Meryl Streep and the F-Word: Why Did the Greatest Feminist Actress Deny Being a Feminist?

While promoting the movie Suffragette, Streep was asked if she is a feminist. ‘I am a humanist,’ she replied, further fueling the misguided belief that ‘feminist’ is a dirty word.

Photo Illustration by Alex Williams/The Daily Beast

In an interview with Porter magazine, Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotillard criticized feminism, saying, “We need to fight for women’s rights but I don’t want to separate women from men… Sometimes in the word feminism there’s too much separation.” And her sentiment was echoed this week by none other than Meryl Streep, who declared in Time Out London, “I am a humanist, I am for nice easy balance.”

Listen, I’ve learned to roll with the punches for Marion. Let’s not forget that this is a woman who could be described as both a 9/11 attacks truther and a moon landing denier. I love her movies, and short of a reveal of a secret racist or anti-vaxxer past, I plan to see every movie she makes from here on out. But I’m not about to subscribe to her political newsletter any time soon.

But Meryl… girl I am surprised at you. You, Mary Louise Streep—you are not a feminist? You, the star of Silkwood and A Cry in the Dark? You, who leap out of your seat every time another lady beats you for an Oscar? You, who are campaigning Congress for the creation of an equal rights amendment? You, who railed against Walt Disney last awards season for being a “gender bigot?” Self-described feminist Maya Angelou said that when people tell you who they are, believe them. So OK, Meryl, fine. You’re not a feminist. You’re only starring in a movie literally called Suffragette to fight for awareness of gender-neutral humanism.

Protestations about feminism as being “too separatist”—as 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.

So what is it that’s so undesirable about the word feminist? Why does the myth of separatism persist? Women like Meryl Streep are supposed to be our base, not our swing votes. If we can’t convince Meryl Streep to call herself a feminist in public, how are we ever going to reach women?

The common refrain in moments such as these is that feminism is simply a belief in equal rights. And while that is true, it’s also a vast oversimplification of the history of a movement that has had time to develop over the course of a century. There is not one feminism, but many feminisms, and there have always been fractures within the feminist movement over which ways to approach the issue of women’s rights. And, whether or not it’s fashionable to admit, part of that contention has been in defining the role that men play in the continued inequality between the sexes.

Most feminists are not Andrea Dworkin, the radical feminist most often cited when critics of feminism want to find a feminist who is explicitly anti-man. But then again even Andrea Dworkin wasn’t really Andrea Dworkin by the standards of her critics, as she is just as often misquoted as she was adequately critiqued. Short of a couple harmless Twitter jokes, you’d be hard-pressed to find a feminist who subscribes to radical separatism, and to me, there is something disturbing in the idea that women are denying feminism because of even the possibility that they might find themselves in a world where they must align themselves against men; a world where men are treated the way our culture treats women.

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.

There is no feminist ideology that seeks to deny men health care based on their gender. There is no future where men are kicked out of boardrooms or denied promotions because of their gender. No one is proposing that we even try to achieve that future as a goal, and even if they were, men have had a couple thousand years to learn how to defend their position of power. We don’t have to fight that battle for them.

We are living in a moment where the conservative right is actively attempting to defund women’s health care (see: Planned Parenthood) on their way to denying the women of this country our right to choose. We’re still fighting for equal pay, we’re still fighting for paid leave and child care, we’re still fighting for access to high-paying jobs in the sciences and in boardrooms. The ideals of feminism are more than a simple matter of identity—feminism is the barrier that safeguards women’s quality of life.

We can’t afford to lose our allies, but we also can’t afford to stop criticizing the people who hold the power, and who maintain the status quo—and in the case of feminism, those people are often men. 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. This just means that like not-feminist Meryl Streep said quite literally two questions down from declaring her not-feminism, it’s time for men to acknowledge their complicity in the gendered system of inequality, and it’s time for men to work to change that system.

“Men should look at the world as if something is wrong when their voices predominate. They should feel it,” said Streep. “People at agencies and studios, including the parent boards, might look around the table at the decision-making level and feel something is wrong if half their participants are not women. Because our tastes are different, what we value is different. Not better, different.”

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Well said, Meryl. Good thing you didn’t say our tastes were better—all those feminists out there might have gotten the wrong idea.