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What The Patricia Arquette Oscar Backlash Really Means

The lightning-quick turn of public favor illustrates unfortunate realities about bringing feminist issues to public attention.

What The Patricia Arquette Oscar Backlash Really Means
[Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images]

Woe the wealthy white feminist.

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The cheers for Patricia Arquette’s declaration for women’s wage equality during her Oscars speech this week turned into an Internet pile-on denouncing her as a racist homophobe in a mere blink; perhaps never before have the unrealistic expectations heaped upon feminism been more publicly on display.

Many of the same people who were likely fist-pumping in their living rooms along with Meryl Streep after Arquette proclaimed “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America,” felt immediately and spectacularly let down when she left the stage and said to the press, “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.”

Her follow-up statement was ineloquent at best, and a cringe-worthy flaunting of heterosexual white privilege at worst. Either way, her words were tone-deaf, the inference being that white women have fought for civil and gay rights and now that those are taken care of, it’s time to return the favor and fight for white women’s rights. To be clear, I don’t think that’s what she meant. I believe that Arquette is an open-minded and intelligent person who unfortunately worded her explanation poorly; given her copious podium notes, speaking off the cuff is probably not her strong suit. And celebrities are no more reliable than regular folks as sources of articulate political views.

But the lightning-quick turn of public favor that Arquette is now dealing with illustrates several universal truths about feminism and the women who work to bring feminist issues to public attention.

Feminism has been saddled with double standards and unrealistic expectations for more than 100 years. Women represent nearly every type of human experience and condition: We are straight, and everywhere on the LGBT spectrum; we are poor, and middle class, and wealthy; we are members of every race from every place on the planet. Which is both why feminist issues are so important, and why they are so hard for one woman to articulate.

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Aside from the criticisms of poorly phrased follow-up comments, Arquette is being criticized for bringing up the issue in the first place–what right does a wealthy woman wearing an expensive designer gown have to complain about equal pay to a room full of millionaires? To those of us toiling away in much lower-paying and less-glamorous professions, the venue and spokesperson might have understandably felt awkward. Similarly, Sheryl Sandberg’s anecdotes about her career path from Harvard to Google to Facebook and advice about speaking up in executive meetings feels exclusionary to women fighting for an increase to minimum wage.

It’s a criticism that feminism has long faced, and sometimes rightfully so. There is no excuse to be willfully ignorant or blatantly ignore the issues of poor, black, or gay women. But often—think Betty Friedan in the 1960s, Sandburg in Silicon Valley, and maybe even Arquette in Hollywood–these women are speaking to what they know and the experiences of inequality that they have faced. And while there might be much more horrific violations of equal rights happening simultaneously, that doesn’t make their complaints invalid.

In fact, the issues that these wealthy white women bring up are often emblematic of the larger issues that affect all women. When Sony’s leaked emails revealed that Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams were paid considerably less than Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper in American Hustle, it mirrored the pay equality issues playing out in offices, hospitals, restaurants, and companies all over the country.

According to Labor Department data, the pay disparity in the entertainment industry is on par with all other professions; women in arts, entertainment, sports and media earn 85% of their male counterparts while the overall gender pay gap for all full-time workers is 82.5%.


And while few working women have the opportunities or unique set of problems that Sandberg speaks about, the issues of parental leave, flexible hours, and unconscious bias are important and have far-reaching effects on all working women.

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Are the statements and arguments of these women sometimes flawed or too narrow? Sure. And it’s understandably galling to have such homogeneity in the most visible voices in a movement, or to have your struggles be ignored or “white-splained” to you. We absolutely need to give more diverse voices in feminism a bigger and louder platform.

But we also need to stop holding feminism to an impossible standard of inclusiveness not applied to other social movements. The expectation that when one woman speaks about an issue of inequality that she has experienced she must speak to the experience of all women, puts feminists in a double bind that would have us not speak out at all. Instead of tearing down women who raise the issues for leaving others out, let’s add more voices and perspectives to the conversation.

About the author

Kathleen Davis is a Senior Editor at FastCompany.com, managing the leadership and work-life section. Previously, she has worked as an editor at Entrepreneur.com, WomansDay.com and Popular Photography magazine.

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