The XX Factor

Patricia Arquette’s Feminism: Only for White Women

It’s easy to laugh at the timid way that celebrities frequently wade into feminism, offering pat statements scripted by a team of public relations experts to be as nonoffensive as possible. But Patricia Arquette’s performance at Sunday night’s Oscars shows exactly why that’s the best way to go.

Arquette tried to use her win for Best Supporting Actress as an opportunity to speak out for wage equality, and, to be fair, her actual speech on the podium wasn’t the worst thing ever. “To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights,” she said. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.” A bit jumbled and shallow—ninth-grade debate club debut-ish—but her heart seemed to be in the right place. At least, Meryl Streep and J-Lo thought so

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But when Arquette was asked to elaborate backstage, she gave a lengthy answer that included this statement: “And 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.” 

Where to begin? Perhaps with pointing out that “gay people” and “people of color” are both categories that include women. Indeed, when it comes to wage inequality, race is as much a factor as gender. The American Association of University Women analyzed census data on the wage gap and found that although white women make 78 cents to a white man’s dollar in the United States, black women make a mere 64 cents, and Latina women make a paltry 54 cents. Similarly, being gay or transgender often means taking a hit in income. The Center for American Progress finds that same-sex couples raising children make about 20 percent less than straight couples in the same situation. Transgender people have a poverty rate that is four times that of the general population. It is definitely not time for “all the gay people” and “all the people of color” to set aside their own battle for equality in order to fight for straight, white women now.

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Arquette’s comments also erased the major contributions made by women of color and lesbians to the feminist movement, as if they haven’t been fighting all this time. That’s a troubling message to send at any point, but it’s particularly disturbing right now, when some of the ugliest attacks on women’s rights, particularly when it comes to reproductive health care access, are aimed at low-income women who are disproportionately women of color. 

I’m generally a big fan of celebrities using their platforms to get out the message about feminism, even though they often do so by offering a defanged version sculpted to minimize backlash. But Arquette’s political grandstanding played into every ugly stereotype about “feminism” being about little more than some privileged white women trying to become more privileged. Her comments were bad for the cause of equal pay and for feminism. Solidarity is not just for white women.

Also in Slate:

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the 2015 Oscars.

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