On the morning of Nov. 10, a Facebook page titled “Meryl L. Streep” posted a photo of a young, sweaty-looking Streep, riding a crowded subway, with the following caption:
This was me on my way home from an audition for King Kong where I was told I was too “ugly" for the part. This was a pivotal moment for me. This one rogue opinion could derail my dreams of becoming an actress or force me to pull myself up by the boot straps and believe in myself. I took a deep breath and said “I’m sorry you think I’m too ugly for your film but you’re just one opinion in a sea of thousands and I’m off to find a kinder tide.” Today I have 18 Academy Awards. 😊
The image went viral, amassing over 1 million likes and hundreds of thousands of shares.
We don’t know precisely how many anymore, however, because the post, and the page that posted it, have disappeared from Facebook. The post itself wasn’t a hoax so much as a misrepresentation: In an appearance on the popular British talk show The Graham Norton Show this past January, Streep told the story of how, prefame, she had auditioned for the lead in a reboot of King Kong, produced by famed Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis. When De Laurentiis brought her to his son, he replied, in Italian, “Why do you bring me this ugly thing?” To which Streep replied, also in Italian, “I’m sorry I’m not beautiful enough to be in King Kong.”
This is a pretty amazing story! But posting a clip of Streep recalling her past doesn’t have the same potency as an image: The YouTube clip of Streep telling the story only has 977,000 views. It’s much harder to make a full-length YouTube clip go viral: Take a look at your Facebook feed and you’ll see it’s short clips of auto-playing video and images. Memes, sure, but also images that seem to tell a story, either on their own or with the facilitation of a caption. See, for example, the stunningly successful Humans of New York. These storytelling images share so well that they often outwit Facebook’s internal sorting algorithm, which, at least in its current iteration, prefers video and links over images. (Your bare, text-only status update? It’s prioritized last.)
The fake Streep post is the equivalent of viral secret sauce. First, it features an extremely well-known face — one of the most recognizable of any living movie star — but in a way that you haven’t seen her before. Our current image of Streep is as a gracefully aging woman; this image (actually taken in 1981, when Streep would have been 32) provides the same piquant surprise as seeing what a star looked like in high school.
Then there’s the feeling of intimacy: This was me, the caption says. This was a pivotal moment for me, it confesses. It’s not just the use of first-person address, but the snapshot quality of the image: In truth, it was taken by a professional photographer, Ted Thai, on the subway, but that doesn’t mean that the crowded public space, the sunglasses pushed to the forehead, the proximity to the photographer, the grime of the ‘80s subway, the feeling of hardscrabble everydayness, and the glean of sweat don’t all give it the feel of a snapshot.
And then there’s the anecdote, which feels like a mini-drama in and of itself. Act 1: A young, beautiful woman auditions for a part. We know, because of the face of this young woman and the connotation of actorly dominance that it has come to carry, that she was, without question, good enough for the role. Act 2: The people making the film think she’s not beautiful enough. She was, or theoretically was, sent to the precipice of disbelief: the whole of the Meryl Streep canon laid in the balance! Act 3: She opted to believe in herself, went off to “a kinder tide,” and gave us the gift of everything from Sophie’s Choice to Mamma Mia.
It’s a creative elaboration on the story that Streep told on Graham Norton — and not unlike how Streep’s life would be adapted, say, into a major motion picture, in which a small anecdote might be blown up to greater, career/life-changing/threatening importance. But that’s a movie that people might go to see, not necessarily share.
The science of what moves people to share things is a billion-dollar industry, but the accepted wisdom goes something like this: People share as a means of shoring up their (digital, and by extension, actual) identity. They share things they hate to show what they’re not; they share things they like to show what they are — or what they stand for, or what they find amusing, or delightful, or humorous. Social media sharing is, in effect, a display of taste and identity, but above all, a very simple and not always entirely thought-through performance of the self.
The question, then, is why people wanted to affix this understanding of Streep to themselves — which, I think, actually has everything to do with upholding the myth of meritocracy. Everyone knows Hollywood is an industry whose primary currency is not skill, but beauty. But Streep’s skill was such that she excelled in Hollywood not because of her beauty, but despite her (supposed) lack thereof. She became a star not because she fit the Hollywood understanding of stardom, but out of merit: The best will rise, no matter the accepted rules.
It’s a nice story to tell — about Streep, sure, but also about Hollywood and the world in which we live. But it also ignores Streep’s obvious beauty, and elides the many actresses of tremendous skill — also told by Hollywood executives that they are too ugly, or too fat, or too “ethnic” (and certainly “more” ugly, and fat, and ethnic than Streep) — whose stories ended in sadness, and continued invisibility, rather than uplift.
But that’s a story that no one wants to share, even as the franchise-ization of mainstream Hollywood — and the slow demise of the mid-budget movie, and the generalized move to cater to audiences who are young and male — has, if anything, further restricted the types of bodies that might be considered castable in a mainstream movie. If the scenario envisioned by the Streep image happened today, she would likely end up on a quality cable drama. Or the stage. But almost certainly not with any Oscars. Still, puncturing the myth of meritocracy threatens the ideological backbone that is the American dream. To suggest that hard work isn’t still more important than good looks, privileged birth, or the color of your skin is to suggest that our country’s guiding principle is broken. Celebrities, and the narratives that swirl around them, have long been used to prop up ideologies under threat. The image of Streep is just the latest, digital example thereof.
Currently, the Meryl L. Streep Facebook page has been deleted for violating Facebook’s community standards concerning false representation. Even though the page’s “About Me” indicated that it was a fan page, the use of first person — and anecdotes that amount to fan fiction — constitute a misrepresentation. (Before the page was deleted, it also featured images of Streep paired with Bible verses and aspirational quotes, as if coming from her own keyboard). Streep’s representation may have registered the complaint — or the post’s virality simply opened it to Facebook’s scrutiny. And yet the anecdote endures; as of this writing, screengrabs of the original fake Facebook post continue to pepper my news feed, giving the uplifting story a second life to the tune of 500,000 (and counting) likes.
But this sort of misattribution of quote and celebrity image is nothing new, and this isn’t a story of misrepresenting Streep so much as misrepresenting the way things work in Hollywood — and, by extension, the way they work in contemporary Western society. We share things that highlight sad and tragic truths because we identify them. But we also share things that represent a worldview — in this case, meritocracy, and its triumph over entrenched beauty standards — that we want, so desperately, to exist.
In the end, the willingness to share the post, despite so many incredible tells — the punctuation, the emojis, the un-Meryl Oscar bragging, the fact that Streep has won three and not 18 Academy Awards! — highlights just how desperate, yet ultimately helpless, we are to make it true.
Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News. Petersen has a Ph.D. from the University Of Texas and wrote her dissertation on the gossip industry.
Contact Anne Helen Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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