On sticking to acting

Hello Internet, today is Monday, January 9th, 2017, and last night Meryl Streep won the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes and used her speech to express her heartbreak (her words) at the behaviour of President Elect Donald Trump.

Here is her speech in full:

If you are for some reason not able to watch it, allow me to summarize:

In a voice broken by the weekend’s “screaming and lamentation,” Streep described the work of Hollywood actors as to enter the life of someone different and to let the audience feel “what that feels like.” In the same breath, she called out President Elect Donald Trump for imitating a disabled reporter, because this behaviour, when undertaken by a person with Trump’s powerful status, gives permission for others to behave in this way. She called on her audience to defend the press in the upcoming years. And she reminded them of the privilege – and the responsibility – of “the act of empathy” that actors undertake in every job they do.

Although this speech has been celebrated by some and deprecated by others (including Trump himself, to nobody’s surprise), there is a refrain among those who seem to want to tread the centre line: “Too much political discussion for an awards show!” “She should stick to acting!”

There are, in my mind, two major problems with this line of thought: first, that anyone and everyone is not entitled to voice their opinion about the politics of a nation with free speech among its constitutional rights; and second, that acting is not politics to begin with.

She’s a person with a platform and she can say what she wants

To address the first of these points: Meryl Streep is an American, commenting publicly on politics in America, at a gala that took place in America. She was involved in politics during the campaign and she is involved now. People do not set aside their political beliefs after election day, and actors are no exception.

I have been known to cite the words “freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequence,” and those still hold true. Streep made a conscious choice to use her speaking time to bring forward this message, and she would have been foolish not to consider the consequences. It’s possible that directors or agents will avoid working with her in the future because of this action. It was pretty much inevitable that a twitter storm would be unleashed (and although I don’t want to get too distracted by it, I will mention here that the internet is a particularly dangerous place for women). There are and will be consequences.

So when a woman stands up on a stage in front of her peers and live, widely-broadcast television, in order to voice a political opinion, she does it because she believes something to be worth saying and worth having heard, even in the face of personal cost. That’s what she did. That’s what freedom of speech is for. She can say what she wants.

Art is Political

I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: you don’t make art so that everything can carry on just as it always has. You make art so that your audience will see things differently, think about things differently, experience your work and go away a little bit better. You give them an empathetic experience, because empathy is the way in. It is our only way to break past our individual benefits and detriments into a sense of what is good for our society. It allows us to see the needs of others, and gives us the imperative to help those who need it. Empathy is the key. And artists are empathy workers.

So Meryl Streep can stay out of politics or she can stick to acting, but she can’t do both. Her acting is politics.