Thursday, February 26, 2015

In Defense of Patricia Arquette's Critics

This post was originally titled, "Patricia Arquette: Thanks, but No Thanks."

On Sunday, Patricia Arquette won an Oscar for best supporting actress.  To her credit, she used her time at the microphone to advocate for equal pay for women, and call on people to stand up for women's causes.  This is what feminists and social justice advocate for regularly: that people of privilege use their voice to raise awareness of important issues.  Unfortunately, Patricia Arquette did not use this opportunity well.

I am not saying that Ms. Arquette is a bad feminist, or that she shouldn't have used the opportunity she had to speak out.  But intent is not the same as impact, and folks noticed.  Patricia Arquette was taken to task for her inability to acknowledge intersectionality, and her implication that "women" now deserved the support of "people of color" and "gays," as if those people are not themselves women.

What fascinates me in this story is the reaction to her criticism.  The enthusiasm with which people jumped to Patricia Arquette's defense leaves me wondering if I saw the same thing.  An upper class white woman, with loads of privilege, did her best to do something good and just really messed it up.  Folks were frustrated and upset, and responded.  In turn, Ms. Arquette seemed to take those criticisms to heart and made an effort to grow.  How is this not what we want to see happen?*

Instead, Arquette's defenders claimed that criticizing her was uncalled for.  They argued that we should simply be grateful for Arquette's intent, even if it was imperfect, at the risk of further alienating allies.  People have suggested that such infighting is not appropriate and hurts the cause of feminism.

Folks, this is where I get reeeeeally uncomfortable.  These are the arguments that have been used to silence women of color within mainstream feminism for generations (It's not about race, it's about women!) and, subsequently, fail to meet the unique, distinct challenges facing women of color.  Additionally, I've seen criticisms suggesting that it was ok to call out Patricia Arquette, but, well, couldn't they have just been nicer about it?  Which is a special kind of irony: to ask us to look past what Arquette actually said and judge only her intent, but to reproach her critics for the intensity of their arguments, as if we do not also owe them the benefit of the doubt after years of being marginalized by upper class white women.

I also find especially distasteful the idea that "infighting" within feminism is inappropriate, as if mainstream feminism is not susceptible to the same oppressive power dynamics present in our culture at large.  If we are not free to criticize the most visible representatives of feminism (and subsequently the most powerful), how are we not participating in the oppression of women?  Suggesting that feminists may be alienating potential allies just sounds to me like we're being asked to give up our values in order to gain more mainstream acceptance.

I guess what I'm saying is: Patricia Arquette's comments bother me far less than the defensiveness displayed in response to her critics.  Arquette's speech was well-meaning but inappropriate; her defenders have had the time to reflect and still refuse to acknowledge that intersectionality is not an additional detial, but a necessary basis for contemporary feminism if we hope to transcend the mistakes of first- and second-wave feminism.

I understand the impulse to defend Patricia Arquette; for many people, it was inspiring to see a woman use the spotlight to advocate for a better world for women.  However, policing her critics for their tone only propagates the same oppression Arquette claims to be fighting against.  And I would rather alienate "potential allies" than the marginalized people that mainstream feminism has failed over and over again.

*Aside from the fact that it should not be the duty of the marginalized to educate the privileged.

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