We’re All Just Meryl Streep, Really

Meryl Streep

Out of Africa? Meryl Streep

The Oscars are on Sunday and I’m still tired, so I’m not going to talk about racism. I’m going to tell you a story about astronauts. I really like astronauts. At a recent international panel about space and its broader implications, a reporter began the following exchange:

Did you notice that there are no astronauts on the panel at all? There’s not one astronaut nor physicist. That has been the case for five years. What’s your opinion on that?

The question remained unanswered, but the organizer of that panel weighed in when another reporter asked a similar question:

Well, I’m very committed to equality and inclusion of scientists of all kinds; there should be inclusion, and this panel is evidence that at least scientists are included — and in fact dominate — in this jury, and that’s an unusual situation in bodies of people who make decisions, so I think that this event is ahead of the game.

Later, a different reporter followed up:

There is another panel that discusses space travel and astronauts and physics. How do you see these fields of study, and is it easy for you to understand them, and are you following any specific work in this area?

The organizer responded:

Yes, in fact, but I don’t know very much about space travel or physics, and yet I’ve been to space camp a lot of different times… The thing that I’ve noticed is that there is a core of knowledge that travels right through every science. And, after all, we’ve all studied science at some point; we’re all physicists, we’re all astronauts, really. We have a technical writer on our panel, we have an astronomist on our panel, we have chemists on our panel, a nature photographer, engineer; people will be looking at different things in this work, but we’re human beings, and space is an emotional experience. We’re going to make decisions based on what our head wants to say, but we’re first attacked in the heart.

By now, we all know that my story isn’t about astronauts.

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Recently, Meryl Streep made some comments that seemed dismissive of a request for broader inclusion at a film festival in Berlin. After the resulting backlash, it came to light that Streep’s comments were taken out of context.

She’s still wrong.

More accurately, she offered a tone-deaf response straight from the “Casual Racism for Liberal Neocolonialists” textbook. To wit:

The response appears to be Streep’s ham-fisted way of explaining that, by playing a range of characters, she has learned that different cultures tend to have more in common than they do separating them.

Even though Streep was not shrugging off the all-white jury with a claim to be African, the comments remain cringe-worthy at best, even when paired next to the correct question.

It is beyond insulting for a member of a dominant group to present their temporary forays into the experiences of marginalized people as having equal value to the lived experiences of those people. You pretending to be me does not make you me. If someone asks you where I am, saying “Well, we’re all the same, really,” is not an acceptable answer.

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When asked why there are no black people on a jury, discussing the number of women isn’t helpful. First, because one can be both black and a woman (so I’ve been told). Second, it’s not okay to swap representations like sitcom mothers. Representation is a game of specifics; you cannot swap one type of person for another. The people we view in our art affects how we view those same people in the world. We all need to be seen and we do not need white arbiters to give us permission to be visible. Why do we continue to believe in the myth of objectivity?

I want better from all of us.Truthfully, I’m not picking on Streep, though this is not the first time she’s been tone deaf on racial issues. I think she is more aware than most. However, “good enough” isn’t good enough. Nor has good enough ever been good enough. I want more out of everyone: more complex, thoughtful representation of underrepresented people; more conscious inclusion of anyone who exists outside of the mainstream; more callouts of work and artists that continue to confuse a dominant culture with a “neutral” one; more willingness to share our struggles and make more demands; more challenging of our favorites when they are problematic.

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I want better from all of us.

Or, whatever, I’m tired. I’m just going to go paint my nails.

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