On Patricia Arquette, Coded Language and the Hotness of ‘Intersectionality’

By Akiba Solomon Feb 23, 2015

Besides all of the Common and John Legend goodness–the performance! those speeches! David Oyewolo’s* tears!–the most popular Oscar topic on my Facebook timeline is Patricia Arquette.

If you don’t already know it by heart, Arquette, who won Best Supporting Actress for "Boyhood," mixed a basic call for women’s equality with some rotting entrails and then she served up leftovers for the folks who didn’t get some the first time around. 

First there was her acceptance speech. The money quote:

"…To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America!"

Meryl Streep pumped her fist. Jennifer Lopez marveled. There were lots of breathless pieces about her "badassery" and feminist mic-dropping

But apparently things got too good for Arquette. Backstage, she added:

"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 really do affect women. And it’s time for all the men who love women and gay people and others, to fight for us now. … Equal means equal. The older women get, the less money they make. It’s inexcusable–we go around the world talking about equal rights for women in other countries."

Let’s, for the record, state what’s wrong with both of her comments.

I doubt she intended this, but in her speech she used the dog whistle of "every taxpayer and citizen of this nation." In 2015 speak we know that these taxpaying citizens who fought for y’alls rights is code for white people. Or "white women who marched with Dr. Kang." Or simply, "men, women and children who are not Latino ill#@gals living off of good, hardworking Americans who make this country great."

"Every taxpayer and citizen of this nation and others" is the new "Law and order." "The new "welfare queen." If "The Boondocks’" hilariously self-hating Uncle Ruckus moved onto Latinos, he would be singing about how how those brown parasites are breathing up all the air.

The backstage statement intensifies the wackness of the speech. In an era when People Style Watch is quoting Roxanne Gay, Arquette’s comments provide a powerful example of a feminism fail.

Arquette’s demand for "gay people," "men who love women" and "others" to start fighting for equal pay for women of course assumes that "gay people" aren’t women, that "men who love women" aren’t gay, and that "others" are non-male, heterosexual constituencies who have benefited from the justice work of fine taxpaying citizens. The comment also implies that The Gays, the straight men who love women and those others who "we" have sacrificed for haven’t taken up the issue of pay equity.

Then Arquette gets mighty white when she mentions how "we go around the world talking about equal rights for women in other countries." I can’t say who the "Medium" actress visualized when she spoke of these "women in other countries" us hypocrites are so eager to help. But to me it sounds like she’s imagining those "Muslim-women-forced-to-wear-veils" and maybe a couple of "Africans."

For the tenors in the choir I’m probably preaching to, it’s quite apparent that Arquette doesn’t understand Kimberlé Crenshaw’s essential theory of "intersectionality." The actress doesn’t understand that systems of racism, religious bias, economic deprivation and LGBTQ-phobia can intensify the effects of sexism for some people. 

There’s just one thing. As I said on Facebook, I think it’s a mistake for people to assume that everybody knows what "intersectionality" is. I’ve seen tweets that treat a term and concept that Crenshaw herself says is difficult as if it’s as common as the alphabet. My favorites so far (I’m not linking to them because I don’t want to blow up private citizens): "Oh, Patricia Arquette… Ever heard of intersections? Maybe you should look that up," and "Okay so I was with Patricia Arquette until she decided to be like ‘INTERSECTIONALITY WUT IS THAT.’"

I get how intersectionality becomes common sense if you’ve heard of it. But if you haven’t had the privilege of taking women’s studies courses, haven’t been exposed to the black feminist canon, or you haven’t had the time or tech to consume the online cultural products of young feminist thinkers, that term might not be that hot in your streets. 

Thanks to the Internet, black feminists, allies and evangelists have been able to spread this core concept to larger audiences. But I–a person who just spent about 500 words making fun of Patricia Arquette’s coded racial language–am saying that–strategically speaking–"intersectionality" isn’t quite ready for the "no-duh" treatment yet. 

As Krenshaw herself is quoted as saying to Bim Adewunmi of The New Statesmen, "[Intersectionality] is not easy. It’s not as though the existing frameworks that we have–from our culture, our politics or our law–automatically lead people to being conversant and literate in intersectionality."

**Piece has been updated to correct the spelling of "Oyelowo"*