The Post‘s Most Important Contribution Isn’t about Freedom of the Press
“Kate throws a great party, but she’s only here because her husband died.”
Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) uses these words at the beginning of Steven Spielberg’s new film The Post to describe his boss, Katharine Graham. It’s true, of course, that Graham (Meryl Streep), owner and publisher of The Washington Post, only inherited her position after her husband’s death. Yet, Parsons’s perspective carries with it a deeper subtext. No one would think of murmuring this way about Katharine’s late husband, who only assumed his publisher duties because his father-in-law left the company to him. Or even Katharine’s father, who held the paper’s reins by virtue of having the money to buy it.
For Whitford’s character, and for the majority of the men surrounding Graham, the issue isn’t how she ended up as owner and publisher of The Washington Post, even though they often talk like it is. The true issue at stake is the deeply entrenched belief that there is no space for a dress in a room overflowing with suits.
Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated journalism thriller operates amid this cultural climate, following Graham as she struggles to find stability as the first female publisher of a major U.S. newspaper. Graham is also faced with a near impossible decision: should The Washington Post risk its survival by publishing the Pentagon Papers, a Department of Defense study detailing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War? The study exposes a number of lies from high-ranking government officials, and President Nixon quickly pursues a legal course of action to keep the press from exposing the nation’s dark underbelly to the world.
While The Post tackles all-too relevant topics like freedom of the press, government transparency, and foreign intervention, the film perhaps finds its most enlightened thread in Graham’s jolting journey from planning dinner parties and befriending First Ladies to navigating IPOs and steering through testosterone-filled boardrooms.
Assigned a task she never expected, Graham discovered a self-fulfilling cultural prophecy staring her in the face: she couldn’t possibly match the abilities of the men around her; not because of biology, but because no one, not even herself, believed she could. Streep’s minute gestures—a muted breath here, a furtive glance there—subtly alert us to Graham’s internal conflict. Is she a lost girl amidst a sea of confident businessmen, as some think? Or is she the rightful owner of a national newspaper, armed with a set of skills of her own?
Streep’s performance masterfully embodies the same uncertainty the real-life Graham documented in her autobiography. “I adopted the assumption of many of my generation that women were intellectually inferior to men, that we were not capable of governing, leading, managing anything but our homes and our children,” Graham writes. “Pretty soon this kind of thinking—indeed, this kind of life—took its toll: most of us became somehow inferior.”
Graham’s inner tension takes flesh with Spielberg’s careful direction. In one scene at the beginning of the film, the camera observes a nervous Graham as she wedges her way through a hazy boardroom lined with men—her arms sagging with documents most didn’t bother to read. Spielberg frames the meeting as a power play between Graham and the Suits. Streep is boxed in by the opposite sex in each composition, a visual barrier created by those she is trying to persuade. Meanwhile, her male colleagues are shot straight on, and in close angles—all the space in the room seems to be for their taking.
The Post’s screenwriters, Josh Singer and Liz Hannah, drive the point to its obvious conclusions by having Graham’s voiced ideas go seemingly unheard during the meeting. Only when her ally, Fritz, speaks up, recycling Graham’s exact words, is a response provoked.
This tension of never being accepted as a full participant in the company pulses throughout the remainder of the film. In nearly every interaction she has with her male subordinates, Graham’s professional position does not seem to matter. By de facto, her sex disqualifies her from full participation. The Post, as a narrative whole, depicts writer Jed Ostoich’s personal remarks on the film: “It’s like a woman having to take a driver’s license test every time she enters the car, while a man’s right to drive is never challenged.”
I feel this reality (and Graham’s journey) in a bone deep way—the sense of being tested repeatedly, of wondering if passing the test is even possible. I’d imagine most women do, too.
Sadly, this problem also exists within the world of Christendom. As a female seminarian, for example, I am regularly assumed to be auditing a class rather than pursuing a master’s degree. Theological education is often still considered a space labeled male, both by those within the classroom and those outside of it.Perhaps the best way we can honor Graham’s paradigm-shifting, government-deception exposing, heroic legacy is to partner with one another much sooner on the journey than Graham’s skeptical advisors partnered with her.
“But most of the female seminarians I know are the smartest people in the classroom!”—a response I’ve often heard from many a male student. Lovely as the reaction sounds, it elicits the same sigh from me that Graham’s entrance into the boardroom did. Women in seminary shouldn’t have to be the smartest people in the room. If a male student is both respected as an individual and expected to become an effective minister of the gospel despite a C average, then a female student should be offered the same respect and hope for her future.
This double standard, whether in the church or outside of it, places women on a binary spectrum where they either fail, thereby proving that they never should have been there in the first place, or rise above as exceptional heroes. Graham becomes the latter when, later in the film, she goes against the majority of her advisors and chooses to publish portions of the Pentagon Papers that have been acquired by Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and the other journalists at the newspaper.
As Graham deliberates about the decision, most of the men tell her she acts without prudence, reminding her of her duty to her late husband and father. The advisors push Graham to the edge, forcing her to declare, “This is my company!”
It is clear that Graham doesn’t hold a long-brewing desire to make this case. Stewardship of the paper has never been a power struggle in her mind. But Graham’s previously underutilized intellectual muscles have strengthened day by day as she rises to meet the needs of her professional moment. Graham is finished retaking the driver’s license test.
Near the end of the third act, Graham and the free press win a Supreme Court battle which allows them to keep publishing the Pentagon Papers in service of the public. As Graham exits the courthouse, the screen fills with starry-eyed young women paying their respects. While Spielberg’s shot choices are a touch heavy-handed, I couldn’t help but be tearful at the women’s adoration of Graham. Even still, I wished there were men interspersed in the crowd of women, unafraid to find a form of power and capability, though different from their own, to be worthy of admiration.
I have a hunch that most women, myself included, would choose mutual respect over heroism any day. Graham herself wrote, “I think heroes and heroines are both vulgar and boring…. But when you tell people you were just doing your own thing in an admittedly escalated situation, they say, Ah, yes, etc.”
Perhaps the best way we can honor Graham’s paradigm-shifting, government-deception exposing, heroic legacy is to partner with one another much sooner on the journey than Graham’s skeptical advisors partnered with her. Differences between the genders, in education, experience, and expertise, are a gift from God that beckons us to ask questions, to listen well, and to learn from those around us. May Christians choose this paradigm rather than one of fear, saying, “Ah, yes,” in pursuit of the good—together.