When Patricia Arquette won the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her turn in Boyhood, I, like a lot of viewers and feminists, was thrilled when she took the opportunity on stage to declare that women’s rights – particularly when it comes to income inequality – are important and vital. In part her speech read, “to every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States.”
A great speech, and an awesome way to harness a temporary, global platform for a worthy cause.
And then backstage, she said this:
“It is time for us. It is time for women. …The truth is even though we sort of feel like there is, there are huge issues that are at play and really do affect women. It’s time for all the women in America, and the men who love women and all the gay people and people of color we’ve fought for to fight for us now.”
And just as quickly as Arquette became a viral feminist folk heroine, she became another symbol of entitlement and privilege. Some feminists quickly condemned the actress for her “You got yours, now you owe us” rhetoric, among them Blue Telusma with “Dear Patricia Arquette: Blacks and gays owe white women nothing” or Amanda Marcotte with “Patricia Arquette on pay equality: Insulting to feminists.” It should be noted Arquette does have some high profile supporters as well, who see feminist critique of her statements as petty infighting and willful misunderstanding of her speech.
It’s all very confusing and one doesn’t what to think: after all, it’s always great when feminists speak out – and using the Oscars, when some 30 million people are watching, as a way to push forward a very important, if oft-ignored issue, should be celebrated.
But what about the backstage comments? What is the rhetorical effect of having Arquette take gays and people of color to task for fighting the good fight? Well, her supporters insist we look at her intentions – a sort of, “we all know what she meant” interpretation of her words. The problem is Arquette’s words, not her intent, comes off as injured as aggrieved: “we did some much for you, gays and people of color, now it’s your turn to support us.” Of course, the first problem with this assertion is it ignores that women, gays, and people of color aren’t three distinct groups – they intersect or overlap, and so the women that she recalls who have fought so hard for women’s rights without the support of gays or people of color, were also gay and people of color. Another problem that pops up is – or actually it’s more of a question – is when she says women fought for gay rights or for racial equality – who is she speaking for exactly? Because the feminist movement has had huge problems with racism, homophobia, and transphobia throughout its history – problems that are still being ironed out as we speak. It seems like Arquette has either a confused or overly-rosy view of feminism and its history.
When women of color and queer women felt neglected or disenfranchised by the mainstream feminist movement, many of them splintered off and started movements and groups that address their specific needs – and this isn’t exclusively a feminist issue – every major socially progressive movement has had issues with internalized prejudice, be it racism, homophobia, transphobia, or sexism. But Arquette’s backstage plea, in particular, echoed the nasty rhetoric that gay rights activists espoused when Proposition 8 passed on the election of Barack Obama as president. Many white gays lamented the unfair Prop 8, but quickly seized on disreputable reports that blamed black voters for its success; there was an injured, offended refrain of “We voted for a black president, and yet black people voted against our right to marry” (never mind that it was religion, not race, that helped Prop 8 pass). White gay men, understandably bitter and upset, were bringing up Baynard Rustin as an example of how “gays helped black people” and now these ungrateful blacks weren’t returning the favor – again Rustin’s homosexuality and his black racial identity highlighted the intersectionality that is often ignored by white liberals.
But all of this talk about Patricia Arquette could be simply ascribed to a nervous and excited person who just got off the stage after winning her industry’s biggest prize. She didn’t have time to think through what she was saying, and so we should give her some slack – after all, when she spoke of women, she didn’t say white women, so the implication is that all women are suffering.
But still, despite her intention, she still said it. She still said, ” It’s time for all the women in America, and the men who love women and all the gay people and people of color we’ve fought for to fight for us now.” I think it’s the word “now” that I might have the biggest issue with – the word “now.” It connotes a finality. It reads that gays and people of color got what they needed and now it’s time for them to step up and fight for someone else: but the problem is there is no “now” when it comes to LGBT rights and racial equality (or gender equality). There is no “now” yet because we haven’t been able to close that sentence where it’s time for folks of color and queer folks to reprioritize – because when a gay queer Latina is fighting for her right to exist, she’s fighting for all of her identities – she’s doesn’t have the luxury that the “now” assumes, in which she can prioritize and stagger her rights – everyday she’s being assaulting by right wing conservatism that is seeking to limit her opportunities.
So, even though, Patricia Arquette’s intention was noble and admirable it did reflect an ugly side to white liberal progressivism that still isn’t completely figured out. The one good thing to come out of this fracas, is that we are talking about it – we are spotlighting intersectionality and we are talking about gendered income inequality (hopefully when Arquette’s words fade in the public’s interest, we’ll still be talking about the ERA). Hopefully, other white liberal progressives see this as a learning opportunity: to not assume that others – particularly those who have intersecting identities that are oppressed or marginalized – have the opportunities to focus on just one aspect of their identities.