On Problematic Feminism, Intersectionality and the Wage Gap

Award shows can be a great way to spread awareness about different causes, especially those explored in the acceptance speeches. This year’s Oscars was no exception, with Julianne Moore speaking on behalf of Alzheimer’s awareness and Eddie Redmayne dedicating his award to those with ALS. But, perhaps the most controversial and GIF-worthy speech was Patricia Arquette’s, accepting the Oscar for her role in “Boyhood.”

Arquette called upon the United States to fight for wage equality for women in an impassioned speech which caused some over the top reactions for the attendees in the Kodak Theatre. While the speech itself was pretty universally praised, Arquette’s comments following the ceremony caused a lot less fist pumps and a lot more shaking of heads.

In the press room, when asked to expand upon her speech she explained:

“…the truth is even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America right under the surface there are huge issues at play that really do affect women. 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.”

Yikes.

To start, let’s just put it out there that not many women, people of color, LGBT people or even white men will tell you that we have equal rights in America. In fact, in a 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center, fewer than half of Americans questioned said that the country has made substantial progress toward racial equality, and about the same share say that “a lot more” needs to be done. In a Gallup poll in January 2015, 39 percent of people said they are “dissatisfied” with how LGBT people are accepted in the U.S..

When Arquette spoke to the press and called upon LGBT people and people of color, I can only imagine what it feels like for a black, lesbian woman making 68 cents to the dollar, who fears coming out would cause her to lose her job, or an Asian trans woman who fears going to the bathroom in public as she might be killed for performing a bodily function. But, I can also only imagine what it felt like to be a young girl hearing about the wage gap for the first time during the national broadcast.

Arquette does have a point that people of color and the LGBT community should fight for wage equality for women—it’s important that marginalized groups have each other’s backs—but what she does not understand is that many people of color and LGBT people ARE women and that they are far more likely to be fired (legally) for their identity or earn even less. Arquette’s recent tweet seems to show that she understands that the fight for LGBT and people of color are far from over, but her comments implied otherwise.

But despite Arquette’s comments following her win, what she said following the awards ceremony should not void what she said during her speech.

The wage gap is a real problem, with women being paid 78 cents to a man’s dollar, according to the National Women’s Law Center. What Arquette failed to understand, or at least articulate at the time, is that this is not simply an issue of men and women—things rarely are. The wage gap gets even wider when you take race into account. Black women are paid just 68 cents to a white man’s dollar.

That is exactly why we need people like Arquette to speak, despite the significant flaws in what she said. We are really quick to skewer people for not having perfect comments about feminism when they do speak upon it in public. These conversations are so important and help us to become better allies, but we have to be careful not to let the criticism overshadow the intent of her comments. If we totally void Arquette’s words we are doing exactly what those against feminism want us to. We are ignoring the cause only to drag a woman down for a poor choice of words despite a well-thought-out and crucial call to action.

Arquette brought an important issue to the table and that cannot and should not be forgotten. Is what Arquette said really as bad as a politician who calls upon women to hold an aspirin between their legs? Or someone who “trolls” and starts a movement that gets women death threats and then demands protections himself? What Arquette said in her actual speech was revolutionary for an awards show and deserves to have merit.

We need to demand more from our activists and the criticism of Arquette is needed and valid, but it’s just as important that we celebrate her speech as a great feminist moment. Intersectionality allows us to champion many causes at the same time, and that’s what makes the fight for equal rights an empowering force for good.

The only way we’re going to destroy the patriarchy once and for all is if we band together, amplify intersectionality, and make sure everyone is working against the common enemy—the systemic oppression that has kept all marginalized populations down.

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