Girls on Film: How Feminism Fuels Meryl Streep’s Success

Girls on Film: How Feminism Fuels Meryl Streep’s Success

Feb 09, 2012

Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.


Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia

“Of course it’s always my secret agenda to inject that in everything I do – an understanding of where women have been. I was in the eighth grade in 1964, and I remember when there were no women journalists, and Barbara Walters went on TV and her co-anchor quit because he was a man and this was a woman. I remember those things and they marked us.”

Meryl Streep said the above in a 2008 interview. You could hear the actress’ trademark, tongue-in-cheek mirth as she began this recollection, giggling inwardly at the thought of her method as a “secret agenda.” Yet these words, which might sound mischievous or plotting, speak to a larger truth that has always bubbled under the surface of her performances – a notion that there is an underlying passion beyond her ability to morph into other people. There is something that fuels Meryl Streep’s career and subsequently her massive, record-breaking success: Her feminism.

Streep’s interests were present even in her very first film role, playing Anne Marie in the 1977 Oscar-winning film, Julia. The feature was based on Lillian Hellman’s memoirs, lavishing on a strong female cast led by the likes of Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. This first choice set the path of her entire cinematic career. Within two years she was Jill, Woody Allen’s feminist ex-wife in Manhattan, before winning her first Academy Award as Joanna Kramer in the divorce drama Kramer v. Kramer. She survived Auschwitz in Sophie’s Choice to fight for workers’ rights in Silkwood. She found herself Falling in Love just as easily as she became a baroness in Out of Africa, an addict in Postcards from the Edge, a whitewater rafting expert in The River’s Edge, a writer, a senator, a fierce businesswoman, a journalist, a Principal, a famous chef, and the only female leader of the Western World.

Meryl Streep in Death Becomes HerThough iconic critic Pauline Kael was famously never a big fan of Streep’s, director Alan J. Pakula has called her a “genius,” noting that she has “a remarkable, God-given talent combined with an absolutely first-rate intelligence.” Indeed, her talent seems linked to her insights, an immediate, powerful presence growing ever stronger with every moment of her 62 years. Her early softness has since birthed a power that no one can seem to deny, a creative stature allowing her to grow eight inches to play Julia Child or possess the charismatic determination that brings “The Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher to life. There is an extensive Wikipedia page dedicated to her myriad nominations and awards, including 17 Academy nominations and two wins. This is an actress who single-handedly defies any notion of age in Hollywood, surviving the ‘90s when she felt “washed up at 40” to find even greater success in her 50s and 60s.

As she told NPR this year:

"I remember when I turned 40, I was offered, within one year, three different witch roles. To play three different witches in three different contexts. It was almost like the world was saying or the studios were saying, 'We don't know what to do with you.' ... I think there was, for a long time in the movie business, a period of — when a woman was attractive and marriageable or f- - -able, that was it. And then they didn't know what to do with you until you were the lioness in winter, until you were 70, and then it was OK to do Driving Miss Daisy ... [and] things like that. But that middle period — the most vibrant of a woman's life, arguably, from 40 to 60, no one knew what to do with them. That really has changed, not completely, not for everybody, but for me it has changed. Part of it has to do with, I wasn't that word that I just said that you bleeped before; when I was a younger actress, that wasn't the first thing about me."

Over more than three decades in the business Streep has managed to cultivate a sense of comfort with, and appreciation of, her non-pin up presence in the public. For years, as she often recounts, male fans would praise her soft performance as Linda in The Deer Hunter, feeling at ease with the gently feminine woman balancing a sea of struggling masculinity. Now, however, Streep meets men who praise her for her tough Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, not because of some comfortable feminine ideal, but because they can relate to her.

This change is particularly notable for, as Streep explained in the very excellent Barnard speech above, the hardest thing in the world is to get the straight male audience to identify with a female protagonist, to “feel themselves embodied by her” and defeat the age-old habit where women to relate to men and women while men only relate to men. She attributes the “emotional shift” to empathy.

