Meryl’s Out of Africa

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Did you think the world let Meryl Streep too easily off the hook for describing herself as “a humanist” rather than a feminist? Are you of the opinion that she should have gotten more, not less, flak for participating in Suffragette‘s “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” photo shoot? If you answer yes to either of these or both, then you’re probably elbow to elbow with the angry online mob that has assembled in outrage over the latest Streep fiasco, which occurred yesterday at a press conference at the Berlin International Film Festival. Streep, you see, is the president of the festival’s jury, which is composed entirely of white people; with #OscarsSoWhite looming over the movie world, reporters naturally pressed her on diversity matters. So Streep did what any sane white person would do: she replied by saying, “We’re all Africans, really.”

Except that isn’t what happened. 

If you’re angry at Streep for putting her foot in her mouth on the subject of diversity, be mad at the Internet first: you have been misled by journalists, appalling click-bait headlines, and the lead paragraph of an Associated Press report. Since this whole media clusterfuck started with the AP, we’ll start there too, using Frank Jordans’ opening to the article that dropped the match in the gasoline canister:

BERLIN (AP) — The Berlin International Film Festival became embroiled Thursday in the debate about diversity in the movie industry, with jury president Meryl Streep dismissing questions about the all-white panel by telling reporters that “we’re all Africans, really.”

(Source.) 

Knee-jerk reaction: “Jesus Christ on a hoverboard, Meryl, are you kidding me?” If Jordans had stopped writing at this point – and he might as well have, since the people who disseminated this information to the public appear not to have read past this point – then yes, all the clamor would be well justified and Streep would look like a total asshole. But there is a lot of article to read past those thirty six opening words. Case in point: the following seventy three, which are in theory pretty important to consider if you want to cover the event with the utmost accuracy and in the full spirit of journalistic ethics:

Asked by an Egyptian reporter whether she understood films from the Arab world and North Africa, Streep said while she didn’t know much about the region, “I’ve played a lot of different people from a lot of different cultures.”

“There is a core of humanity that travels right through every culture, and after all, we’re all from Africa originally,” she said.

“You know, we’re all,” she added, pausing, “Berliners, we’re all Africans, really.”

Annnnnnnnd cue the sound of a record scratching.

Really, you should read everything Jordans writes in the cited piece, but here’s the basic summary. A room full of correspondents asked Streep three times about diversity at the conference; one of those times she pointed out that the jury is diverse on gender lines, as men are outnumbered by women on the seven person panel; later on in the conference someone wondered aloud if she understood films from the Arab world and films from North Africa; she pointed out that even though she is not familiar with the region, we are all human beings no matter where we’re from or what culture we call our own; she reminded the room that modern humans originated from Africa; she said that we’re all Africans.

But the Internet just took the top end and the bottom end of the entire conference, mashed them together, and created an instant furor.

I’m fighting my every instinct not to do to the press what social media has done to Streep, which is to say that I am trying very hard not to cast writers as the villains in this little melodrama and Streep as the wronged party (even though she has, in a manner of speaking, been wronged by being misrepresented). That would be cheap. The truth is that all of this ballyhoo traces back to that leading paragraph, which does precisely what sites like The Mary Sue, Reuters, The Guardian, Fox News, ABC News, and The Washington Post have done since the AP article first went live: play mix and match with Streep’s quotes to suggest that she responded to actual questions about the diversity of the festival judging team with the “Africans” remark. Elsewhere, outlets ranging from US Weekly, to Vox, to Mashable, to Vulture managed to actually get the quotations correct, but still had some sharp thorns for her regardless.

This is kind of a big mess, and it’s hard to pick where to begin in sorting it all out. First, let’s acknowledge that the Internet is good at very many things – keeping the flow of information steady and available to everybody, connecting people even though there are entire continents separating them – but it may, perhaps, be best at fomenting instantaneous social blowups. To wit: I was pissed off at Streep when I heard about this turn of events, too, because the outlets each either failed to analyze the AP article thoroughly, or did so but still tagged their articles with the most shamelessly underhanded headers possible. It is most likely that neither the former nor the latter happened out of any malice; when you’re trying to bring hot button news to your readers, you’re writing very, very quickly, and that just increases the chance for mistakes, oversights, misinterpretations, and other such oopsies to transpire. And for the more levelheaded sorts, people who are able to stave off that immediate impulse toward righteous indignation until they have considered all of the information available to them, there is good reason to criticize Streep for what she actually did say, and in the order she said it, but more on that in a moment.

Put simply, writing for the web being what it is, reporting over this ordeal has been sloppy all around. This is what journalism looks like when it runs off the rails and becomes distracted by the potential traffic boost afforded by protest; it ain’t pretty. You would think more than one outlet would recognize Meryl’s invocation of John F. Kennedy (again, more on that in a moment), but that isn’t what happened. Writers saw an opportunity for a jump in clicks and they took it, offering little thoughtful examination of the situation along the way. These articles could all create a space for actual discourse over the festival, over the jury, over international cinema, over what “diversity,” “inclusion,” and “belonging” really mean, and what Streep might have meant by her observations. There’s room to criticize her. But dragging her through the digital mud is unbecoming of anyone who calls themselves a member of the press, and even a day after Streep opened her mouth, there appears to be very little space for giving proper consideration to the case anymore, either, which is too bad because that is how we grow as people.

So we’ve pinpointed how the media kind of shit the bed on this one; let’s now break down what Streep did right, and what Streep did wrong.

