I usually eagerly anticipate the Oscars. As a cinephile, I love seeing films, actors, and filmmakers celebrated. But this year, I dreaded them.
The Oscars may be the most visible celebration of filmmaking in the U.S. and possibly the world. This is why they matter. Whether we agree or not, they signify what films are collectively deemed important in our society.
That’s why it’s so frustrating that the Oscars often overlook female filmmakers—only four women have ever been nominated for Best Director and no women of color have ever been nominated—and the awards show seriously lacks racial diversity, especially this year. Several of last night’s Oscar winners took their opportunity in the spotlight to make powerful statements about race and gender.
Labeled as “the most feminist moment” of the night by many writers, Boyhood’s Patricia Arquette advocated for equal pay and women’s rights during her acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress: “To every woman who give birth to a taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s rights. It’s our time to have wage equality, once and for all. And equal rights for women in the United States of America.”
Yes, yes, a thousand times YES. Patricia Arquette’s speech was a declaration condemning the gender pay gap and the need for wage equality. Hearing the words “wage equality” and “women’s rights” uttered on a national broadcast delights me. Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez excitedly cheering in the audience was the icing on the cake.
But then Arquette undermined her important words. In a backstage interview after her acceptance speech, she elaborated that after the age of 34, female actors earn far less than their male colleagues. But unfortunately, here’s where Arquette’s speech unravels. 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.”
Sigh. Why couldn’t she have just stopped? My initial excitement faded to disappointment, irritation, and anger.
Her statement implies that LGBT people and people of color have achieved equality. They haven’t. LGBT justice and racial justice still have far to go. It blatantly ignores coalition building that has happened across movements. Arquette excludes women of color and queer women with her statement. Women have multiple, intersecting identities. To ignore that fact erases many women’s existence. When feminists talk about women’s rights, we should not be claiming, either overtly or covertly, “women” equals straight, white, cis women. We white women need to do a much better job to make feminism an intersectional, inclusive movement.
Andrea Grimes wrote this good advice on RH Reality Check today in response:
“White women: let’s not go all ‘Je Suis Patricia Arquette’ on this shit. Let’s listen to people who know better than we do about what it’s like to be a non-white or non-straight or a non-white non-straight person who is asked, from one of the world’s most prominent media platforms, to ‘fight’ for someone who already has so, so much more.”
Patricia Arquette’s statements have been the top news of the Oscars today, but I think it’s important to recognize several other moments from last night.
Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne won Best Actress and Best Actor for playing people with disabilities. Each actor mentioned ALS and Alzheimer’s in their acceptance speeches. Moore said: “I’m thrilled we were able to shine a light on this disease… Movies make us feel seen and not alone.” However, The Theory of Everything has been accused of being guilty of “inspiration porn” and using a person with a disability as “Oscar bait.” Julianne Moore was absolutely outstanding in Still Alice. A chameleon, she melted into the complex, nuanced role. It was also great to see a woman win for a film revolving around a female protagonist. Considering the ageism of Hollywood and the Oscars, I appreciated seeing a woman over the age of 50 win. We need more roles for women in general but particularly women of color, queer women, older women, and women with disabilities.
Meanwhile, Selma was snubbed in the Best Director and Best Picture categories. But a tribute to the film and to racial justice was depicted in Common and John Legend’s powerful performance of “Glory.” In their passionate acceptance speech for Best Song, Common spoke about the historic bridge in Selma where the civil rights march took place.
“This bridge was once a landmark of a divided nation. But now it’s a symbol for change. The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, social status… This bridge was built on hope, welded with compassion, and elevated by love for all human beings.”
John Legend highlighted institutional racism, incarceration of Black men and the prison industrial complex:
“Nina Simone said, ‘It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live… Selma is now because the struggle for justice is right now. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more Black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.”
As Legend says, Selma remains extremely relevant, a reflection of the racism and white supremacy happening currently with the harrowing murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the activism in Ferguson and with #BlackLivesMatter. It was crucial to hear Legend discuss the pernicious racism of our criminal justice system. Sadly, while the audience met Patricia Arquette’s speech with resounding applause, the lack of applause for Legend and Common’s statements was extremely disconcerting.
But perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised at the audience’s reaction, especially as many in Hollywood look the other way when it comes to racism and abuse of women. I cannot fully express my disgust at seeing Sean Penn, an abuser of women, as a presenter onstage. He made a racist joke when announcing Birdman, directed by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, as the Best Picture winner: “Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?” How lovely to see racism and xenophobia at the end of the Oscars.
Thankfully, Iñárritu took the opportunity in his acceptance speech to counter Penn’s racism advocating for immigrant justice. He dedicated his Oscar for Best Picture to his “fellow Mexicans” and Mexican immigrants. He is the second Latino to win Best Director and the first Latino to win as producer for Best Picture. Iñárritu spoke of the need to build a new government in Mexico and for the need for rights for immigrants, “I just pray they can be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones who came before and built this incredible immigrant nation.”
What this disjointed awards show accentuated to me is the need for an intersectional lens in everything we do: our daily lives, activism, making media and consuming media.
Megan Kearns is Bitch Flicks’ Social Media Director and a Staff Writer, a freelance writer, and a feminist vegan blogger. She tweets at @OpinionessWorld. This is an edited version of an article cross-posted on feminist film site Bitch Flicks.