For a second, it seemed like Patricia Arquette might be the new hero of the feminist movement.
After using her Oscar acceptance speech to call for equal rights for women, later that evening she expanded on her remarks backstage. “It’s time for all … the gay people and people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now,” she said.
Look, the initial acceptance speech was not perfect — not all women give birth, citizenship is a privilege that many people don’t get to have, and “we” have not all fought for “everybody’s equal rights” that are currently being exercised and enjoyed — but it was an exciting moment for feminism anyway. The wage gap and equality for women should be mainstream issues.
That Arquette used her Oscar acceptance speech to call for political and social equality for women does not negate the harm of what she said backstage. By drawing lines around who is considered a woman (ostensibly, not gay, of color, or both) and insinuating that LGBT people and people of color (again, not mutually exclusive groups) owe something to those women who are white and straight and getting paid unfairly, Arquette set feminism back.
There are feminists and others who vehemently disagree with me on this; they think I am being too hard on Arquette or that I am demanding perfection of women who step out for feminism. Briefly, I understand it is difficult for celebrities to step out as feminists, and as, I have written before, I believe Celebrity Feminism Is A Good Thing. Nor do I think women and in particular feminists all need to be perfect. I’m not perfect and I’m not going to let that stop me from trying to advance equality for women and girls. These issues are not what’s at stake.
As a broader movement, feminism has a massive white privilege problem and exclusion problem. This is nothing new (racism has always been present in the women’s movement, with racist suffragists posing strong historical examples, and likewise Betty Friedan warned of the “lavender menace,” or the ridiculous idea that lesbians pose a threat to the women’s movement, in the 1960s), but Arquette tapped into it and reinforced it in a very public way.
If you think I am being “divisive” and ignoring that Arquette “meant well” and at this point wish to hit me over the head with a frying pan, I urge you to read Imani Gandy’s The Road to Structural Erasure Is Paved With Well-Intentioned White Ladies. (Seriously, though, if you hit her over the head with a frying pan I’m coming to get you.)
So now that all this has happened, what should we take away from this moment?
Here are my primary three suggestions:
1. Embrace fearlessness, rather than unity, as the rally cry for feminism.
Women are not all the same and, as I’ve written before, it’s not helpful to speak for all women. Many of the people standing on Arquette’s side in this affair believe that women need to “stand together,” or strive for “unity.” The problem with this logic is that inevitably “unity” means quieting the softer voices in the room, or the people with less power. Calls for unity can be oppressive because, by drawing upon and reinforcing existing power dynamics, they can come to operate as calls to resist the inclusion of marginalized people.
Feminism is at its strongest when we embrace the reality that not all women are the same, and that women experience different oppressions on the basis of a wide range of identities and privileges.
Imagine how strong the women’s movements could be if we embraced fearlessness rather than unity as the rally cry for our feminisms.
Let’s fearlessly examine how racism impacts life in America. Let’s fearlessly engage in difficult conversations with others. Let’s fearlessly remain open to changing our own views, and learning from others committed to human rights and social justice but with different perspectives. Let’s fearlessly speak up for the rights of all people — starting with but not exclusive to women. Let’s fearlessly embrace different people sharing diverse explanations of what conditions are required to thrive.
2. Criticism does not mean someone should go away, but Arquette should apologize.
It would be great if Arquette would apologize publicly for what she said, and such an apology would not be an admission of weakness but rather a representation of strength. The most feminist thing Arquette could do would be make an apology and commit publicly to growth. (While she has subsequently tweeted about the way the wage gap disproportionately impacts people of color, that is not a genuine “I’m sorry for what I said, and I will work to be more inclusive in my feminism in the future.”
As I wrote previously in Getting To Sorry: Why Apologies Matter When Someone Says Something Bigoted:
Feminism, as a practice, is not about gotcha and declaring some people good and other people bad. It is about eliminating bigotry from our lives — something all of us will have to work at — and moving forward in new ways that honor the full potential and human rights of everyone. So getting to sorry is a big deal, because it is that first step toward honoring people and making change.”
To be super clear, Arquette should not leave feminism, and her harmful words should not be used as an excuse for why others should not enter feminism. Should Arquette choose to handle the controversy with an apology, a little vulnerability, and an open commitment to expanding her practice of feminism to make it more intersectional, she could in fact give feminism a great gift.
Because lots of people will step in it. No one person can escape the thinking that underlies systems of oppression, even people who are committed to ending them in whole or in part. Social change agents will not succeed if they are not willing to change themselves.
3. Feminism must also mean listening to and elevating the experiences of women of color.
Please stop reading my blog right now and read Jasmine Burnett on Navigating a ‘Crooked Room’: Reflections From Black Women on Their Experiences in Progressive Spaces. It is a disturbing, important, vital piece.