Actress Patricia Arquette just won a whole bunch of awards for her role as the mother in the film, Boyhood, and consequently got an opportunity to speak at the Oscars.
She used that platform as an opportunity to advocate for wage equality.
And as a feminist, and you know, decent human being, I say hell yeah to that cause.
BUT while Arquette clearly set out to spread a positive message about the pay gap for women, she also hit a lot of intense triggers around marginalized identities and oppression by talking about women as though there weren’t women of color or LGBTQIA+ women – and to that I say, hell no.
So what began as a benevolent attempt at social justice advocacy quickly descended into the sort of anecdote that left the blogosphere lathered up in passionate argument. Already, we’ve gone through a whole cycle of response: criticism of her words, defense of her intentions, and enough tweets and think pieces to let this moment live forever in internet history.
As intersectional feminists who want to support people speaking out against sociopolitical injustice (as Arquette did), it’s extremely important for us to also critically examine the complex, and sometimes inaccurate, assumptions they might make in the process.
This doesn’t mean we’re “attacking” them or dismissing the positive aspects of their message.
It means we’re compassionately recognizing them, and people who agree with them, as our own and calling them in for a few heartfelt moments of accountability…and reality.
Celebrities can offer an influential platform for the issues affecting marginalized people, but they’re most often not among the people most impacted by those issues of marginalization.
So many of us are talking about what Arquette said – which is the difference between a well-meaning ally in your community making an error at a barbeque and a celebrity misspeaking on a massive media platform.
That’s why I want to take this as an opportunity to help Arquette and her defenders better understand why a well-intentioned speech just went wrong in so many ways and how to do better next time.
So here’s my take on it: the good, the bad, and the very necessary nuance.
Arquette stated, “It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.”
Say what, now?
Similar to the debate that has since sprung up, I have two opposing reactions.
The first goes something like this: Really, girl? Girl. Bye.
And the second goes more like: You had the right idea. But then you kept talking…why did you keep talking?
Here’s why such opposing reactions are happening.
The Good Part
Lots of people have jumped to defend Arquette, pointing out that she had the best of intentions, so even if she misspoke, we should still appreciate her for meaning well.
And it is worth recognizing that she was taking a step in the right direction on an important issue. Not everyone would point the focus to something bigger than themselves (though several others did that night).
In fact, just before she went too far, Arquette touched on the fact that “the highest percentage of children living in poverty are in female-headed households.” She righteously reminded us of how “it’s inexcusable that we go around the world and we talk about equal rights for women in other countries” while huge issues affect women at home. She pointed out that the men who wrote the Constitution “didn’t intend it for women.”
She shed light on some necessary truths. So I’m not mad that she got her applause, along with the greatest Academy Award of all – Meryl Streep’s approval.
The Bad Part
However, Patricia Arquette is a professional actress and a straight, white, cisgender woman – none of which make her an expert on what queer folks and people of color should be focusing on.
But she spoke on it, and guess what? She got it wrong.
Let’s envision a world in which her words reflect reality, shall we? In this world:
- Women of color do not exist.
- Women in LGBTQIA+ communities do not exist.
- Queer and/or trans women of color do not exist.
- Someone conjured up some magic to get this piece written, because I do not exist.
- White women have been fighting for others, and are only just now asking the rest of us to focus on issues important to them.
- Thanks to the aforementioned white women, racism and homophobia have been eradicated. People of color and LGBTQIA+ folks are sitting around twiddling our thumbs, waiting for some cool new social justice bandwagon to jump on.
That doesn’t sound like the world we live in. In reality, people of color and LGBTQIA+ people are pretty busy these days, what with trying to stay alive amidst alarming rates of violence against us and all.
In reality, there is a long and complicated history of white, straight, cis feminists dismissing the needs of other women in favor of their own.
In reality, people live at the intersections of multiple forms of oppression, and I exist as a queer Black woman.
In Conclusion…Or What She Should Have Said
I don’t really think Arquette doesn’t believe in my existence. But she has no idea what it’s like to walk in my shoes, so she really shouldn’t be speaking about what my path should be.
Does this mean I don’t believe celebrities should ever speak on social justice issues? Not necessarily.
They do have that valuable platform, and if they could use it to spread the wisdom of the often-invisibilized people directly impacted by the issues in their daily lives, the true leaders of grassroots liberation movements, then they might be able to make a difference.
If she had reflected the wisdom of marginalized people’s lived experiences, she could have drawn connections, rather than divisions, between the fights for gender, race, and LGBTQIA+ liberation.
She could have placed this important issue within the wider context of how intersecting oppressions make justice a fight we should all get behind.
She could have amplified the voices that systemic oppression continues to silence and trample over.
But, she did none of that.
Instead, she tossed us folks with multiple marginalized identities under a long, heavy, cankerous bus (like so many other prominent feminists and activists have done and still do)…and she trampled over us – even though she didn’t mean to.
While I cringe for her, I remind myself that pitying Patricia Arquette for this would be a bit like taking care of a white friend’s feelings after she’s touched my hair without permission. My friend’s not a bad person. She meant to compliment me. How can I fault her for recognizing the gloriousness of my afro?
Nonetheless, her intentions don’t change the fact that I’m the slighted one and that her action contributes to a long history of systemic marginalization that impact Black people. And I shouldn’t have to focus on making sure she doesn’t feel bad about it.
So I’m proud to add to the reaction to Arquette’s words. Together, we can send the message that if a celebrity speaks out about the issues affecting our lives, we’re going to pay attention.
And if they get it wrong, especially in a way that causes more harm against us, we’re going to say something, because we know we deserve better.
Maisha Z. Johnson is the Digital Content Associate and Staff Writer of Everyday Feminism. You can find her writing at the intersections and shamelessly indulging in her obsession with pop culture around the web. Maisha’s past work includes Community United Against Violence (CUAV), the nation’s oldest LGBTQ anti-violence organization, and Fired Up!, a program of California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Through her own project, Inkblot Arts, Maisha taps into the creative arts and digital media to amplify the voices of those often silenced. Like her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @mzjwords.