clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The uproar over Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech, explained

Streep’s speech was barely political. It still provoked backlash from Donald Trump and conservatives.

74th Annual Golden Globe Awards - Press Room Photo by Venturelli/WireImage
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

At Sunday’s Golden Globes, venerable actress Meryl Streep received the Cecil B. DeMille Award for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment” — and in so doing made a controversial speech that took direct aim at President-elect Donald Trump without ever mentioning him by name. Streep’s speech dominated post-Globes conversation online for most of Sunday night and the following morning, garnering responses across the political spectrum.

Some praised the speech as “epic and powerful,” while others called it a classic example of Hollywood “elitism.” Even Trump himself joined in, calling Streep “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” and labeling her speech as an attack.

The uproar isn’t surprising given the longstanding proclivity of certain groups, particularly conservatives who often find themselves at political odds with celebrities, to write off Hollywood as the home of a bunch of out-of-touch progressives. But thanks to Trump jumping into the fray himself, it’s also more complicated than that: Even though Streep’s speech is less pointed and politically charged than similar speeches have been in the past, the stakes feel higher than normal.

Streep’s speech and the reactions it inspired fall along an ideological divide

During her acceptance speech, Streep recalled an uncomfortable moment from the 2016 presidential campaign: Trump’s mockery of a reporter in July.

Streep labeled Trump’s “performance” in that moment one that “kind of broke my heart” due to its longer-term implications. She said:

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 it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing.

Disrespect invites disrespect; violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.

She also joked that the audience attending the Golden Globes featured three different groups of people who are currently under fire from the rest of America: Hollywood, foreigners, and the press. She closed by asking the press to hold Trump accountable, and calling for empathy for everyone.

The speech has since drawn several different reactions, in a rather predictable order:

1) Progressives immediately lauded Streep. In particular, Variety called the speech “extraordinary” and hailed it as a signifier of the Golden Globes’ ascension to respectability.

2) Conservatives dismissed the speech as a typical example of Hollywood elitism and self-congratulatory smugness.

3) Progressives responded to conservative backlash by pointing out that the content of Streep’s speech was barely incendiary, and that it’s a bit hypocritical for conservatives to complain about celebrities having too much power and influence when they just elected one.

In the middle of the hubbub, Trump told the New York Times that he hadn’t seen the speech but wasn’t surprised that “liberal movie people” were criticizing him. Later, he tweeted his stronger reaction, prompting even more discussion.

Trump’s response has overshadowed Streep’s larger points, as well as his own actions

In addition to calling Streep overrated, Trump claimed that the basis of her speech was factually inaccurate.

Regarding the actual facts under dispute in Trump’s tweets, the Washington Post has written extensively about Trump’s “revisionist history” regarding his encounter with New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, which has been widely documented as Trump making fun of a person with a disability. Kovaleski himself has previously asserted that several elements of Trump’s description of that moment were inaccurate. As for whether Trump truly mocked Kovaleski, here’s a video of the incident so you can judge for yourself.

The facts, however, may not matter to Trump as much as the debate itself. Many pundits, including Vox’s Ezra Klein, have suggested that Trump chose to comment publicly on Streep’s speech in order to divert attention away from another current headline: that many of his Cabinet appointments and other nominees have not undergone the ethical review period that is typical for these positions.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time Trump has been accused of picking a fight on Twitter as a diversionary tactic; in November, many members of both the media and the public cited Trump’s fiery tweets about the cast of Hamilton as an attempt to distract people from scrutinizing his questionable business entanglements and potential conflicts of interest.

Above all, Trump’s denial that he ever intended to mock Kovaleski is a distraction from the real point Streep was making, which is that people with power — whether in Hollywood, politics, or the press — need to work together to protect equal rights for everyone.

Calling Hollywood “elite” is a longstanding pastime

Deriding Hollywood as smug, elitist, out of touch, and self-congratulatory is a common refrain outside of, and even within, the industry. This refrain often crescendos during awards season — a regular source of politically charged cultural moments, thanks to winners using their brief public spotlight to champion a cause or indict the political establishment.

