“So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners,” Streep said, a criticism of Trump’s anti-illegal-immigrant rhetoric. “And if we kick them all out you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.” This cheap shot earned big yuks from the actors and actresses and directors and producers in attendance, curiously foreshadowing her later criticism of Trump for punching down against a reporter with a disability, a joke that “made its intended audience laugh, and show their teeth.”
If Streep doesn’t care for football — if she can’t see the artistry in the athleticism on the field and the strategy on the sidelines; if she misses the dramatic swings on the scoreboard, the emotional uplift and devastation that accompanies a close win or defeat — that’s her loss. As almost-presidential-candidate David French noted on Twitter after Clemson prevailed in Monday night’s thrilling national college football championship, “Meryl Streep missed a great game.”
The snide aside about football was bad enough, but the rabbit punch aimed at mixed martial arts was far more dispiriting. Suggesting that the martial arts do not count as “arts” is a rather obtuse form of aesthetic snobbery, one that ignores hundreds, if not thousands, of years of human tradition. Whether or not one cares for the Ultimate Fighting Championship and its competitors, her implication that the variety of forms of fighting do not count as artistry suggest she’s never seen a kata performed in person.
Is MMA really that different from boxing? Hollywood is fascinated by that sport, after all. Almost every year brings a new fighting flick to big screens, and the last was no exception, with “Bleed for This” and “Hands of Stone” drawing mediocre audiences. 2015 was no different, seeing the debut of “Creed” and “Southpaw.”
Though not as cinematically popular, mixed martial arts have still received from love from the entertainment industry. Perhaps someone in Streep’s orbit could pass along a copy of “Redbelt,” David Mamet’s 2008 drama about a Brazilian jiujitsu instructor played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. As with all Mamet productions, the plot is filled with twists and turns but, thematically speaking, is very much centered on basic ideas of honor and respect — norms at the center of Streep’s speech.
“A lot of people give devotions to good works. A lot of people give devotion to sports,” Mamet told NPR in 2008 while promoting the film. “But all of us I think are looking for something unto which — something bigger than ourselves. And so, what the film is about — is about a man who is very spiritual man, whose expression of spirituality happens to be his devotion to the idea of the perfect fighter — he perfect jujitsu fighter. And as such he attracts a lot of adherence.”
Or perhaps Streep could try Kerry Howley’s “Thrown” on for size, a partly fictionalized literary exploration of the MMA ethos. A sometimes-absurd combination of hyper-intellectualized theory and down-to-earth reportage, “Thrown” can help any novice understand the artistry and appeal of male-on-male combat.
“The discipline of training and the collegial air of the gym, the delicate hierarchy of peer relationships, the nerd-boy dissolution of the athletes’ downtime, and the calculated fury of the fights — Howley depicts it all with piercing skill, and weaves in a sturdy context of the sport of mixed martial arts, its forms and its history,” Katherine Dunn noted in her review of the book for the New York Times.
While Alyssa is undoubtedly correct that artists have no obligation to be healers in these trying times, it’s worth asking if they have to be needlessly divisive. Instead of close-mindedly attacking an art she does not understand, cynically trafficking in the sort of ignorance she would surely decry from a Trump supporter, perhaps Meryl Streep could make an effort to appreciate that which appeals to folks on the other side of the aisle — or another part of the country.