Monday, October 17, 2011

Feminist line

Meryl Streep's cinematic choices sketch a trajectory in the history of women's work.

The following post is the first in a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies. 

  I can’t say she didn’t warn me. “The progression of roles you take strings together a portrait of an actor,” Meryl Streep conceded in a 1998 interview with Interview magazine. But, she added, “it’s a completely random process. In other words, which role was available which year has more to do with who was running a studio or who was bankrolling a particular project or who the costar was.
     “The people who write about films [like person you’re now reading] always attempt to find a through line to a career,” she continued. “There is a through line to a life based on the choices you make, and so you can discern some things about an actor. But not necessarily a lot.” 
     Actually, I won’t claim to have discerned all that much. Though I’ve now spent some time in her virtual company, I don’t claim to know Meryl Streep. I will say that making allowances for the promotional persona stars adopt for pitching their work to the public—in which every project was fascinating (if challenging), every co-star was a blast, and every director was brilliant—she appears to have an truly winning personality: spontaneous, funny, self-aware.  And, allowing for typical human foibles as well as those particular to celebrities, an intriguingly normal one. “The story about Meryl Streep is that there really is no story,” Roger Ebert, who has interviewed his fair share of stars in the last half-century, wrote recently. “She is a great actress, probably the best of her generation, and has given one wonderful performance after the other. The rest of the time she is an admirable wife and mother, utterly free of gossip, scandal and even anecdote. The stories that are told about her, even the funny ones, are essentially about how gifted she is, and how much people like her. That’s it.” 
      Well, not quite. Actually, there are “through lines” to Streep’s life that are reasonably discernible. Like this one: She’s a feminist, at least in the general sense of feminism as a belief in the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. Streep is legendary for the diverse array of characters she has played: not just wives, mothers, daughters and sisters, but also clerks, journalists, teachers, and politicians. But all of them are strong characters who assert themselves in their respective environments. As does Streep herself, who has been active in any number of environmental or political causes over the years, particularly those related to related to food.
     She is a particularly acute, yet good-natured, critic of sexism in her own industry. I was amused in watching a slightly tart Streep assert in a 1993 interview assert that “actors, in general, as a general sweeping rule, are much more vain than actresses.” Deploying her vast gifts of mimicry, she then impersonated a male movie star (“they’re always checking their hair,” she says, gesturing with her hands). “I’m right, aren’t I?” she asks someone off camera, ratifying the apparent approval by saying “absolutely.” An offscreen (male) voice then asks, “And you’re not vain?” “No,” she says with mock solemnity, breaking into laughter. Still, the point remains: “I’m vain, but I’m nothing like these men.” 
     She was more pointed in a 1989 Premiere interview with Terri Minsky, who went on to have a successful television writing career. It’s worth quoting in a little detail:

“Can I just tell you [she told Minsky] that $11 million is what Jack Nicholson got for Batman. Eleven million. He was in Ironweed [with Streep herself], if you recall. Okay. All right. He was in Heartburn [also with Streep] if you remember . . . I was in Out of fucking Africa, remember? Kramer vs. fucking Kramer! The Deer Hunter.” Her voice retains its musical lit, but the passion shows in the way her pale skin begins to flush and she leans forward on her elbows. “I’m saying it’s a guy’s game. If I asked for $11 million, they would laugh. In my face. I make enough that nobody’s gonna weep on my side of the table. But it’s outrageous. I love Jack”—this is said very sweetly. “I’m happy for him. I know he’s laughing all the way to the bank when he makes these deals. But there are different rules for men than for women. I know it’s true. I’m not angry. I guess I’m angry, but not angry enough. I have a great life. If I were starving, I would be doing something about it. I’m not, obviously. And probably that plays against me in that whole negotiating process. But it stinks.”

Twenty years later, she was still fighting similar battles. There had been a time when one could plausibly claim that for all the laurels Streep had earned—among them an unprecedented 16 Academy Award nominations—the quality of her acting did not necessarily translate to box office success. But by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, that moment had long since passed. A string of her films running from The Devil Wears Prada (2005) to It’s Complicated (2009) were major commercial winners; the 2008 hit Mamma Mia! alone generated over half a billion dollars worldwide. Streep was also increasingly working with female writers and directors, notably her longtime collaborator Nora Ephron. And yet, as she noted, she still confronted what she called “vestigial” sexism every time she made a deal. Streep got some attention in early 2009 when she observed that “Three of the nominated films [for Best Picture] this year had 26 men and one woman— Slumdog [Millionaire] and Milk, and Frost/Nixon. You know, we accept it. It’s not unusual. But we would go nuts if three of the nominated films had 26 women and one man. It would be a very, very unusual thing. We’re still not telling everybody’s story in our country and that’s where we are.”
Of course, to call Streep a feminist is not really to say all that much. Notwithstanding the difficulties some women, particularly younger ones, have with the term, the affirmation of gender parity is not an especially rare or unconventional proposition in U.S. society, at least as a matter of genteel public opinion. More specifically, Streep is a liberal feminist, which is to say that her version of feminism focuses more on notions of equality, as opposed to assertions of female power that rest more on a sense of gender difference (consider the contrast between Hillary Clinton and, say Lady Gaga in this regard). Though Streep’s versatility as an artist has always been widely noted, her persona, particularly in recent years, has had a distinctly bourgeois cast.
But this is where history comes in to the Streep equation, and the particular “through line” that I’m tracking here. Unlike the male movie stars I’ve been looking at, Streep’s work does not reveal an implicit version of the U.S. past in the vein of Clint Eastwood’s Jeffersonianism, Daniel Day-Lewis’s frontier sensibility, or Denzel Washington’s generational vision. Instead, her work documents the integration of feminist ideology into American cultural life in the transitional decades between the 20th and 21st century. More specifically, it documents a shift in emphasis from private life to public life. Born in 1949, she came of age after major struggles—for voting rights, abortion, pay equity, reproductive rights—had already been launched. By the time she was a young adult, many had been substantially, though not completely, achieved. Her movies show these struggles to be ongoing, as well as the ways in which life remained complicated and contested even for women who were presumably emancipated.
 So Streep’s work tells a story of the past. But is also a story in the past. She came of age in a conservative era, witnessing the failure to pass an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution in 1982, and a vocal antifeminist backlash on the Right, developments she tends not to address directly but ones which she addresses implicitly in her work nonetheless.
Streep’s tale of liberal feminism unfolds in three distinct stages. The first, which runs roughly the first decade of her career, is marked by characters whose self-assertion is typically played out in their private lives, particularly as wives and mothers. Then, for a brief period between the late 1980s and early 1990s, she took a series of parts that satirically comment on gender roles, part of a broader move away from drama toward comedy. Streep’s feminism shifted again at the turn of the century, this time focusing on women whose power was played out in public, institutional settings. These phases are not completely segmented, and one of the most distinctive aspects of Streep’s career is the way in which she has blended her roles. Indeed, one might say that Streep’s signal achievement as a feminist has taken the form of dramatizing the ways a woman can experience a full, if never easy, life with any number of public and private permutations—as well as the cost of not allowing this to happen. I nevertheless believe that these phases are reasonably distinct and usefully traced as such. The through line may not be entirely straight, and blurs at times. But it is one worth tracing if it allows us to see a bit more clearly how women have, and have not, changed.
Next: A biographical sketch.