The Problem With Making Celebrities Like Patricia Arquette The Face Of Feminism

Patricia Arquette poses in the press room with the award for best actress in a supporting role CREDIT: JORDAN STRAUSS/INVISION/AP
Patricia Arquette poses in the press room with the award for best actress in a supporting role CREDIT: JORDAN STRAUSS/INVISION/AP

After using her Oscars acceptance speech to advocate for closing the gender wage gap, actress Patricia Arquette was widely celebrated as one of the best parts of an otherwise fairly boring Academy Awards ceremony. Her speech — in which she said that “it is our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America” — was hailed as “badass.”

But what could have been a straightforward moment of celebration for progressive advocates, who have been working on raising awareness about policy solutions to close the wage gap for years, quickly became more complicated. It’s yet another reminder that when celebrities become high-profile spokespeople for feminist concepts, nothing is clear-cut.

In an interview backstage following her acceptance speech, Arquette expanded upon her comments in a way that appeared to pit women against other marginalized communities. “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,” the actress said.

The backlash was swift. Critics argued that Arquette’s comments centered white women while erasing other groups of people from the feminist movement. Feminists of color pointed out that they are both non-white and women — so where are they left by Arquette’s articulation of the division between progressive movements?

“If we don’t challenge the people who have these large platforms, who are talking about issues that affect women of color more than they affect white women, then what are we doing? Why are we even listening to public figures if we’re just going to accept their facile explanations of women’s equality?” Imani Gandy, the senior legal analyst at RH Reality Check and one of the feminists who has pushed back on the actress’ recent comments, told ThinkProgress.

Arquette probably intended to communicate that everyone should help each other progress, which is a nice enough sentiment. But, regardless of her intentions, her comments communicated that women have been left behind while progressives were too busy successfully advancing issues of LGBT equality and racial equality. And that form of “oppression olympics” rings especially hollow for women of color, since the very feminist issue that Arquette is talking about has clear racial implications.

The wage gap varies significantly by race — while the oft-cited figure that women make about 77 cents to every man’s dollar is true for white women, it doesn’t reflect the reality of women of color. African-American women earn just 64 percent of what men earn, and Hispanic women earn just 54 percent. When people talk about the wage gap as a monolith, it glosses over the larger issues in communities of color and the fact that equality means something different to different racial groups.

It’s a complicated statistic that ultimately reflects that fact that feminism has been plagued with issues of racial inequity for decades. The modern movement has long been criticized for focusing on the issues that affect white women at the expense of intersectionality, a framework for understanding the ways in which systematic discrimination overlaps in the lives of women of color.

Arquette perhaps is not familiar with Kimberlé Crenshaw, the legal scholar who is credited with putting forth the concepts behind intersectionality. She has perhaps not read the published works of black feminists. On some level, that’s understandable. Arquette is a powerful white woman surrounded by other powerful white people in Hollywood. She’s not a feminist scholar herself, so her articulation of feminist concepts may be surface level.

It’s an issue that’s much bigger than Arquette herself. As feminism becomes more mainstream, and rich and powerful public figures start talking about it, there’s an inherent tension present because activists are worried about feminist concepts getting watered down by celebrities who toss them around like buzzwords. Now that it’s become a standard interview practice to ask celebrity women whether they identify as a “feminist,” for instance, some observers have argued that it’s inappropriate to make pop stars into political figures — and lamented that the trend ensures the word “feminist” has been “flattened into a press tour sound bite.”

Indeed, issues can arise when feminism becomes the currency of celebrity. It’s something that Roxane Gay — the author of a recent collection of essays that meditate on the often messy intersections between feminism and pop culture — addressed in the Guardian this fall. In that piece, Gay argued that making famous women into brand ambassadors for feminism runs the risk of “avoiding the actual work of feminism.”

“So long as we continue to stare into the glittery light of the latest celebrity feminist, we avoid looking at the very real inequities that women throughout the world continue to face,” Gay wrote. “We avoid having the conversations about the hard work changing this culture will require.”

But even though celebrity spokespeople are imperfect, and can’t take the place of the more extensive commentary from the activists and scholars who have been working in this space for years, their comments can also present an important opportunity for dialogue. Thanks to Patricia Arquette, there’s a larger conversation happening this week about intersectionality, feminist leaders, and the racial nature of the wage gap.

“I sometimes joke to myself that I sort of preferred it in the old days, when I didn’t have to know what celebrities’ views were on things, because then I didn’t have to get annoyed. But celebrities do have a chance to influence popular thought,” Gandy said. “I think they should be held accountable in a productive way. I would prefer if there was a way that we could get them to dig deeper.”

Gandy said that she had no doubt that if she were to sit down and have lunch with Patricia Arquette, and explain what feminism means to black women, Arquette would understand. Celebrities are capable of follow-up thought. But she also noted that Arquette isn’t alone in her gaps in knowledge about intersectionality; there are plenty of mainstream activists who could learn more about the history of racial discrimination within the feminist movement. Arquette’s comments, and the subsequent backlash to them, are ultimately a reminder that these conversations need to be ongoing.

Celebrities are not perfect feminists, and neither are regular American women. The point is to push forward and do better — and examine feminist spokespeople with a thoughtful and critical eye.

“We can’t hold up these sort of neo-feminists as sort of a hallmark for what all of feminism should be,” Gandy said. “And we can’t attack women of color who are saying hey, this is problematic. When we attack people who are trying to broaden people’s minds, that sets the entire movement back.”