Patricia Arquette Is Not the Feminist Role Model You’re Looking For

by | February 24, 2015
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

arquettesmallIf you were one of the 36 million viewers watching the Oscars this past Sunday, you probably saw Patricia Arquette’s award speech for Best Supporting Actress in her role for Boyhood.

 It was what some would call an “impassioned plea” for equal pay for all women in America: “To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s rights! It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”

Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez were seen cheering her on from the crowd, along with many other women from home cheering with them. I even found myself clapping at and agreeing with her powerful words. It’s amazing to see someone speak so passionately and so openly about feminist ideals, especially on something so widely viewed as an award show like the Oscars. However, her plea leaves much to be desired.

After the show, Arquette went on to say “It’s time for women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve fought for—to fight for us now!”

This incredibly unnecessary elaboration turned what could have been a possibly iconic moment in feminist history into a debate about race and gender in terms of fighting for women’s rights. Feminists everywhere who initially praised her words began critiquing the underlying message Arquette was conveying, intentionally or not.

Blue Telusma of The Grio was instantly critical, saying “Did this fool just use her Oscar win to tell gays and black people they now owe white women assistance?”

She added:“If you say black people need to stand up for you—that means you are asking every person in the room who is both black and a woman to choose her gender over her race in order to suit your agenda.”

This also introduces the question of gay women of color: which side are they supposed to choose? And more importantly, why should anyone have to choose at all?

Arquette completely disregarded the fact that people can simultaneously support multiple causes at once. She essentially says to these people “I cared about you, now it’s time to stop and focus on me,” as if you’re only allowed to focus on one feminist topic at a time.

Absolutely we should be focusing on the wage gap. Despite what some right-wingers think, the wage equality bill passed years ago has done little for women, and even less for women of color, who desperately need the help, and should have been the main recipients of Arquette’s message in the first place, as shown in the graphic below:

Graph showing the gender wage gap by race


On the other side, Lizzie Crocker of The Daily Beast defended Arquette, saying “nowhere did she imply that she was not fighting for equality for everyone.” This isn’t entirely true, though. She pretty clearly did imply that she was talking about white women when she asked people of color to fight for her cause, as if it wasn’t about them and they needed to turn their attention to it.

Crocker also posed the question: “Why must a brief speech about women’s rights be parsed to death?” I think a better question would be: why do feminists have to settle for sub-par role models?

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig made another important point about Arquette’s use of “every woman who gave birth” and “every taxpayer…of this nation,” saying “the feminist project in general tends to be suspicious of attributing women’s political significance solely to their role as mothers, as in old-fashioned reactionary visions of Republican Motherhood. Further, addressing people as taxpayers is a rather unsavory (and typically right-wing) habit that advances the notion people are worth what they pay in taxes.”

So basically, every word of Arquette’s message was bullshit.

However, after receiving the backlash, Arquette went to Twitter to help clarify her original statements. “I don’t care if people are pissed,” she writes in one tweet, “The truth is that wage inequality adversely effects women,” and added this picture:


“Guess which women are the most negatively effected in wage inequality?” she writes in another tweet, “Women of color. #Equalpay for ALL women. Women Stand together in this. “ If you say so, Patricia.

Arquette’s message was probably put together quickly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of the critique it received.

However, people make mistakes, and her tweets are helping to prove that maybe she is fighting for equal pay among women of all races. At least she is trying to right her wrong, which is more than I can say for most other celebrities in similar situations (looking at you, Sean Penn).

Arquette’s tweets can be found here.

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  • Neelam

    Thanks for taking the time to write this, you made some very interesting points.

  • DrPea

    I would really like the feminist world to accept Arquette’s tweets as clarification and let the matter be mended. Really. I am feeling old–a 56 year old survivor of 2nd wave feminism. I saw and felt that ship go down in the 1980’s as the community attacked itself, nearly to death, over diversity/diverse interests.

    Wage equity is indeed crucial to every other aspect of women’s equality, and it is still the issue that cuts across lines of color and sexual identity. The wage gap exists within every race/culture-defined strata: white men make more than white women, black men make less than white men but more than black women, etc. As for lesbian and other queer women, we owe an absolute debt to wage equity movements. Prior to the mid-1970’s, it was impossible for lesbians from anything but a very privileged economic class to dream of living outside of marriage to a man–the patronage of a male paycheck was the bedrock upon which the nuclear family ideal was built. In the 1960’s women made closer to 50 cents on the dollar for the same jobs as men, could be summarily dismissed for getting pregnant or getting married, and did not even have to be considered for jobs that were ear-marked for men only. There were two “Help Wanted” sections in every newspaper: Women and Men. The most common job advertised was that of a “Girl Friday”–an all-purpose assistant job with a title that demeaned both women and Black people (it’s a literary allusion to the character of “Friday”, a helpful native of the island that Robinson Crusoe lands upon). Seriously!

    That wage gap kept lesbian women in the closet, abused women in the home. It was mirrored and exagerrated by a color-based wage gap. In the American South, the Help Wanted ads came in four sections, differentiated by both gender and color.

    Wage equity isn’t enough to achieve economic independence for women, however, let alone economic equality. For that, we need to address the giant gender gap in unpaid caregiving labour–child care, elder care, and long term care of people who can’t “pull their own weight” economically. We also need to address the differential valuing of care-giving vs. machine-focussed work in the paid economy, and the value of liberal arts vs. technology. We need to admit that child care is a shared responsibility between parents and the greater community, and put together a national child care plan. Same with post-secondary education. So, let’s keep working on this. It was once rather derisively dubbed the “Liberal Feminist Agenda”, but it intersects with third-wave goals of being able to live with integrity as we are, with pride in who we are.

    There have been many cringe-worthy moments in the history of feminism where one “ism” has been pitted against the other. There was the moment in 1972 when NOW refused to recognise the Lesbian Caucus. There was the moment after the American Civil War when some influential white sufferagists argued that giving white women the vote was necessary to provide a racial counter-weight to the new black voters (prompting Sojourner Truth to give her famous, “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech). There were times through the 1960’s when white and black women were told to stay out of the way of leadership in the Black Civil Rights movement, because their men needed to feel like men. There was that awful moment when network television broadcast Black women crying for OJ Simpson as (just) another victim of state violence against Black men, and pitted them against White women crying for his blond wife as (just) another victim of domestic violence.

    Great women like bell hooks and Audrey Lourde helped us to reason
    through it, and come out stronger, with more integrity as a
    movement–Oppression is Oppression is Oppression. Racism, Homophobia,
    Sexism, Ageism, Ableism–they all have their roots in the a world view
    that rank-orders people in terms of importance and privilege based upon
    how close they are to a prototype of The Superman–white, male, rich,
    good-looking, able-bodied, smart. In our best moments, we get it.

    Arquette is no bell hooks. Most of us aren’t. But she’s trying to get it right. Please, let’s not start throwing the word “Privilege” around like it’s a slur on character or a reason why one can’t speak. We don’t choose our stigmas or our privileges. Can we please be gentle with one another in our teaching, and avoid the trap of disintegrating as a movement because of these divisions that matter only because of the Patriarchal system in which we are embedded? I mean, what could suit the Tea Party better than feminists silencing one another?