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.
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.
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 ayadeleon.wordpress.com. Kensington Books will be publishing her feminist heist novel in 2016.