Looking for Problems in All the Wrong Places

The nitpicking over Patricia Arquette's call for wage equality nicely illustrates the left's self-destructive tendencies.

By Nathan Pippenger

With a few notable exceptions, I find that the inescapable online genre of political writing-cum-pop culture analysis tends to be pretty tedious and self-indulgent, so I was perfectly ready to ignore the mini-controversy that erupted after Patricia Arquette won Best Supporting Actress Sunday night. It turns out, however, that this particular flap illustrates how even calls for solidarity can collapse into splintering and squabbling—especially, it seems, when it comes to the delicate use of language and its place in left-wing politics.

The affair started with a digestible, straightforward triumph of precisely the sort that makes this genre possible. Accepting the Oscar for her (brilliant) performance in Boyhood, Arquette declared to the audience: “To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America.” The crowd erupted in cheers. Buzzfeed ran with a gleeful headline: “Patricia Arquette’s Oscars Acceptance Speech Won The Whole Night.” “Patricia Arquette won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as a single mother in Boyhood,” the article began. “But also, she won the whole Oscars with FEMINISM.” The Daily Beast called Arquette’s speech “Badass,” noted that she “brought the house down,” and applied Arquette’s argument to Hollywood itself: “Hollywood has a serious woman problem, and Arquette (rightfully) called the industry out on it.” So far, so good: Wage equality is a serious problem, and Arquette (reading from a printed speech) used the spotlight for a just cause.

If the story had stopped there, there’d be little to add: a Hollywood celebrity made a well-intentioned call for a popular liberal cause, and liberals cheered her on. Par for the course, in other words, and unlikely in itself to spur major political change. It was only in extending her remarks backstage that Arquette waded into trouble: “So, the truth is, even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America, right under the surface, there are huge issues that are applied that really do affect women. 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.”

This comment raised eyebrows at (among other places) Slate, whose headline called the backstage comments “shallow and insulting.” Actually, Slate found her acceptance speech wanting as well: “to be fair,” wrote Amanda Marcotte magnanimously, “her actual speech on the podium wasn’t the worst thing ever […] A bit jumbled and shallow—ninth-grade debate club debut-ish—but her heart seemed to be in the right place.” But Marcotte took exception to Arquette’s statement that “it’s time” for “men that love women,” gay people, and people of color to join the feminist cause. “Where to begin?” Marcotte harrumphed, before noting that race and sexual orientation can also depress wages and declaring: “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.”

This is, to put it lightly, a tendentious reading of Arquette’s offhand comments, which Marcotte went onto to accuse of “eras[ing] the major contributions made by women of color and lesbians to the feminist movement.” Marcotte went on to claim that she is “generally a big fan of celebrities using their platforms to get out the message about feminism” before attacking “Arquette’s political grandstanding,” which “played into every ugly stereotype about ‘feminism’ being about little more than some privileged white women trying to become more privileged.”

These are fighting words, I’d say—except I’m not sure what it means to accuse someone’s offhand remarks of “erasing” contributions to a political movement. Remarks can ignore, omit, downplay, or insult the contributions of particular groups, but accusing them of “erasing” them is a needless, not to mention misleading, rhetorical escalation. Ditto the idea that calling for solidarity among oppressed groups amounts to privileged special pleading for white women.

Now, that’s not to say that Arquette’s speech, and her subsequent remarks, weren’t phrased in a slightly inept way. It is misleading to say that “it’s time” for other groups to join in your cause if they already have. If Arquette were a journalist, and I were her editor, I’d advise her to rethink the phrase and what it implies. But she’s not a journalist, and she was speaking off the cuff in a moment of overwhelming excitement and emotion. Writers, on the other hand, can sit at their keyboard, painstakingly perfecting each sentence before running their work past at least one editor, taking time to revise, and allowing their thoughts to mature and percolate. That gives us a position of extraordinary privilege, at least insofar as it minimizes our chances of being misunderstood, or of embarrassing ourselves through unfortunate or clumsy phrasing.

Yet that’s not even the most unseemly element of this criticism. Considered in the context of political struggle, Arquette’s remarks were a call for left-wing solidarity. However ungainly her phrasing, she was trying to emphasize that feminists have joined in solidarity with other groups fighting for equality, and she was asking those groups to now join feminists as they push for wage parity. To some, this call apparently contains the offensive implication that those groups are not already engaged in the struggle, or (even worse) that they should abandon their own struggles to focus on what matters to Patricia Arquette. There’s a deep irony involved in subjecting a call for solidarity to this kind of group-based hair-splitting. Add to that the strange expectation that people ought to be chastised if they fail to speak with the same precision and care as professional, edited writers. A lot could be said of that expectation: that it’s unfair, perhaps that it’s elitist, perhaps that it’s better suited for pageviews than political victories. But most of the time, I’ll bet, it’s just a way for people with an uncommonly precise command of language to detect new problems in the occasionally graceless ways that most people articulate their claims to justice.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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