Growing up in Midwest Ohio, celebrities existed only on movie screens. They were enigmas, and I thought of them more as the characters they played than who they actually were. However, every January, I got what felt like an inside glimpse of Hollywood: the Golden Globes. I loved watching the red-carpet entrances on TV, complete with awkward interviews, extravagant dresses and a feeling that the people I watched in my favorite movies were real. But perhaps most of all, I enjoyed the acceptance speeches: the brief words each actor, actress, director or other member of the film industry would share with the world. Acceptance speeches always tended to be heartfelt and grateful and above all, defied the stereotype of celebrities.

You could see it in their faces and feel it in their words; these people often thought of as rich and selfish were passionate about what they did and grateful for the opportunity. Maybe I’m naïve or maybe these people are just really good actors. Either way, acceptance speeches always felt real. Yet, after recent awards shows — in particular, last week’s Golden Globes — I realize acceptance speeches aren’t just demonstrations of celebrities’ acting abilities but rather conscious efforts to use their fame for something greater.

When I sat down last Sunday to watch the Golden Globes, I was expecting the same glimpse of Hollywood I got every year. Instead, the trend of awareness-raising speeches continued, this time from one of the most timeless actresses of our generation: Meryl Streep. After accepting the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award, Streep took the stage with the same gratefulness most actors do. But instead of thanking those in her Hollywood community who helped her along the way, she turned to the camera and spoke to us all, delivering moving words on Donald Trump’s presidency and the change all Americans know is on the horizon — whether you are a Trump supporter or not. Streep took a platform — in this case at an awards show stage at the Beverly Hills Hilton Hotel — to call out the threatening nature of a Trump presidency, a presidency she openly disagrees with. 

While Streep’s speech took social media by storm the next day, she is not the only celebrity to use an acceptance speech for political purposes. At last year’s Oscars, it seemed as though every other speech was used to raise awareness for something the winner felt needed to be addressed. The long-awaited win for Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Actor was met with a powerful speech on the enduring effects of climate change. But even before that, political speeches were common at award shows. The Washington Post outlined some memorable acceptance speeches, including one from 1973 when Marlon Brando sent a young Native American girl in his place as to draw attention to the discrimination of Native Americans by the film industry. 

Many may argue a celebrity’s role in politics is ironic; they can play characters that experience injustices but they themselves are images of money and privilege. Yet, with speeches like Streep’s and those before her, I find myself comforted by the fact these people of wealth and privilege are using their platforms to speak out. After hearing an actress I have admired for so long speak about a presidency that brings uncertainty and fear to the institutions and ideals I believe in — in particular, the press — I was grateful. Whether or not celebrities have a place in politics isn’t the question; they will always have a spotlight and their use of it to shed light on other issues is powerful, possibly more powerful now than ever.

Trump responded to Streep’s eloquent and strong speech in what we now can consider true Trump fashion: The president-elect tweeted, “Meryl Streep, one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood, doesn’t know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes …” At this point, I shouldn’t be surprised by Trump’s tweets, yet they get me every time. But perhaps most ironic is Streep’s delivery of an opposing view to our president-elect’s. Here is a woman who most of us have nothing in common with, yet she was able to use her Hollywood soapbox to translate what many of us have been feeling. But even more, without once mentioning the name of the person behind those feelings. And ironically, the man she stood up against has more in common with her than we do.

Trump’s presidency is juxtaposed with his ties to Hollywood. A president usually becomes a celebrity, but doesn’t begin as one. Trump’s past of wealth, privilege and fame make him more like the Meryl Streeps of the world than college students like me. But last Sunday night proved how fame does not always equal ignorance or selfishness and that politics are not subjected to one group but affect us all. For me, Streep’s speech was made with concerted empathy and thoughtfulness. She spoke for many, in particular foreigners and the press, drawing attention to people whose soapboxes may not be as tall as her own. I can only wish that Trump, whose own fame is about to increase exponentially, will do the same, except now as the leader of our country.

We all have seen the remarkably un-presidential tweets and speeches from the president-elect. Trump’s discourse has taken away the elegance and power of words in politics. The excessive exclamation points and defensiveness are a stark change from what is expected of a conventional public official. Yet, with speeches like Streep’s, maybe the power of the spoken word in politics will now come from the places we least expect it.

Anu Roy-Chadhury can be reached at anuroy@umich.edu.

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