By Daniel Au Valencia
Meryl Streep has managed to make headlines by attacking the world’s lowest-hanging fruit: Donald John Trump. Apparently it is viewed as an act of bravery to stand up to the most blatantly and visibly racist, ableist, misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, and all around assholish public figure of modern times. It is especially brave to do so as a wealthy abled white cis woman, in the process of receiving a nationally televised award.
At the Golden Globes ceremony on January 8th, 2017, Meryl Streep received the Cecil B. DeMille Award, and used part of her acceptance speech to dredge up a year-old news item: Donald Trump publicly mocking the mannerisms associated with arthrogryposis, the visible disability of Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Serge F. Kovalevski. I call him that, not because I particularly value awards or titles (I didn’t even watch the Golden Globes when it originally aired, and I’m an actor), but because Kovalevski doesn’t appear to name himself a member of any disability rights movement, nor focus his journalism on disability topics. Thus a description of him as a “Pulitzer prize-winning journalist” seems to contain far more relevant information than “disabled reporter” does.
As I and many others pointed out over a year ago, referring to the mocking of a disabled person as some unspeakable evil, or as “the final straw” to sever support of Trump’s campaign, is actually ableist. Mocking a disabled person qualifies as evil, certainly, but it is not more evil than creating a mandatory Muslim registry like the Nazis did with Jews. It is not more evil than grabbing women by the pussy without their consent. And it is clearly less evil than repealing the Affordable Care Act, effectively killing millions of mostly disabled people, not just making fun of us. Why weren’t any of those things the final straw? Why is mocking disability met with greater outrage than actions that are objectively, measurably more harmful, to other minorities and specifically to disabled people? The answer to that question lies in the subtext, something all actors love, within Meryl Streep’s rhetoric:
“It sank its hooks in my heart… It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it.”
The underlying tone, neatly bookended here, is pity. Just as disabled people merely living our lives is inspiring and heartwarming, on the flip-side directly interacting with a disabled person in a mean way is a low blow, kicking someone while they’re down. Of course in reality, being disabled doesn’t mean we’re “low” or “down” in the first place (unless you’re literally talking about wheelchairs or dwarfism, neither of which describe Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Serge F. Kovalevski).
Making fun of disabled people is the unforgivable sin of the 21st century, not because ableism is bad – the speech didn’t even contain the words ableism, discrimination, or bigotry – but because disabled people are already so tragic and vulnerable. Hiring people who aren’t disabled to play us in movies is fine. Taking away our civil rights, that’s fine. Literally murdering us, no problem. Just don’t point and laugh. Meryl Streep says we lack “the capacity to fight back.” While it’s true that the president of the United States generally has more power than a given New York Times editor, first of all, Donald Trump hadn’t yet been elected to any public office at the time, and second, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Serge F. Kovalevski can and has responded to Trump in the way that he himself saw fit. There is no abled savior needed to defend him.
Potentially the most troublesome word choice in the speech is when Streep said that Trump “imitated a disabled reporter.” Not mocked, imitated. What happened to the old adage “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”? I seriously doubt that Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Serge F. Kovalevski felt flattered by Trump’s childish antics. Meryl Streep, did you mean to imply that acting in the manner of a disabled person is what damned this action, not the fact that it was done for the sake of mockery? When an abled actor plays a disabled character, what’s shameful isn’t the stolen opportunity, but that a disabled character is portrayed at all? Maybe that’s why you didn’t even mention Kovalevski by name. He’s just “a disabled reporter” to you, stripped of his personhood and of all his accomplishments. You also managed to mention the recently passed, openly bipolar Carrie Fisher, but as “Princess Leia” – neither disabled nor a person! You disrespected them just as much as you deservedly disrespected Trump. As you said in the very same speech, disrespect invites disrespect, so maybe I should call you “shit head” or something instead of Meryl Streep.
As I often say in presentations about autism, two people who are both ableist are always on the same page, even if they say and genuinely believe they’re not. If you’re a parent using Floortime to manipulate your child into acting neurotypical, you’re not some radical revolutionary. You’re not special for disagreeing with those in the ABA industry, ’cause actually, you agree with them. You agree that disabled people should not be allowed to be visibly disabled in our mannerisms, and your actions reflect that. If you’re a doctor who says that vaccines don’t cause autism, but if they did, you’d have to be “monstrous” to still administer them, then you don’t disagree with anti-vaxxers. Not when they say being Autistic is worse than having polio. Hey Shit Head, do you think being disabled is inherently shameful? That being visible to the world, with uniquely disabled mannerisms, is shameful? If so, you and a guy who’s basically famous for being an asshole are in total agreement.
|Image description: Side-by-side photos of Donald Trump (left) and Meryl Streep (right). In comic book speech bubbles, Trump says “I hate disabled people!” and Streep replies “Me too!”|
It may seem like I’m over-analyzing a single 1-minute paragraph within a 6-minute speech. That’s because that 1-minute paragraph is all Meryl Streep said about disability. The rest of the speech, well, it was a calculated action from beginning to end: After bullying, she segued into asking her audience to support the Committee To Protect Journalists, and indeed there was a reported spike in donations right after the Golden Globes. That’s great for journalists and probably needed, but was the fact that Kovalevski is a journalist really the centerpiece to this story? Where is the spike in donations to ADAPT, or Not Dead Yet, or the National Council on Independent Living? With regard to disability, all this Golden Globes speech managed to inspire in its viewers was warm fuzzy feelings. It glossed over everything notable that disabled people did in the last year, and instead used one person as a nameless prop to add egos to the list of things being stroked in a rich abled white people’s circle-jerk.
What about the parts of the speech before Kovalevski and Trump?
Before reading any other perspectives, I watched Meryl Streep on YouTube so I could start with my own opinions. She began with what sounded like a speech about diversity. I may not be a comedian, but that should inspire laughter: An abled white woman, delivering a speech, to an audience that is 94% white and 0% visibly disabled, praising that audience for being so diverse. She gave shout-outs to specific actors, and to her credit named their countries of origin including Israel, Kenya, and Ethiopia. But that’s only a third of the names she chose. I’m sorry, but four (4) U.S. states, Italy, and Canada does not qualify as “diversity”. That’s just six (6) white people. To imply that it does reflects denial and rationalization.
Streep made no mention of disability when applauding the diversity of Hollywood. It was as though she did not see the connection within her own speech. No Affordable Care Act. No underemployment of disabled actors. No disability rights advocacy groups. No criticism of ableist movies like Split, The Accountant, and Me Before You, which undermine the work of disability rights groups and fail to employ disabled actors, many of whom are alive thanks to the Affordable Care Act. If there were any invisibly disabled actors in the audience, I don’t think they were very impressed with the bravery of Meryl Streep to utterly fail at addressing any of the real issues. I, a disabled actor, am not impressed. I, a disabled actor of color, am not impressed.