Meryl, I’ve Got Your Back:

Not gonna mince words: she had a great, substantive, considerate response to concerns about the jury’s diversity. Gender diversity, again, is diversity, after all, and while is important to avoid stumbling into the pit trap that is white feminism, I think she handled herself well without saying anything overtly idiotic or subtly offensive or just plain ignorant. 

It’s also worth pointing out that the question that led into the “Africans” comment is kind of foolish. Look, I get it: Streep isn’t from North Africa or the Arab world, and so you might wonder how familiar she is with those regional cultures and how much she knows about them. Fair. But that isn’t a real roadblock to her ability to comprehend films that hail from either area, which is what she’s talking about when she talks about that “core of humanity.” That core is why I am able to appreciate Jafar Panahi’s Taxi without researching Panahi himself (though the research made me appreciate it even more on second viewing, which is why it wound up in my top five for 2015), or why I am able to appreciate Tangerine. It does not mean that I have (or that I think I have) an academic or even a cultural-level grasp of what it means to be transgender, or what it means to be a political prisoner. It means that I am a person, and I am able to empathize with Panahi and Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra because even though my story isn’t the same as theirs, I get where they’re coming from on an intangible, primal, human level. 

In saying this, I am not arguing that all lives matter, or that I, a hetero white dude, am the same as a transgender woman. I am saying that despite our differences, I feel for them and I see the value and the power and the meaning of their stories, which, I think, is what Meryl was saying to the Egyptian reporter, too. “We are all Africans” is the same sentiment as “Je Suis Charlie,” or “Nous sommes tous Francais,” or “We Are All Americans,” a reminder that no matter what divisions – economic, social, religious, and so on – lie between us, we are all connected by our joint humanity. It’s the same sentiment, in fact, as “Ich bin ein Berliner,” which is what JFK said to a gathered audience in West Berlin back in 1963, which Meryl was very obviously referencing by way of her answer to the Egyptian reporter. (Of all the sites linked here, only WaPo brought this up, and then only through linking to Entertainment Weekly.)

And it’s a beautiful sentiment, but let’s face it:

Meryl, You Could Have Done Better:

Look, saying “I am a Berliner” is not exactly the same thing as saying “we are all Africans,” even if we really are all originally from Africa. (We are!) I could move to Berlin tomorrow and I would be a Berliner. We can pack up and move ourselves to another city and we can integrate into that city’s urban identity without much trouble, because that kind of identity happens to be very fluid. Your zip code and address determine if you’re a Bostonian, or a New Yorker, or a San Franciscan, or a Venetian. Admittedly, attitude matters, too, but American cities tend to be so similar to one another in a macro perspective that making the switch from one to another isn’t that demanding, and so adjusting to your new digs requires very little time. To an extent, this probably also holds true when you’re moving to another country but if I relocated to Africa tomorrow, I wouldn’t necessarily be an African; I have my own national baggage that makes that a bit tricky. Plus, now we’re comparing urban identity to ethnic identity now, and they are two very different things. 

(Anecdotally, for me, this is a lot like the question of converting to Judaism: if I converted to Judaism, I would be Jewish, but would I really be Jewish? I struggle with this every now and again.) 

So while I get and appreciate the Kennedy reference, I’m not sure if it totally works here, good intentions aside. Frankly, if she’d left it at “core of humanity,” she could have gotten her meaning across just as easily and without courting controversy. Grant me this: I’m not sure if my logic here – about the difference between saying you’re a citizen of a city versus saying you’re a citizen of an entire nation and a member of a culture – totally works, and I am quite certain that Meryl did not at all mean to say that she, by virtue of that “core of humanity,” is an African in terms of experience and personal history. All the same, this is thin ice to tread on. Remember when Patricia Arquette accepted her Oscar, and everyone acted like she dropped the race hammer in her speech? That’s another moment where a white woman failed to be as egalitarian and elegant in her verbiage as possible and wound up getting pilloried for it. 

“Cover your ass” isn’t the best lesson to learn here for Meryl, but if you’re going to dip your toes in the waters of inclusion and diversity, you really need to watch what you say. People on the web are quick to latch onto scandal, and they are quick to offend (whether for good reason or not). If you want to express solidarity, you need to be on point – not just to avoid bad headlines, because that’s gross, but to avoid wading into murky cultural territory, and to avoid striking uncomfortable and frankly disingenuous cultural associations.

The biggest takeaway to Streep’s contretemps? “Don’t immediately believe everything you read on the Internet,” which is a terrible takeaway for anything. (The other takeaway is “Meryl Streep is a racist monster,” but that’s only if you ignore the first takeaway and all two thousand words or so that I’ve written here.) Streep isn’t totally right, and she isn’t totally wrong, and – most of all – if you want to talk about Hollywood’s problem with inclusion, she isn’t the damn problem. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking about this. We should. But nobody wants to talk about it thoroughly or even scrupulously, and that does nothing to advance the cause of inclusion.

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3 thoughts on “Meryl’s Out of Africa

  1. I must admit: I was rather surprised when I first saw her response. Meryl Streep is a very smart woman, that cannot be contested. However, that response was not the most well- thought out, my dear.

    • I am mostly aggravated by the way that the Internet bullshit machine chewed up the exchange at the conference and made her sound much dumber than she actually is. I obviously still have my problems with the comment, even when taken in proper/full context, but the outrage over this is manufactured outrage.

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