For Streep specifically, this switch means empathizing with a character who is a strong, no-holds-barred professional, played by an outspoken actress who boasts a keen understanding of gendered dynamics. It’s a pretty remarkable match in a world where feminism is marginalized and often demonized.

Where women like Kathryn Bigelow strive to keep gender out of the discussion, Streep has both struggled with it and welcomed it. In an excellent interview alongside The House of the Spirits co-stars Glenn Close and Winona Ryder in 1994 (I implore you to go read it over at EW), Streep discussed the necessity and danger of speaking of Hollywood’s imbalance. When asked about a speech Michelle Pfeiffer gave about the trend of female characters being sold to men on film (Pretty Woman, Indecent Proposal), Streep responded: “good for her, because there’s no benefit to giving that speech – none – except in the hearts of the people you reach. Most people won’t get up and give it, but it’s a truth that everyone knows. It’s like talking about someone’s bathroom habits in public. It’s just not attractive.”

Meryl Streep in It's ComplicatedStreep later continued: “I made one speech [about actresses being paid less than actors, at the first National Conference of the Screen Actors Guild’s Women’s Committee in 1990], and I have regretted this speech every day of my life. It’s like that’s my thing! Gawd! … I’m not raising any banner. All I did was say in one speech what everybody knows. If the people who are making the money at the top of the profession don’t speak about it, then when will there be equity down the line?”

Perhaps this quite rational and matter-of-fact manner has helped in Streep’s activism, but regardless, she’s become an increasingly loud voice in regards to any number of issues from the dangers of pesticides and perks of Community-Supported Agriculture to women in Hollywood and being a spokesperson for the fight to erect a National Women’s History Museum. Vogue called her a “force of nature” when she spoke about Deborah Sampson, one of the formidable women forgotten in history.

Each of these concerns, every societal observation she makes seems to swim into her performances, humanizing her roles in a way no other actress of the day has been able to capture with as much strength and regularity. In her Barnard speech, she talks about treating her high school years as something of a performance – how she learned to be demure, and giggly, and craft a version of herself that was appealing to the boys, and how she was able to then discover her true self at Vassar, surrounded by women using their minds. It was this act and subsequent knowing that allowed her to shrink into the role of Linda in Deer Hunter – an understanding of how to play the character against a film dripping with masculinity and male ego.

As she said to Vogue about her playing Thatcher, “With any character I play, where she is me is where I meet her.” That was certainly the case for Streep’s portrayal of Julia Child. Though the actress seems to be entirely from another world than Child, her mirth and steadfast intellect stretched her into the culinary powerhouse. Streep’s success rests on her knowing, which allows her to break through the constraints of media, propaganda, and the manufactured image to get at deeper truths. If she always meets her character where her character resembles her, each role is thus instilled with a sense of female power and rationale.

The idea reminds me of FSR’s recent Culture Warrior piece. The Hay’s Code fundamentally changed how we imagined mid-century families and relationships. We see history through what I call the haze of Donna Reed, before breaking through to a pre-Code Hollywood where progressive characters and themes were relished to the point that many modern films seem downright antiquated in comparison. Similarly, Streep breaks through the stereotypical notions of femininity and womanhood to get at a deeper truth. Each film choice is specific, and each character becomes infused with an increasing sense of knowing and intelligence.

And we eat it up.  It’s a great irony that the most successful actress of today is a woman who brings a strong sense of feminism and intellectualism to her work, an irony that works off the amazing feat of Katharine Hepburn, feminist extraordinaire, being the top female legend of the screen. As much as many might fear an increased female presence in Hollywood and the film and criticism community in general, here Meryl Streep is, finding success in complete defiance of the norm. Here she is continuing what Hepburn laid out: The stronger, more formidable, intelligent, and outspoken the woman, the more dynamic and successful the actress.

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