Long-Term, What Should We Take Away From L’Affaire Arquette?

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.

Fate Of Feminism Doesn’t Depend On Whether You Get Married Or Change Your Name

Girl meets boy, girl falls in love, girl gets married, girl changes her name. This is a feminist perspective on why it’s okay to do the last two things and not be some kind of feminist failure.

Before we get started, let’s acknowledge the boundaries of this discussion: many people can’t get married because the state won’t let them. And research suggests marriage is increasingly becoming reserved for heterosexual couples with money. There’s a hefty dollop of heterosexual and class privilege lurking in this debate, begging a larger question of what the policing of heterosexual women with money is designed to achieve.

Still, if you’re a woman in love with a man and have crossed some class barriers, let’s be clear that the fate of feminism doesn’t depend on whether you get married or change your name.

The primary beef is here: Asking women what they are going to do with their names when they marry is an invasive and sexist double-standard that is not applied to men. Even asking the question of a woman, and not a man, strikes me as prurient and sexist. Applying value or judgement to what one woman does with her name after marriage — whether that’s retaining a current name, applying a hyphenated name, making up a new last name or taking the partner’s name — continues this invasive and sexist practice of assuming that a woman’s name is up for public comment. If you’re going to ask this question or make grand pronouncements about what a name choice means for society, or a family, or a commitment, or a child, or internalized sexism, then focus 100 percent on men and what they are doing in heterosexual marriages. Women have done our time and frankly could use a breather.

Marriage is an institution with historical roots in the property transfer of women (and often girls) from fathers to husbands. There is no denying this inherently sexist lineage. However, my feminist argument is that the institution of marriage has evolved from the property transfer of women to include same-sex marriage in some states (a feminist victory, albeit incomplete), many egalitarian marriages practiced by couples (a feminist victory, albeit incomplete and not entirely supported by jurisprudence) and more. To write off a woman marrying a man as capitulating to the patriarchy is hogwash. Might it be for some women? Maybe, for both the women and men involved, in some marriages. But an automatic assumption focused solely on her is ridiculous.

So too, as feminist thinking about marriage evolves should feminist thinking about last names evolve. A woman who changes her last name upon marriage is not stupid, or an automaton, or subservient to please him, or a symbol of the failure of feminism, or a threat to the future of feminism. Even suggesting that she is — rather than focusing on men or couples — continues to elevate an invasive and sexist double-standard. Women aren’t “too dumb” or “too weak” to be equal. Women are not the cause of our inequality. Women’s choices are not the cause of our inequality. Of course our choices are influenced by our inequality, and interplay with our inequality, but to focus on what women are doing or not doing instead of focusing on how our society systematically discriminates against women and privileges men (often, with the sheer absence of “choices” about names, work and life because they are assumed to be accommodated without comment) — this just doesn’t have the power to fix the problem. In fact it can serve as a distraction from calling for larger changes that do have the power to fix the problem.

So this is my feminist love letter on Valentine’s Day to YOU, women who married or are thinking about marrying men, and happen to have a last name that everyone loves to chat about (while leaving his untouched). Kindly smile and tell everyone to butt out. You are not public property and you don’t deserve this intrusion in your personal life.

P.S. — My husband decided to continue using his name when we married. I am so proud of him.