Tim Stanley: Meryl Streep's heartfelt remarks criticizing Trump over his mocking disability a reminder of Hollywood's hypocrisy
He says where are roles for actors with disabilities? Why are minorities underrepresented? Hollywood helped create Trump
Editor’s Note: Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Voters don’t take much notice of what Hollywood says about politics. If they did, Hillary Clinton would be president by now.
What’s more, when Meryl Streep launched a tearful, heartfelt attack on the President-elect at the Golden Globes on Sunday night, accusing him of mocking a reporter with a disability, it did not surprise. A Hollywood star unloading on a Republican? Seen it. Donald Trump responding with a vicious counterattack on Twitter? Predictable. Trump called Streep “overrated,” as if they were a pair of screen rivals having a good old-fashioned catfight.
No question, Streep’s emotional speech was delivered with tremendous dignity and made a very good point – one proven by Trump’s nasty reply: The man cast as the next president of the United States can be mean and petulant. Even if he’s innocent of parodying people with disabilities, he’s upset plenty of minorities in his campaign for the White House. Some Mexican immigrants, remember, are “rapists” and “killers,” according to him. Black people should vote for him because they have nothing to lose. And so on.
But people hate being lectured by Hollywood. Why? Partly it’s because Los Angeles is a strange, alien land full of beautiful eccentrics who use private jets like the rest of us use cabs. Partly because their politics are often far-left and absurd. But also because Hollywood is grossly hypocritical. The moviemakers may hush over liberal causes at award ceremonies, but the industry they work in does not reflect those values. On the contrary, Hollywood can be just as regressive and conservative as Donald J. Trump.
For instance, it’s estimated that 95% of characters with disabilities on TV are played by able-bodied actors. That’s pretty shameful. Actors with disabilities certainly exist and, yes, Hollywood does make the occasional movie about the differently abled, such as the 2014 Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything.” But that was a relatively low-budget movie designed to win awards, and the part was still played by a good looking, able-bodied actor so privileged that he went to Cambridge University with me (I regret to report that Eddie Redmayne does not stay in touch).
What is rarer is to see an actor with a disability in a big-budget, leading-person role, or for Hollywood to make a mainstream movie about the day-to-day realities of a working-class person with a disability.
Their invisibility is not an isolated problem. For a country where 17.4% of Americans are of Latino heritage, it’s strange that they only make up an estimated 5.8% of characters in TV and film. Hollywood has tried to make up for the notorious dearth of Oscar nominations for people of color, and we should applaud recent movies like “Hidden Figures” that help redress this.
But let’s face it: Hollywood still undervalues African-American talent and audiences and has historically shied away from interracial relationships. And the movie industry still hires straight actors to play gay and transgender characters, which some see as a form of blackface.
It’s not all bad; I don’t want to paint a false picture of an industry devoid of radical spirit. Portrayals of ordinary lives have long held some mainstream appeal – most recently Adam Driver as a working-class poet in “Paterson” and Casey Affleck as a stepfather in “Manchester by the Sea.”
But Hollywood is about making money and its corporate, Trump-style ethic always wins in the end. For every Oliver Stone movie examining capitalism and war there are countless films that either glorify violence or exist to get us to buy something. Watching “Rogue One” recently, I was impressed by the interracial cast of heroes led by a woman, but depressed by the routine, cruel violence and the suspicion that I was being told what toys to buy the kids for Christmas.
It is Hollywood that helped make Donald Trump. Hollywood crashed out apocalyptic superhero movies that burned into our consciousness the idea that the world is on fire – when it is actually safer than ever – and that only a strong man can put out the flames. Hollywood has also promoted cynicism, spinning a line in perpetual irony that encourages us to take everything as a cruel joke.
For years, movies and shows like “Family Guy” have been encouraging us to laugh at pain and, yes, sometimes disability. Trump is the logical extension of this culture.
Meryl Streep is a genius, she was right about Trump and she has a right to say what she feels. But the collective smugness of Hollywood has to end. If it wants to change the world, it has to start with its own product. Make movies that solve problems with intelligence rather than force – and make heroes out of ordinary, complex people. Get that right and audiences will listen more to what actors have to say.