Meryl Streep's Golden Globes Speech Belied An Inconvenient Truth About Hollywood

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When beloved actress Meryl Streep used her lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes Sunday as an opportunity to denounce the president-elect, her fans ― along with critics of Donald Trump ― predictably went wild. 

Streep was praised for her candor and bravery. The Academy Award winner left fellow A-listers with tears streaming down their faces as she described how her heart “broke” when Trump mocked Serge Kovaleski, a New York Times reporter with arthrogryposis, at a campaign event in 2015.

The president-elect denied that he’d mocked Kovaleski, and dismissed Streep as a “Hillary flunky.” His supporters claimed the speech epitomized everything that’s wrong with the liberal elite. But they weren’t the only ones with criticism: Many members of the disability community pointed out that Streep’s comments stand in stark contrast to the ways in which people with disabilities are shut out of awards shows and the entertainment industry as a whole. Outside of Streep’s reference to Kovaleski, there was barely a mention of anyone with a physical disability during Sunday’s show.

Hollywood is willing to touch on the issue of disability without actually inviting any members of the community to partake in the conversation, according to New York Times best-selling author and disability activist Kody Keplinger. 

“I couldn’t help rolling my eyes,” Keplinger told The Huffington Post. She’s a co-founder of Disability in KidLit, an online resource regarding the depiction of disability in children’s and young adult literature. “The applause in the room felt almost self-congratulatory.”

“Can Hollywood really pat itself on the back when disabled actors are still so rarely cast — even to play people like themselves?”
Kody Keplinger, author and disability activist

Nearly 1 person in 5 in America has a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But Hollywood hasn’t made much room for this demographic. In 2015, only 2.4 percent of notable characters in the top-grossing 100 movies had disabilities. 

What’s most disheartening, Keplinger notes, is that when people with disabilities are depicted on the big screen, they tend to be played by actors who are able-bodied in real life.

“’We would never do this,’ I’m sure many were thinking. ‘We would never mock someone with a disability,’” Keplinger said. “But how many of the actors in that room have been paid millions of dollars to play someone with a physical disability? There is a difference between playing a part and mocking someone, absolutely, but can Hollywood really pat itself on the back when disabled actors are still so rarely cast ― even to play people like themselves?”

In 2015, Eddie Redmayne won an Academy Award for best actor for his portrayal of famed physicist Stephen Hawking in James Marsh’s “The Theory of Everything.” It took months of “physical training” for Redmayne to nail the gestures of a person with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Steve Granitz via Getty Images

Eddie Redmayne poses in the press room during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles, Feb. 22, 2015.

Last year, “Me Before You,” Thea Sharrock’s heartbreaking romantic film about a stud who becomes paralyzed and falls in love with his caretaker, featured actor Sam Claflin in the lead role. Claflin doesn’t use a wheelchair.

Nor is this a recent phenomenon. One of Dustin Hoffman’s career-defining roles was as a man with autism in Barry Levinson’s 1988 hit “Rain Man.”

Slaven Vlasic via Getty Images

Sam Claflin visits AOL Build to discuss his new film “Me Before You,” May 23, 2016, in New York City.

The list goes on. And the issue is just as prevalent in television. Ninety-five percent of characters with disabilities on TV are portrayed by able-bodied actors.

And yes, representation matters.

“Imagine what it would feel like to be a woman and for the only women you ever saw in films to be played by men. Imagine what it would feel like to be a member of an ethnic minority and for the only portrayals of your race you ever saw in films to be given by white people,” Scott Jordan Harris wrote in an opinion piece for Slate in 2015. “That’s what it’s like being a disabled person at the movies.”

Streep concluded her Golden Globes speech with a quote from her late friend, the actress Carrie Fisher: “Take your broken heart and make it into art.”

Now if only Hollywood would just extend that invitation to people with disabilities.

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