Full disclosure: I did not watch the Oscars. There were a variety of reasons I missed it: We don’t have cable and our TV antenna seems to only work on clear, sunny days; the Oscars don’t really get going until past my bedtime; I somehow failed to see any of the movies nominated this year for Best Picture; etc …
But as always, I enjoyed the post-mortem the next day. Was the musical number by Neil Patrick Harris amazing? Were the dresses outrageous? Were the predictions right? Were the acceptance speeches unending?
One thing I did not expect to hear the next morning was that there was a “clear appeal for equal pay for equal work.”. The Oscars are not, generally speaking, known as a forum for advocating for civil rights and wage equality. As Neil Patrick Harris said in his opening monologue, “Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest. Sorry, brightest.”
But this year, everyone was talking about Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress. In accepting her award for Boyhood, Arquette stated: “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 J. Lo, sitting in the audience, nearly jumped out of their chairs with enthusiasm. Vogue called it “one of the greatest moments in Oscar history.” Twitter went crazy.
But Arquette didn’t stop there. Afterward, backstage, Arquette expanded on her comments. After repeating her call for equal pay and equal rights for women, she said, “It’s time for all the women in America and all the men who love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve fought for, to fight for us now.”
And that prompted the second act in this drama: the backlash. Critics slammed Arquette, calling her backstage comments everything from appalling to cringe-inducing to historically negligent. Others rushed to Arquette’s defense. The rhetoric on both sides has been inflammatory.
But setting aside the rhetoric, the critics of Arquette’s backstage comments are making an important point. As one commentator put it bluntly, did Arquette actually “just use her Oscar win to tell gays and black people they now owe white women assistance?”
Arquette no doubt meant well, but implicit in her comments are several destructive assumptions. Her statement assumes that “gay people” and “people of color” are somehow categories separate from “women,” when of course both groups include women. By artificially separating these groups, Arquette reinforces some of the worst stereotypes about feminism being only for privileged white women, an image that goes back to the earliest days of the women’s rights movement in America.
Arquette’s comments also wrongly suggest that the fight for equal rights and equal pay for people of color and the LGBT community has been won. This is particulary unfortunate in a time when many (including, sometimes, judges and juries hearing civil rights cases) want to believe the fiction that our society is “colorblind” and that discrimination is a thing of the past. In fact, of course, that is far from the truth – something that is particularly clear in the fight for equal pay.
The wage gap between men and women is compounded by race and sexual orientation. In the US, while white women make 78 cents for each dollar earned by a white man, black women make only 64 cents, and Latina women make just 54 cents. Same sex couples with children earn 20% less than comparable straight couples, and transgender people have a poverty rate 4 times that of the general population. (Let’s not get into how much Arquette gets paid for her work.)
And lastly, Arquette comments suggest that until now, gay people and people of color have not fought for women’s rights. That ignores centuries of civil rights history in the US, in which minorities and LGBT populations, both male and female, have supported and fought for women’s rights in countless ways.
Arquette surely had the best intentions in her shout-out for equality, but her remarks revealed deep-rooted (and false) assumptions about civil rights in our country. Sometimes, our implicit assumptions and biases are the most destructive.