No one can deny that Oprah Winfrey owned the Golden Globe awards on Sunday. Her inspiring speech as she accepted the Cecil B. DeMille award. Her presence in the front row that nearly every award winner felt the need to acknowledge. The hashtag #Oprah2020 soared to the top of Twitter after host Seth Meyers, only half-joking, speculated that an Oprah presidency could be the best response to a Trump White House.
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But another star’s appearance at the tail end of the awards ceremony reminded us that the fight for female empowerment in Hollywood, for allowing women to tell women’s stories, and for roles and jobs that didn’t ride on being physically attractive began decades before Oprah or #MeToo.
Throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, there was one woman whose pioneering attempts to carve out a place for herself in show business met with sneering and ridicule, and who, despite her undeniable talent and drive, was never taken seriously, turned as often into a punch line as an icon.
I speak of Barbra Streisand, 75, who showed up to present the best drama film award. She introduced it with a reminder that remains the only woman to win a Golden Globe for best director, for “Yentl” – and for which she was later snubbed by the Oscars, not even being nominated for best director. As she took to the stage, Streisand feigned surprise at being reminded of this (some joked that she deserved a best actress award for pretending she wasn’t well aware of it.)
“I’m the only woman to get the best director award,” she said. “And that was 1984 – that was 34 years ago. Folks, time’s up! We need more women directors and more women to be nominated for best director. These are so many films out there that are so good directed by women. I’m very proud to stand in a room with people who speak out against gender inequality, sexual harassment and the pettiness that has poisoned our politics. And I’m proud that our industry, faced with uncomfortable truths, has vowed to change the way we do business.”
Streisand’s appearance sparked memories of watching her do battle in Hollywood, fighting for dignity, respect and credit for her successes.
In her already much-quoted Golden Globes speech, Winfrey recalled being inspired as a child seeing how the African-American acting legend Sidney Poitier was treated with such dignity when he won the best actor Oscar for “Lilies of the Field” in 1964, and how she hoped to inspire African-American little girls while accepting her award now.
Young Jewish girls rarely looked to Streisand as a role model while I was growing up. Yes, she was a star, one who fought her way into starring roles as a romantic leading lady, despite having unconventional ethnic Jewish looks that Hollywood normally delegates to the frumpy sidekick. Yes, she battled her way into the roles of director and producer, setting up her own production company in 1972, from which hits like “Yentl” and “The Prince of Tides” would later emerge.
Too often, though, we saw Streisand receive more ridicule than respect. And all too often, we saw her slammed as being controlling and tactless, an unattractive, diva-like control freak who was reaching too far, trying too hard to storm her way into the elite Hollywood men’s club – a pushy Jewish woman.
Her frustration spilled into her landmark speech at a “Women in Film” Hollywood luncheon in 1992, one that could easily have been written today. She said she was angry over how Anita Hill, an original #MeToo victim, had been treated.
“Clearly, men and women are measured by a different yardstick and that makes me angry,” she said. “Of course, I’m not supposed to be angry. A woman should be soft-spoken, agreeable, ladylike, understated. In other words, stifled.”
She added, “Language gives us an insight into the way women are viewed in a male-dominated society:
“A man is commanding – a woman is demanding.
“A man is forceful – a woman is pushy.
“A man is a perfectionist – a woman’s a pain in the ass.
“He’s assertive – she’s aggressive.
“He strategizes – she manipulates.
“He shows leadership – she’s controlling.”
Streisand has not been afraid to speak out, to be angry, to be political and feminist, long before it was fashionable. As she said at the 2017 Women’s March, “We must continue to speak out. When you refuse to back down, when you refuse to be silenced, when you demand equality for yourself and your fellow men and women, you will be heard in the end. We can’t give up.”
It may be true that Oprah is the far better potential politician, far more accessible and likeable than Streisand – qualities she honed through her decades on television. Winfrey somehow managed to seek, acquire and wield huge power in a way that doesn’t stir antagonism.
It is a trick that the women who paved the way for her like Streisand – and, yes, Hillary Clinton – never seemed to master.
In regard to the Clintons, Streisand is certainly not perfect, counted among the liberal women who chose to look the other way at the allegations of sexual misconduct against the former president. And she has also faced criticism for her failure to denounce Harvey Weinstein more explicitly.
Still, flaws aside, it is surely worth acknowledging amid the current Oprah-fest that decades before being “woke” was fashionable in Hollywood – or anywhere else – one pushy, outspoken, brash Jewish woman was doing her best to set the alarm clock.