Meryl Streep, known to many as the Queen of Hollywood, is no stranger to praise. She’s received more Academy Award nominations than any actor (20 in total), and three Oscars and eight Golden Globes under her belt.
But according to Streep, there’s one compliment that’s been uniquely meaningful in her life. It’s praise that she first received from her mother, which she revealed at the Massachusetts Conference for Women in Boston, on Dec. 7. The magic phrase? “You are capable.”
Speaking with feminist icon Gloria Steinem, Streep explained that even women who whole-heartedly believe in gender equality often wind up internalizing social biases about their own potential.
“It’s that little feeling you get when the pilot comes on in airplane, and it’s a woman’s voice,” Streep said. “I feel thrilled—but I can feel in the cabin there’s a little shift, and we all clip our seat belts a little bit tighter.”
Until we get rid of that knee-jerk bias—that tiny, repressed instinct that makes us think, if only momentarily, that men may actually be more qualified to pilot a plane than women—true equality will not be possible. That’s why Streep believes it’s essential to give young women and girls the compliment that her own mother gave her.
“My mother was a housewife, she played bridge all day. But she could have run the joint chiefs of staff. She was a really extraordinary person, and she never had the chance,” Streep told Steinem. “But she said, ‘Meryl, you are capable.’ That’s the highest compliment in the world.”
Streep had a few other pieces of sound advice for young women today, including this crowd-pleasing kernel of wisdom: “Don’t worry about your weight.”
The audience of 11,000 women erupted.
“It’s a big waste of time. When I think about how many years I’ve wasted thinking about that subject, it’s just idiotic,” Streep continued. “And we lose so many genius people and their genius ideas because they’re looking in the mirror saying, ‘Oh my god, my ass is too big.’” (Your ass is not too big, Streep clarified. It’s perfect.)
Steinem laughed, then asked Streep to get serious.
“No, my advice is to support women. Support your girlfriends,” Streep told the audience. “You know, there’s no horrible plot at the top of Hollywood to keep women or people of color out of leadership positions. It’s that like hires like—white hires white—a guy with baseball cap on backwards hires guy with a baseball cap on backwards. It’s just the way it is.”
To reverse this curse, we have to encourage those in power—usually white men—to open their doors and consider hiring someone different, says Streep. Obvious as it sounds, we need to encourage gatekeepers to practice empathizing with people who are not like them. “That means feeling like the other person, it’s a thing women do effortlessly,” said Streep. “But the most difficult thing in my work is to get a man in the audience to feel what it feels like to be my character.”
If Streep is watching Harrison Ford perform in any film, she explained, she feels like she, too, is Harrison Ford. It doesn’t work that way for a male audience watching a female character, says Streep, because men are conditioned to see women’s experiences with “lesser” experiences, both in films and in real life.
What’s hopeful, according to Streep, is the growing awareness about such the harmful effects of these biases. And, as Steinem added, children are not born sexist or racist. “Little kids say it so wonderfully when they say things like, ‘It’s not fair,’ and ‘You are not the boss of me,” Steinem said. “Those statements are the basis of every social justice movement. We need to hang on to that.”