Meryl Streep: Barnard Commencement Speech

Meryl StreepMeryl Streep opened her soul to the Barnard College graduating class last Monday. In a compelling commencement speech acknowledging the value of single-sex education, she celebrated both the power of a women’s perspective and the power of empathy to bring real change.

Ethos, Logos, Pathos

Her speech employed the classic Aristotelian elements of persuasive public speaking: ethos, logos and pathos.

She used ethos to establish her bone fides as an Academy Award winner and famous actress (albeit a person suffering a fame that separates her from “friends, from reality, from proportion”).

There was minimal logos in the speech. But she did include data from The Economist about women’s effects on economic growth and, tongue in cheek, on the research she’d conducted in high school on how to attract boys with peroxide hair and brand name clothes from the pages of Seventeen and Vogue – decades before the Devil wore Prada!

Above all, with wit and charm, Streep employed pathos to establish an emotional bond with the audience. She told emotionally appealing stories – of herself as a young girl swaddling her Betsy Wetsy doll; as an undergraduate, unkempt as the Velveteen Rabbit; as a new mother giving a very different commencement speech full of certainty and “earnest full-throated cheerleading”.

Adolescent pretense

Having proclaimed her fame and success, and built common cause with the women in the audience, she invited the graduates to explore the darker side of outward success in life, of what lies behind the inner door:

Cobwebs, black, the light bulbs burned out, the airless dank refrigerator of an insanely over-scheduled, unexamined life that usually just gets take-out.

She invited the audience to identify with her as a woman who had, like them, suffered the pretenses of adolescence, of acting a role to “pretend quite proficiently to be successful … as have many women here, I’m sure.”

For Streep, the pretense reached a zenith in high school. She deliberately set out to become the “generically pretty high school girl” with a child-like cute giggle, lowering her eyes at the right moment to appeal to boys, “at the same time being accepted by the girls, a very tricky negotiation.” So successful was her characterization she later used it in her portrait of Linda in The Deer Hunter, to the delight and fascination of President Clinton.

Celebrating Single-Sex Education

In contrast to her artificial role in high school, attending Vassar when it was still—as Barnard is today—a single-sex school, allowed Streep the room she needed to flourish.

“I didn’t have to pretend, I could be goofy, vehement, aggressive, and slovenly and open and tough and my friends let me.”


Streep contrasts her 1978 role as Linda in The Deer Hunter with her 2006 role as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Clinton might have lusted after the submissive Linda but, claims Streep, it’s a measure of how far the world has come that men today tell her they can relate to Miranda – a woman who signifies the thankless position of the misunderstood leader. She finds it a cause for optimism that straight men today have the ability to empathize with a woman protagonist. Women are brought up to identify with male characters. However, it’s rare that men can identify with women characters.

The emotional expression of empathy for strong woman speaks to Streep of a generational shift in attitude:

Men are adapting…They are changing their deepest prejudices to regard as normal the things that their fathers would have found very, very difficult and their grandfathers would have abhorred and the door to this emotional shift is empathy.

Unique Perspective

This newfound emotional capacity for empathy is, for Streep, the transformative light by which consciousness changes. When light shines through the cracks, there is the possibility of a “completely different perspective”. This possibility is heralded by an age when women are awarded more medical and law degrees than men; when “around the world, poor women now own property who used to be property”; when the employment of women has contributed more to global GDP growth than new technology and the rise of India and China.

Streep challenges the graduating class to apply the unique perspective their single-sex education has given them in the world. They can “speed progress” solving the crucial global problems of human rights and gender inequality.

Off-hand delivery

Her self-depreciating speech was delivered in a deliberately off-hand way; speaking to her audience in the manner of shared dorm-room confidences; offering them a glimpse of her own uncertainty and doubt behind the façade of fame; free of conventional oratory in the way that only someone with a couple of Oscars could.

Here’s a video of Streep delivering her speech.

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