Meryl Streep’s Cosmopolitan Vision Masks Hollywood’s Structural Racism, Sexism

When faced with the reality of a Trump presidency, the temptation is strong to embrace (without hesitation) a speech like the one given by Meryl Streep at the recent Golden Globe awards. Streep’s winning the Cecil B. DeMille award for lifetime achievement allowed her the opportunity to give a short, but impassioned speech on the inherent myopia of Trumpist nationalism and bigotry. As she said:

And what is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places (…) Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners, and if we kick them all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.

Streep was saying what is on the minds of millions of people in the United States and the world: that Trump’s vilification of minorities is an affront to the values the United States (at least claims) to hold dear. As a famous and respected actor, Streep leveraged her cultural capital to send a powerful and important message about the bigotry inherent in many of Trump’s public statements: from smearing Mexican immigrants as “rapists” to suggesting that all Muslims should be denied entry to the United States.

Yet Streep did something else in her talk, and it is something that is worth discussing.

Streep pitched Hollywood as a haven of cosmopolitan sensibility: a place where diversity and difference are celebrated in the service of the creation of art. In her speech, Streep noted the diverse social, economic and geographic backgrounds of her Hollywood colleagues. The suggestion was clear: the diversity of Hollywood can have a strong synergistic effect, creating an artistic whole greater than the sum of its parts. In short, Hollywood is the antithesis to Trumpism.

This is a strong narrative. It is also problematic.

Even the average film consumer will have a hard time recognizing the Hollywood Streep describes. If there is one thing that Hollywood has done to great effect over the past 100 years, it has been to absorb difference and reshape it into a grand, US-centric narrative. Actors from outside the US are often forced to abandon their accents in favour of a US twang. Films are almost always set in the United States, or have the United States as some kind of central node. In films where the earth is threatened by a global virus, natural disaster, alien invasion or super-intelligent monkeys, the US is always the focus. The White House is the symbol of democracy. The Empire State building the symbol of modernity. California is the symbol of hope. Hollywood has always been a key component of the global “soft power” wielded by the US, and an engine of US capitalism. Of the top 500 grossing films globally of all time, one is hard pressed to find one not made by or through Hollywood.

But US-centrism is not the only problem. In her speech, Streep also said: “An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like.” This is a noble and laudable goal. So, how has Hollywood performed?

In a comprehensive study of the 800 most popular films from 2007–2015 conducted by the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California, it was found that Hollywood has a strong problem with the representation of women, minorities and the LGBT community, and that there is little evidence of improvement over that span of time. In the 100 top-grossing films of 2015, 69% of all speaking roles were for men, with just 31% for women (the number for women in 2007 was 30%). In the same 100 films, only 32% portrayed a female as a lead or co-lead driving the narrative. Importantly, in those roles, women were three times as likely as men to be shown in “sexually revealing clothing” (30% versus 8%) or nude (29% versus 9%).

Things are no better for minorities. Nothing brought that issue to the fore more than the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite movement: a protest against the fact that all twenty 2016 Oscar nominees in acting categories (male and female) were white. Again from the University of Southern California study: in 2015, 74% of all characters in top Hollywood films were white, with only 14 out of the top 100 films containing a minority lead or co-lead character. Of those 14 films, only three lead roles were played a female actor from an underrepresented ethnic group, of which only one was aged over 45. 17% of the top 100 films in 2015 did not contain a single speaking or named black or African-American character, and that number was 40% for Latinos and 49% for Asians.

Behind the camera and in corporate offices the numbers get even worse. A 2015 Washington Post analysis of film executives found that, out of 343 executive members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts, 282 were white males (82%) and 42 white females (12%). Thus, 96% of the executive branch in 2015 was white, with an overwhelming male representation. Of the 435 Academy Award nominations for Best Director since 1927, 423 (97%) have gone to white directors. And, in that same period, only four women out of 435 (1%) have been nominated for Best Director, with one just winner (Kathyrn Bigelow in 2008). Of the 376 feature films released in 2013–14, only 6% were directed by women.

But numbers tell only one part of the story. While statistical presence in film is important, equally important is the issue of how particular groups are represented. On that front, Hollywood still has a long way to go. Women and minorities are often portrayed as subservient to their white, male counterparts, and these men tend to drive narratives. It is important to remember that Hollywood produces a large number of films per year, many of which do not feature sophisticated scripts and quality actors such as Meryl Streep. Or, to put it another way, Hollywood cannot be judged by its artistic cream, but rather by the totality of its output, and that includes a large number of films that rely upon violence, blatant sexism and vulgar ethnic stereotyping. It is also important to remember that Hollywood gets around 70% of its box office revenue from the non-US market, so the argument that Hollywood films are US products for US audiences fall flat.

This brings us back to Streep. I’m not arguing that Streep is in any way a hypocrite. Quite the opposite: she has been outspoken about sexism in Hollywood, and her critique of Trump’s xenophobia was important and timely. But it would be a mistake to just leave it there and not examine the role of Hollywood in supporting the forms of gender and ethnic discrimination exploited by Trump in his run for the presidency. Consider, for example, the ways in which Muslims have for decades been stereotyped in Hollywood films as fanatics and terrorists. Streep’s argument is that the arts are important because they allow us to empathize with others. That is correct, but they are also important because they can influence how we see and understand the world through their representation of our fellow humans, and not always in a positive way.

Unfortunately, both in front of the camera and behind, Hollywood has shown a clear tendency to resist the type of diversity needed to counter a myopic, ethnocentric worldview.

Professor of Journalism, Stockholm University. American. https://twitter.com/ChrChristensen

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