When Celebrity and Politics Collide

Streep’s speech gets backlash

Posted Jan 11, 2017

It is easy to write off Hollywood awards shows as nothing more than self-congratulatory spectacles that promote the industry and its egos. Certainly, the pomp and lavish outfits and what is being celebrated can seem out of touch with the concerns of the average American. At the same time, the very spectacle itself can be a form of mindless fantasy and entertainment that enables the consumer to dream for a couple hours.

But perhaps such an assessment is selling Hollywood short. For better or worse, popular culture does serve as a barometer for what is happening in the larger society. Moreover, in addition to the ways that films can connect us to our shared humanity and open a lens into other worlds, the films and artists celebrated at shows such as this year’s Golden Globe awards can reveal harsh truths about where we are going as a culture.

Take, for instance, the backlash that occurred last year after the Oscar nominations were announced, reflecting a dearth of diversity in the nominees. This, of course, triggered the #OscarsSoWhite campaign on Twitter, eventually leading to a significant change in the Academy’s membership, prompting one source to refer to the changes as a, “historic action to increase diversity” in Hollywood (“Academy,” n.d., Title). Similarly, actresses tired of being asked trivial questions regarding what they were wearing or how long it took them to get ready for the red carpet rather than weightier questions regarding their performances began a campaign on Twitter called #Askhermore that still persists during red carpet events.

All of this, of course, culminated in a speech Meryl Streep gave when she was honored on Sunday night at the Golden Globes that clearly took aim at incoming president Trump’s callous behavior towards the disabled, with a larger call towards celebrating diversity and promoting empathy. By Monday, all major media outlets were reporting on what she said, and of course, came the inevitable backlash on social media—predictably, by Trump himself on Twitter.

Streep received much support on social media, but also detractors other than Trump as well. At the heart of criticism, it appears, is the question of whether public figures like celebrities should penetrate the political sphere. For instance, a close friend of mine who used to work for the public relations firm that represents Streep cautioned me that it is a slippery slope for celebrities who get political, and there is always that risk of experiencing backlash from consumers, and of also appearing hypocritical if these same outspoken figures have remained silent on salient political issues in the past.

My take is that politics undercuts virtually every aspect of our lives, and that artists in particular—such as Steep—have a moral imperative to use their voices (and their craft) to speak out against injustices that are occurring. Diversity in Hollywood is a political issue, whether women in Hollywood are being paid comparably to their male counterparts is political, who is being hired for what and how much and where and when—all of it cuts across politics. Should we just expect our beloved celebrities to look pretty during awards shows, receive their accolades for their performances with humility, say something funny and maybe sentimental, and then be quiet? Shouldn’t we expect—no, demand—more from our celebrated public figures?

In fact, isn’t that what art like film is supposed to do? To immerse us in someone else’s narrative, to enable us to traverse in someone else’s journey, to see the world through another lens and in doing so to learn something new not just about the protagonist but about ourselves. Isn’t great art supposed to connect us and bring us together, rather than divide us and tear us apart?

To Streep, and other outspoken figures like her who are using the spotlight they have been given to shed light on real issues that impact us all, I applaud your courage and message. In many ways, Streep’s speech served as a mirror for our society, revealing all the ugly truths about where we are as a nation that we have been exposed to during and in the aftermath of the 2016 election. I don’t think that there was a specific political agenda behind Streep’s speech (Trump denounced her as an avid Hillary supporter, as if this fact would automatically invalidate whatever points she was attempting to make). Empathy should have no political ideology—similarly, showing respect and compassion towards the disabled should be universally promoted by all political parties.

Copyright 2017 Azadeh Aalai


Academy Takes Historic Action to Increase Diversity (n.d). Oscars.org. Retrieved on January 11, 2017 from: https://www.oscars.org/news/academy-takes-historic-action-increase-diversity

Source: Pixabay/tpsdave