June 6th, 2016
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: email@example.com
And then there’s the anecdote, which feels like a mini-drama in and of itself. Act 1: A young, beautiful woman auditions for a part. We know, because of the face of this young woman and the connotation of actorly dominance that it has come to carry, that she was, without question, good enough for the role. Act 2: The people making the film think she’s not beautiful enough. She was, or theoretically was, sent to the precipice of disbelief: the whole of the Meryl Streep canon laid in the balance! Act 3: She opted to believe in herself, went off to “a kinder tide,” and gave us the gift of everything from Sophie’s Choice to Mamma Mia.
It’s a creative elaboration on the story that Streep told on Graham Norton — and not unlike how Streep’s life would be adapted, say, into a major motion picture, in which a small anecdote might be blown up to greater, career/life-changing/threatening importance. But that’s a movie that people might go to see, not necessarily share.
The science of what moves people to share things is a billion-dollar industry, but the accepted wisdom goes something like this: People share as a means of shoring up their (digital, and by extension, actual) identity. They share things they hate to show what they’re not; they share things they like to show what they are — or what they stand for, or what they find amusing, or delightful, or humorous. Social media sharing is, in effect, a display of taste and identity, but above all, a very simple and not always entirely thought-through performance of the self.
The question, then, is why people wanted to affix this understanding of Streep to themselves — which, I think, actually has everything to do with upholding the myth of meritocracy. Everyone knows Hollywood is an industry whose primary currency is not skill, but beauty. But Streep’s skill was such that she excelled in Hollywood not because of her beauty, but despite her (supposed) lack thereof. She became a star not because she fit the Hollywood understanding of stardom, but out of merit: The best will rise, no matter the accepted rules.
It’s a nice story to tell — about Streep, sure, but also about Hollywood and the world in which we live. But it also ignores Streep’s obvious beauty, and elides the many actresses of tremendous skill — also told by Hollywood executives that they are too ugly, or too fat, or too “ethnic” (and certainly “more” ugly, and fat, and ethnic than Streep) — whose stories ended in sadness, and continued invisibility, rather than uplift.
But that’s a story that no one wants to share, even as the franchise-ization of mainstream Hollywood — and the slow demise of the mid-budget movie, and the generalized move to cater to audiences who are young and male — has, if anything, further restricted the types of bodies that might be considered castable in a mainstream movie. If the scenario envisioned by the Streep image happened today, she would likely end up on a quality cable drama. Or the stage. But almost certainly not with any Oscars. Still, puncturing the myth of meritocracy threatens the ideological backbone that is the American dream. To suggest that hard work isn’t still more important than good looks, privileged birth, or the color of your skin is to suggest that our country’s guiding principle is broken. Celebrities, and the narratives that swirl around them, have long been used to prop up ideologies under threat. The image of Streep is just the latest, digital example thereof.