This theme isn’t new. Actors have used their celebrity as a political platform for decades, to the point that Hollywood itself has parodied the practice. One noteworthy example: In 2006, after George Clooney used his Academy Awards acceptance speech to congratulate Hollywood on its history of being more progressive than the rest of America, South Park lampooned the moment in an episode called “Smug Alert!”

More recently, awards show acceptance speeches have touched on a range of progressive issues, from climate change to diversity and representation in Hollywood. So it’s unsurprising that Streep incurred immediate backlash from conservatives on social media for perpetuating Hollywood “elitism” and “smug liberalism” — most notably from news show hosts Meghan McCain and Tomi Lahren:

But while it may be a knee-jerk reaction at this point to hem and haw about the self-congratulatory awards season rituals that Hollywood stars participate in every year, the accusation doesn’t quite stick, for a number of reasons.

The progressive response to the backlash over Streep’s speech underscores the fierceness of the current culture war

One of the most typical reactions to the kind of speech Streep made is that it’s an example of Hollywood being “out of touch” with the rest of America. But Hollywood seems to spend a pretty significant amount of time trying to empathize — as Streep called for everyone to do — with the rest of the nation and the world.

For example, many of 2016’s most lauded stories featured diverse experiences and characters, from the gay black man at the center of Moonlight, which won the Golden Globe for Best Drama, to the acclaimed comedy series Atlanta, which focuses on black lives in the South and won the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy TV Series.

And America’s heartland didn’t go unrecognized onscreen, either. The critically acclaimed film Hell or High Water, for instance, took aim at corporate corruption and greed for ravaging the lives of blue-collar white men in rural Texas, an area of the US that firmly supported Trump — exactly the kind of empathy Streep is talking about.

But with the current political climate being as tense as it is, people are eager to seize any and all opportunities — including fairly benign Golden Globes acceptance speeches — to further their preferred ideological agenda.

Ironically, for all its posturing, Hollywood is just as troubled as many conservative parts of the country when it comes to systemic bias. Streep’s speech punctuated a relatively non-diverse Golden Globes, which, apart from a few significant awards, mostly handed out trophies to white actors. The pattern of Hollywood failing to diversify has long been established, both in substantial yearly research and in controversies like #OscarsSoWhite; ultimately, Hollywood has never been as progressive as it likes to believe.

There’s also the issue of criticizing a bona fide Hollywood star like Streep for using her celebrity to advance her politics, in the wake of electing a president who made a name for himself by embracing Hollywood, as the host of his own reality show.

Finally, many have pointed out that this kind of back and forth can ultimately silence those who most need the support, representation, and empathy that Streep called for. Since the election, reported hate crimes have risen tremendously, and fear that Trump could roll back legal protections for many minorities is pervasive. When someone like Streep is met with outcry for merely urging unity and freedom of the press, it increases fear that the basic protections of our democracy are in jeopardy.

For a political speech, Streep’s was surprisingly neutral — yet it immediately caused uproar

It’s important to note that despite all the controversy around her speech, Streep was calling for more empathy toward those outside Hollywood, not less. And a call for empathy is not, in and of itself, a political rallying cry.

Streep didn’t call out any specific political parties or policies in her speech; she reminded Golden Globes viewers of an incident in which Trump mocked a reporter. In a different time, that wouldn’t have been a politically biased statement, but rather a straightforward reason to denounce Trump’s morals. (In fact, a study conducted in August found that more than 80 percent of respondents were “bothered” by Trump’s ableism, regardless of party lines.)

The most incendiary language Streep used came when she described the president-elect’s behavior toward Kovaleski as “bullying.” But on the whole, it was a nearly benign speech; her overall message focused on inclusivity, empathy for outsiders, and freedom of the press.

This kind of platitude might have been seen in the past as a feel-good message of unity rather than divisive rhetoric — but the current political climate makes even reminders that freedom of the press is good, that not all foreigners are bad, and that bullying people is wrong into politically charged flashpoints.