywood has had a long history of casting white actors in the roles of people of other cultures – when they could have simply found an actor of that culture. So the fact that Streep’s exposure to other cultures comes from taking parts from minority actors? Isn’t really worthy of giving her bonus points.

Streep is in that weird niche where someone thinks they’re smarter than the rest of us by declaring they aren’t a feminist, they’re a humanist. Or that we should strive for a post-racial world. It’s nearly always white people who believe this and declare we should simply leap to this end goal, by ignoring the very specific issues that need to be addressed before we can even hope to get there.

It’s literally like saying you’re going to live a healthy lifestyle without ever going to a doctor to see what you need to do to get there (if you have high blood pressure or a hidden health condition, certain diets could make it worse, even if you think it’s healthy). So you could be doing a lot of damaging things in the name of this ‘healthy lifestyle’ and never know it.

When we focus on an end result without ever taking a good look at how things actually are, that’s what we’re doing. How can we ever hope for actual equality for the sexes if we don’t work on making sure that minorities make the same as their white counterparts? Or if we don’t address the double standards we impose on women of different ethnicities? (Compare the post Super Bowl conversations of last year with Katy Perry and this year with Beyonce) What ends up happening is that when the perceived majority reaches equality, we stop trying and leave people behind.

I have no solution, other than asking Streep to actually pay attention. Clearly she learned nothing after Suffragette.

How do I speak with such certainty? I once was a baby feminist, who made a lot of assumptions about what was the ‘right’ way to be a woman. (I recall having a humanist phase, too. I thought I was so smart) I had so many opinions what was oppressive and wasn’t. It’s a really cringeworthy time period, because I was so hypocritical. I imposed my Western beliefs on Muslim women and assumed they were being oppressed without ever having talked to Muslim women about the issue, while complaining that nobody believed a Hispanic woman could play roles that weren’t explicitly designated as Hispanic characters. Like I said, deeply cringeworthy past. Once I spoke to Muslim women, I revised my stance.

The key phrase is, I learned. Once I was called on it, I learned to listen to other groups, to use their perspective on their lives, their cultures to help guide me. The most important part of this is accepting that I will make mistakes. When confronted with a mistake, I learn what mistake I did and grow from it. I see someone talking about something that I have no cultural or life experience to understand… I find someone who does, who can give me a better understanding of where they’re coming from.

Most importantly, I accept that there are no shortcuts to equality. Either we all get there, or we don’t. Hopefully Meryl gets the point. Her talent keeps her from taking too much of a hit, but I don’t think she’s metaphorically bulletproof.

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