The Problem With Making Celebrities the Face of Feminism

Patricia Arquette received some flak after using her Oscars acceptance speech to discuss the importance of closing the gender wage gap. Mike Blake/Reuters

Actress Patricia Arquette was recently celebrated for using her Oscars acceptance speech to discuss the importance of closing the gender wage gap.

"To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else's equal rights," Arquette commented during her impassioned speech. "It is our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America."

While Arquette's feminist moment could have stopped there and been a great step forward for progressive advocates working toward policy solutions to close the gender wage gap, her comments backstage following the speech instead seemed to pit women against other marginalized groups.

"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," the actress expanded during the backstage interview. "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."

Understandably, there was a quick backlash against Arquette's comments backstage. Critics pointed out that her comments centered on cisgender straight white women, while erasing other marginalized groups from the feminist movement.

"White women think women = (cis) white women," Nthakati tweeted. "WoC, esp those who are LGBT, are consistently excluded."

"Patricia Arquette sure ruined her nice moment," Wende tweeted. "Fighting against one injustice does not excuse blindness to others."

Arquette defended her remarks the next morning.

"Wage equality will help ALL women of all races in America," Arquette tweeted. "It will also help their children and society."

"Women have been basically paying a gender tax for generations," she added. "I have long been an advocate for the rights of the #LGBT community. The question is, why aren't you an advocate for equality for ALL women? If you are fighting against #Equalpay you are fighting for ALL women and especially women of color to make less money than men."

"Guess which women are the most negatively affected in wage inequality?" she concluded. "Women of color. #Equalpay for ALL women. Women stand together in this."

Although Arquette ultimately clarified her comments to include women of color in her feminist crusade, the controversy was just another reminder that when we allow celebrities to become spokespeople for feminism, we often get oversimplified feminist messages, whether this means excluding other marginalized groups or failing to impart policy solutions for complicated issues like the gender wage gap.

"If we don't challenge the people who have these large platforms, who are talking about issues that affect women of color more than they affect white women, then what are we doing?" RH Reality Check senior legal analyst Imani Gandy, who pushed back on Arquette's comments, explained to Think Progress.

The wage gap certainly has clear racial implications. The most commonly cited figure in the discussion about the gender wage gap is that women make about 77 cents to every man's dollar. This statistic is true for white women, but doesn't reflect the wages of women of color. For example, African-American women earn a mere 64 percent of what white men earn, while Hispanic women earn only 54 percent.

The modern feminist movement is often criticized for focusing on issues that largely affect white women, while ignoring intersectionality, which frames the ways in which different types of discrimination intersect for women of color. Arquette has likely never read the works of black feminists or Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar credited with defining the issue of intersectionality. Since she is an actress and not a feminist scholar, her surface level articulation of feminist concepts is understandable.

However, as feminism becomes more widely discussed, feminist activists are concerned that such concepts are getting watered down by celebrities, who either misuse them or disregard them entirely.

Roxane Gay, author of a recent collection of essays titled Bad Feminist, recently argued in The Guardian that making female celebrities feminist ambassadors risks "avoiding the actual work of feminism."

"So long as we continue to stare into the glittery light of the latest celebrity feminist, we avoid looking at the very real inequities that women throughout the world continue to face," Gay wrote in The Guardian. "We avoid having the conversations about the hard work changing this culture will require."

While we shouldn't allow celebrity speeches about closing the gender wage gap to entirely take the place of more informed commentary from feminist activists and scholars who have studied these concepts for years, celebrity commentary does provide a very important opportunity for mainstream dialogue about issues like intersectionality and the wage gap for women of color.

"I sometimes joke to myself that I sort of preferred it in the old days, when I didn't have to know what celebrities' views were on things, because then I didn't have to get annoyed," RH Reality Check's Gandy commented to Think Progress. "But celebrities do have a chance to influence popular thought. I think they should be held accountable in a productive way. I would prefer if there was a way that we could get them to dig deeper."

Fortunately, some female celebrities are digging deeper. As the United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson launched the He for She campaign last September, urging men to join the fight for gender equality, explaining how difficult it is to achieve equality if only one gender is participating.

"We don't often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes, but I can see that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence," Watson commented in a speech.

"I want men to take up this mantle. So their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice, but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too—reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned and in doing so be a more true and complete version of themselves."

While celebrities might not be the best authorities on feminist concepts, the onslaught of celebrity feminism and increase in discussion of feminism in the public sphere in recent years has led to a greater number of young women—and men—identifying themselves as feminists.

Celebrities can bring greater awareness to the issue of women's rights. However, in order to truly understand concepts like intersectionality and eventually make progress on the issue of equality, we must dig deeper.

Alexandra Kilpatrick is a reporter with Generation Progress. This article first appeared on the Generation Progress website.