What the Internet outrage about Meryl Streep’s comments on feminism gets wrong

We need to let every woman decide for herself.

Internet Culture

Published Oct 5, 2015   Updated May 27, 2021, 8:53 pm CDT

When asked if she was a feminist, Meryl Streep responded, “I am a humanist, I am for nice easy balance.” Oh, lord, here come the Internet masses, sniffing for humanist-not-feminist blood.

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The Mary Sue says:

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I get younger actresses with less context about the feminist movement needing to be educated about what the word actually means—and what it doesn’t mean. […] Listen, once and for all. Just because the word “feminist” starts with “fem” doesn’t mean it’s about prioritizing women over men. It means, “Hey! This is where the imbalance is. This is the part we need to lift up in order to make things equal.” It’s about bringing women up to where men already are, not lowering men in any way. Get it through your thick skulls, people!

Yeah, get it through your thick skull, grown, 66-year-old, very intelligent Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep! And yeah, god, younger actresses are so stupid! That all sounds very feminist.

Jezebel echoes:

In early September, Streep sent a package to each member of Congress urging him or her to support the Equal Rights Amendment, which would make it illegal to discriminate against women. She whooped when Patricia Arquette spoke about equal pay at the Oscars. She went to Vassar, which is basically just a women’s rights propaganda training center. But for some reason she doesn’t feel comfortable calling herself a feminist. Hahahahahaha what are words anyway, right?

Yeah, because Meryl Streep obviously doesn’t know words and can’t find the right one to describe herself without the help of bloggers who don’t know her!

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And once again with the being-patronizing, here’s the Daily Beast:

Protestations about feminism as being “too separatist”—as [Marion] Cotillard puts it—are no surprise coming from young starlets who have yet to get curious about the world beyond their success, but coming from women like Streep and Cotillard, the usual refrains about wanting balance and not wanting to cut men out are confusing. These are women whose careers and whose lives have clearly benefited from feminism, and who clearly seek out extraordinary women to portray in their work.

I should probably take the opportunity to admit this: I was once a feminist, but I decided a few months ago that I’m not a feminist anymore. And it’s largely language like this that informed that decision. 

According to the feminist Internet, if you believe in equal rights, you are a feminist—whether you want to be or not. This is profoundly hypocritical for a movement that is supposed to be empowering women to make autonomous decisions about who they are and what they believe. To then assume that anyone who doesn’t know, duh, that feminism and equal rights are one and the same is just not well-enough informed is pompous and condescending well beyond that hypocrisy.

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The feminist Internet tends to imply that feminism is just a set of beliefs, not a way of behaving or a set of tactics, and so if you just share those beliefs, you must be a feminist. But that’s not the case: Feminism is also a way of behaving, a way of living, and a set of tactics, all of which have been in a state of flux and change since the very beginning of first-wave feminism. This is true for any ideology or religion—if you want change, you can’t just have beliefs; the point is that you also act on them. This is why Gandhi fasted and Martin Luther King Jr. engaged in non-violence.

So what are the behaviors and tactics of modern feminism? They’re many things, and many of them are positive and productive, like aiming toward equitable personal relationships, working to achieve wage equality, providing safe online and physical spaces for open conversations about queer and gender theory that would have been unsafe to hold in the past, among many more.

This is profoundly hypocritical for a movement that is supposed to be empowering women to make autonomous decisions about who they are and what they believe.

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But, too, there’s this feminist bullying and dogpiling that happens whenever a celebrity, or worse, just an anonymous ordinary woman says, “I’m not a feminist.” There’s white feminist erasure of women of color. There’s feminist condescension toward sex workers and kink. There’s cis/straight feminist erasure of queer and trans people. And there’s the fact that feminists keep saying that, sorry, no, men and their problems are not worth their time.

Take, for example, the Daily Beast article above, which says: “Just thinking about the issue from a practical level, the idea that we should be worried about preserving men’s voices in the case of a feminist victory is absurd.” Sorry, what? Later, the claim is made that “this doesn’t mean that we can’t love men, that we can’t fight for the things men are denied by the rigid system of gender that we’ve constructed for them.”

But when does that actually happen? When do feminists turn to misogynists and see their misogyny as the result of a gender binary that forces men to defend their masculinity, regardless of the power structures they are privileged to have that help them mount that defense? When do feminists actually try to empathize with misogynists as human beings instead of dismissing them as simply not correct and simply not important to listen to? 

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And when do the subjects of boys’ declining academic performance, circumcision, male body image, sexual pressure on boys and men, economic pressure on men, the massive male prison population, and especially the massive black male prison population, the silencing of male rape victims, and violence against trans men ever seriously get brought to the table in a mainstream feminism that keeps claiming that feminism isn’t “just about women?” And how does mainstream modern feminism reconcile that neglect with its claims to be trans-supportive and intersectional?

I ask because I’ve sat at that table, and I know that there are plenty of feminists who are serious about addressing the needs of people of color, the trans community, the queer community, and men. However, feminism has become mainstream and has become very large, and those conversations are more often than not lost, ignored, or deemed not important in comparison to conversations about struggles that cisgender, straight white women face.

Feminism has become mainstream and has become very large, and those conversations are more often than not lost.

All that I have to say about feminism is informed by my own poor feminist decision-making in the past, too. For example, I got accolades for a satirical photo set I did that made biting, really kind of mean judgments about the women who engaged in Women Against Feminism. I’ve learned since then that making judgments about other people and purporting to know what other people’s experiences and motivations are is wrong-headed and unkind. I regret that photoset. I regret a lot of things I’ve said in the name of “feminism,” in the name of “equal rights.”

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But it’s what modern feminism does, and you hear it in the cries of “You’re so stupid for not understanding what feminism is, it’s so dumb that you don’t call yourself a feminist, even though you believe in equal rights.” It’s possible to believe in equal rights and not be a feminist. It’s possible to believe in equal rights and not want to associate with people who behave the way so many modern feminists do on behalf of their feminism. 

For myself, I’ve opted to say that I believe in human rights, and, of course, that includes women’s rights. If Meryl Streep’s way of saying that is that she’s a humanist, then fine: Let her decide for herself that she’s a humanist.

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Rebecca Vipond Brink is a writer, photographer, and traveler based in Chicago, as well as an Assistant Editor at the Frisky. You can reach her on Facebook and check out her blog at Flare and Fade.

Screengrab via BBC

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*First Published: Oct 5, 2015, 2:13 pm CDT