Patricia Arquette and the perils of political activism

Patricia Arquette at the Oscars

Last month’s Oscars saw Patricia Arquette demanding wage equality in the United States to a storm of enthusiastic applause. Presumably, however, her speech was also met by tens of thousands of impatient eye-rollings and oh-here-we-go-again’s around the world. “You’ve got the same rights, what more do you want?”—the usual drill. No doubt any person who identifies as a feminist has experienced their fair share of this kind of apathetic response when the conversation turns towards women, or gender issues in general. It’s hard to understand exactly why this is. If feminism is essentially nothing more than the belief in the political, social and economic equality between the sexes, why are so many people not on board? The ugly truth is that feminism does not resonate with as many people as it should. It’s maddening. Now, whilst I would never criticise Arquette for her intentions, it is nonetheless necessary to ask certain questions in the face of this truth: Should she have kept her mouth shut?

Arquette’s comments were painfully misinformed to say the least. In particular those delivered in the Academy Awards pressroom, where she called for “all the gay people and all the people of colour that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now”. Not only do these comments offer an extremely reductive view of the history of feminism (and other equal rights movements), but they exclude non-white women, as well as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender women, from feminism in the here and now; the women Arquette lobbies for are clearly straight, white women. Of course, I don’t resent Arquette’s interest in the subject, far from it. But the unfortunate fact is that if she had an awareness of feminism at a deeper level she may have been in a better position to express this interest, and in a manner that didn’t alienate so many people from whom she might otherwise have had support. Given the monumental platform she had, it’s a shame she didn’t seek guidance from a better-informed, up-to-date source.

As Nyasha Junior has noted in the Washington Post, “African-American women have had a stormy relationship with the notion of women’s rights”. White feminists have certainly not always escaped the racial prejudices of their time and place, and Junior points, as one example, to the attempted segregation of women of colour in the Women’s Suffrage Parade of 1913 in Washington D.C. Historically speaking, non-white or non-western feminists have always struggled for recognition within the homogenising views of mainstream feminism, and whole schools of thought have grown up in aid of this struggle; not only postcolonial feminism, but transnational feminism, third-world feminism, and black feminism, amongst others. The same holds true for schools of theory that address the sometimes myopic views of feminist thought that seem to forget lesbianism; in film theory we can point to Laura Mulvey’s Apparatus Theory which, it has been argued by Lesbian and Queer theorists, allows only for heterosexual spectatorship, and forgets the rest.

However, I do not intend simply to admonish Patricia Arquette, but rather to identify the wider trend of which she is just one player. This trend is the growing fashion for feminism. For feminism is becoming something of a fashion statement. Sometimes this is in a very literal way, with politicians wearing ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirts to prove they have women on the agenda or Steve Carrell wearing ‘HeforShe’ cufflinks at the Oscars this year (on which score Emma Watson wrote a gushing letter of thanks), or women taking to social media to show off their newly-dyed underarm hair — many publications have identified this as summer’s “next big beauty trend”. I do not mean to deny the value of all this promotion, and I have to say that my automatic reaction is to inwardly celebrate whenever a celebrity draws attention to the plight of women, but conversely it’s vital to ask whether observers who are already critical of feminism will use the potential superficiality of such gestures to buttress their arguments about the triviality of the feminist cause.

Perhaps the focus here should be on the aforementioned Emma Watson, as a particularly interesting product of the trend. For Emma does seem to have become somewhat of a – if not the – face of feminism, in her role as UN Women Goodwill Ambassador. (Incidentally, having previously been the face of Burberry, it’s not too much of a stretch to draw the parallel between feminism and fashion.) Maybe the idea is to make feminism fashionable to show that it is accessible, attractive, and covetable? I would argue that it makes it elitist, faddist, frivolous and insincere. Why on earth should a white, upper-middle class, privileged film star, whose life is unrepresentative of all but the smallest minority, be the chosen representative for our sex, the face of our cause? Feminism should be about the real, the ordinary, the everyday. It belongs to all women, the average woman, not the shining elite. Maybe this sounds like a personal attack, but let me clarify: I am also a white woman. I am of a middle class background. I have a university education. (And let me just put this out there, I’m as big a fan of Harry Potter as the next 90s child.) Of course, none of this makes me less likely to voice my opinions, but it would equally make me a poor candidate for some kind of poster-girl role. Indeed, given the amount of women out there from an endless variety of economic, ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds, I would argue that the very idea that one woman can effectively speak for them all is counter-productive.

Even I don’t know quite what I’m proposing instead. For starters, though, it would be great if we could all stop living and dying by the words of our favourite stars and realise that there was feminism before there was Beyonce at the MTV Awards, before the Taylor Swifts and the Emma Watsons—that beyond this world of frivolity there still is substantial and real debate raging, a movement beneath the hashtags. I’ll say this much; as long as people like Patricia Arquette, and the countless other celebrities who have spouted total nonsense in the name of feminism, take it upon themselves to become spokespersons for a cause they don’t understand, women everywhere will feel further alienated rather than drawn together. As long as ordinary people living their ordinary lives in the real world don’t feel like feminism is something for them, or about them, then we haven’t a hope in hell.