The Trouble With Celebrity Feminism


This old-school leftist slogan was on my mind yesterday: “Either you’re part of the solution or part of the problem.”

While the phrase was radical in its day, intended to shake moderates out of their complacency, this is a polarized binary that has limited usefulness for assessing everyday life. In fact, we have many examples of people who are clearly part of both. Patricia Arquette is a perfect example. When she received her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress on Sunday night, she rushed through her thank yous so that she would have time to tack on a quick-but-loud closing demand, “It’s our time to have wage equality, once and for all. And equal rights for women in the United States of America.”

Unfortunately, backstage right after the acceptance, she elaborated on her comment in a way that framed the issue of equal rights in an inaccurate and problematic context: that women had done so much for “everyone else” and it was time for people of color and gay people to “fight for us now.” This comment touched such a nerve with viewers because it implies that LGBT people and people of color have achieved equality while reinforcing a history of white feminists overlooking the work of people of color and seeing their own charitable acts as part of some tradition of sacrifice.

But what do Arquette’s words mean in the larger context of the entertainment industry? Her comments are in contrast to the following “news” from E! Online: “Zoe Saldana Flaunts Flawless Post-Baby Body at the 2015 Oscars Just 3 Months After Giving Birth to Twins!” That Arquette decided to use a moment of her time to say anything for the benefit of any women anywhere is a bold move for an older actress in an industry that prefers actors to be apolitical. Hollywood doesn’t like a loudmouth woman. It was bold even though she got a bunch of things wrong in terms of intersectional feminism. Yes, she spoke from a very privileged position. But what are the Oscars? A huge self-congratulation party for wealthy white people in the entertainment industry. In this context, and compared to other white actresses, Arquette becomes a leader by default in that she attempted to do something. However, given what our communities face, it was paltry and insulting. She is part of the solution and the problem. Both can be true outside of the binary.

patricia arquette at the oscars

The greater issue surrounding Arquette’s proclamations is that mainstream entertainment media is so starved for feminist leadership that for some this moment seemed more radical than it was. It’s only a “major feminist moment” because the bar is so low. Of course women and men should be paid equally. Why does it take an actress to make that a national headline?

Public debate about gender equality shouldn’t have to only be squeezed into a hurried Oscars acceptance speech. Looking for spot-on political analysis from a film awards show where only white actors are giving speeches is a recipe for disappointment. Our celebrity culture highlights and celebrates pop stars when they dare to talk about feminism, sometimes to the detriment to activists who have actually committed their lives to building feminist movements. Even way back in the day, Gloria Steinem was chosen by the media as the movement’s spokeswoman because she also looked like a model. 

The problem with Arquette’s speech is that feminist actresses have the spotlight, rather than feminist leaders with fleshed-out political platforms. Actresses rarely have movement or leadership training or education. Is it too optimistic to expect them to be accountable to intersectional feminism? Today’s actresses don’t have systemic political and leadership development, but they have a big microphone. I’m grateful that there was no major media platform for the messy project of my political awakening and values clarification.  It’s not gentle on-the-job-training for the budding feminist celebrity. 

We should also recognize that celebrities live in an insulated world that may preclude them from many of the daily struggles due to systemic -isms. Perhaps, we need to take a cue from a former First Lady and create a feminist educational retreat modeled on the Betty Ford addictions clinic. Clearly, celebrities need to detox a bit from their immense privilege before they can effectively use their platform for activism.

Related Reading: Patricia Arquette Undermined Her Own “Most Feminist Moment” at the Oscars.

Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley.  She blogs and tweets about culture, gender, and race at @AyadeLeon and Kensington Books will be publishing her feminist heist novel in 2016.

by Aya de Leon
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Aya de Leon teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. Her forthcoming kid’s book EQUALITY GIRLS AND THE PURPLE REFLECTO-RAY features fourth graders fighting the president’s sexism. Her latest novel SIDE CHICK NATION tackles Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Find her online at The Daily Dose: Feminist Voices for the Green New Deal, and at

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9 Comments Have Been Posted

are you suggesting she was

are you suggesting she was referring to 'white women' when she said women because she's white? Or did she say that somewhere?
I'm a queer woman and I think her statement behind the scenes (while somewhat problematically framed) was important, I agree especially with the point that LGBT groups need to get behind equal rights for women...too often have I seen groups that i'm a part of ignore this 52% part of the population! I can't speak for people of colour but it's no secret that black women face more/different barriers to black men that are often laying on the wayside. This is an important poignant discussion, lets not stop at something that one white wealthy woman said at a fancy party, lets take on these discussions, this is real.

Even though I do agree with

Even though I do agree with what you are saying and with the fact that celebrities live in an "insulated world" and intersectionality is very often overlooked (as was the case with the oscars and is often the case with such ceremonies that are very narrow-minded ), I don't completely agree with the last sentence.
Yes, Patricia Arquette might not be in the best position to actively demand for equality, however, the simple fact that she did point out some obvious issues in her speech is extremely important. Speaking from a hollywood industry and a women in film standpoint, her comments were completely valid. She obviously can't speek for women around the country who don't have access to such rights because of race and class issues but I still think she had legitimacy in her comments. Indeed, lately, we have seen lately how hard it is for some women who are in the public eye (whether in the film, music or political industries) to admit they are feminists because it is a "pejorative" term for them.

Instead of seeing this in a

Instead of seeing this in a negative light why not try another approach....
Little catch phrases like "divide and conquer" and "power in unity" are important to remember. Even one quick minute squeezed into an oscars broadcast reached more people than most of us could ever dream of reaching in a lifetime.
Together is so much more powerful than divided. Patricia Arquette may not be perfect but to attack such good intentions seems counter-intuitive. It got people not normally interested or aware of women's issues talking. We should all be on the same side.


absolutely agree with you. how often do women get a chance to send a message to millions of viewers.

Twisting Words

It's interesting how you cherry pick pieces of Arquette's backstage quote, and then reframe it in your own words to form a darker context. Shame on you. Why shouldn't the Queer community, People of Color, and every other group that has had to fight for equality also come together to fight for ALL women's rights? No one is saying that any one group is "done" being oppressed, the statement was a call to action to continue the great works in this additional positive direction.

Are you kidding me??

"Why shouldn't the Queer community, People of Color, and every other group that has had to fight for equality also come together to fight for ALL women's rights?"

And this is exactly why I won't work with white feminists anymore. No explanation needed. You're clearly too dense to understand anything anyway. #EndWhiteFeminism2015

Damned if you do & damned if

Damned if you do & damned if you don't. Please refrain from making the 'Perfect" the enemy of the "Good.'

Okay, enough with the clichés but I was disappointed by this commentary. There are still many women who don't believe that other women deserve equal pay because men need it more than woman do. It is entirely necessary and appropriate to attempt to reach them where they are at, in front of the tube watching the Oscars, rather than waiting for their granddaughters to take a feminist class in college if they even aspire for their granddaughters to attend college.

The MORE people reached with the most basic message, the better. And yes, I'm an old white feminist but I have always supported my brothers and sisters of color and in the LGBTQ community. This is not a zero sum game. We will all benefit from each other's liberation.

A teaching moment

What seems to be missing in all this is the recognition that Arquette's mangling of intersectionality provided a major teaching moment that got more publicity than we could get any other way. Her "gaffs" opened up a discussion amongst audiences that have never heard of intersectionality.

That's not to say she shouldn't have been criticize: quite the contrary. These discussions highlighting the variety of feminisms and subject positions rarely happens in mainstream media, if at all. So her mistakes made it possible for us to make this happen.

Sure,it would have been better for HER if she hadn't flubbed it. But then it wouldn't have been controversial among feminists, and nobody woulda e been arguing with her in front of such a broad public. We would have congratulated her, and that would be that. No reason to explain it all over again if had gone perfectly.

Patricia Arquette

can't we sometimes get off our Capital F feminist analysis, and just be glad that someone somewhere said something on national TV that benefits all women.

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