Let’s Talk About Talking: Meryl Streep and the use of free speech

This year’s Golden Globes, to me, was among the most memorable. Among the array of beautiful gowns and praise for movies such as “Hidden Figures” and “La La Land”, much of the coverage focused on one particular part (and it had little to do with movies).

This year’s Cecil B. DeMille award was awarded to Meryl Streep for her illustrious film career. However, there was much controversy over her acceptance speech. The problem? She spoke about politics.

Streep began her speech by acknowledging her fellow colleagues’ performances, citing Natalie Portman, Dev Patel, and Ryan Gosling as examples of Hollywood’s diversity. During the latter half, however, Streep referred to a “performance” which left her “stunned”. It became abundantly clear that the performance she was referring to was that of when Donald Trump openly mocked a disabled reporter during one of his campaign rallies in 2016. Streep then went on to state how broken-hearted she felt upon watching what had occurred and called upon the press to hold “him” (Trump) accountable. She then ended her speech by openly inviting her fellow colleagues to support the Committee to Protect Journalists because “we’re gonna need them going forward, and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth”.

Needless to say, there were mixed responses all over social media about Streep’s speech. Some praised her speech as being “powerful” and “brave” whilst others openly criticized her for it, many stating that Hollywood actors should stay out of politics. Things took a turn when Donald Trump himself responded to Streep in a series on Tweets, calling her an “over-rated” actress and a “Hillary flunky” (Streep was an open support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and even attended the Democratic National Convention).

So, why all the commotion over a 5-minute speech?

A particularly common criticism that arose from this was the fact that many believe that Hollywood and its elite should not intermingle with other realms of American life, like politics. It’s no secret that many of Hollywood’s A-listers are actively involved in the world of politics, and this past presidential election was no exception. It is also no secret that many of these A-listers tend to lean Democratic, as evidenced by the number of celebrities which participated at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Because of this, it’s quite simple to understand why many would feel as though Hollywood has a certain “agenda” to push within the world of politics.

However, Meryl Streep’s speech goes beyond Hollywood vs. politics.

For Meryl Streep- a white, upper-class, cis woman- to go out on stage during a prestigious awards ceremony, exercise her right to free speech, proceed to openly criticize the president, and subsequently get viciously discredited begs the question- whose voice should be heard in American society?

There is a significant portion of American people that are discontent with our political situation and are vehemently opposed to having Donald Trump as the president. Of course, it’s natural for these people who want to speak up about their situation and do something against it. It’s also natural to want to find people who will rise up and speak on their behalf- a leader, of sorts. However, the problem is determining how to speak up and who will be the people’s mouthpiece.

Constructing the ideal candidate

Let’s use Meryl Streep as our example. For all intents and purposes, she had the right to speak her mind during the Golden Globes, and, to her credit, she did. When examining her speech, it’s clear to see how carefully constructed it was. In this particular situation, Streep tried to act as a sort of mouthpiece, clearly using “we” instead of “you” during her speech in order to be inclusive of those present. And yet, one can say she failed in bringing her message across. Perhaps in being too personal, she lost connection with her intended audience. Perhaps she should have employed the use of parrhesiastic speech and its rhetoric- meaning perhaps she should have been openly frank and use clear-cut words in order to convey her message in the most honest form possible.

But then,there’s the issue with Streep herself- that is, her position within American society. Streep is, to an extent, a privileged white woman with a similar social status as that of Donald Trump: they are both, respectively, part of the entertainment industry. Thus, Streep’s words can only have a real effect on those who share the same social status as her, whether that be movie stars, singers, or reality TV personalities. It loses its effect on us common people: the 99%. As Foucault explains in his writings on “Fearless Speech”, in order for parrhesia (a form of free speech) to be truly effective, it must come form someone who takes risks and has something to lose. For us, perhaps the alternative should be someone who is the complete antithesis of both Streep and Trump: a person (male or female) of color, of a lower socio-economic class, a member of the LGBTQ+community, or someone with a disability. Perhaps we should, as a society, turn to those who are “everyday folk” and empower them to effectively speak up.

Effective change

Criticism will always present, regardless of who speaks their mind. Of course, not all criticism is bad, in fact, constructive criticism often encourages people to develop their public speaking skills. However, I firmly believe that we, the American people, need to redirect our focus and criticism towards a new goal: enabling ourselves to be agents of change.

We as a society have already reached an end of the scale: electing someone who represents the privileged extreme of our societal spectrum to be the president of our nation. Instead of fighting fire with fire, instead of choosing those who are of the same mold as Trump to be our champions, I believe we should choose from the other end of the spectrum in order to catalyst change.

Only then can free speech reach its full potential.

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A course on how women shape cultures of dissidence and revolution, because a British man once said, “Women are more disposed to be mutinous … [and] in all public tumults they are foremost in violence and ferocity.”

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Valeria Pech

Valeria Pech

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