Film is magical. As human beings, we are captivated by movies because of a particular quirk of our physiology wherein images moving at a certain speed create the illusion of motion on a screen.
Movies are also an insight into our collective subconscious. Consequently, film channels a given society’s struggles and anxieties about power and questions of identity.
Celebrations of film such as the Oscars are exercises in narcissism and self-congratulatory behavior for those people who are fortunate (or not, depending on one’s point of view) to work in
Hollywood. The Oscars are also an exercise in
spectacle as well as wish fulfillment for the viewing audience.
If film is a type of political text, then the celebration of “popular” film at events such as the Oscars, provides an insight into American (and global) politics.
There, the acceptance speech can be transformed into a moment of political advocacy. The host's opening monologue is an opportunity to comment on timely matters of public concern or controversy. He or she who receives an award for their work may choose to speak about a matter of public policy during their acceptance speech.
In that moment, a truth can slip out, one that exists despite and contrary to their best intentions.
Patricia Arquette provided one such example during the 2015 Oscars where after receiving an award for Best Supporting Actress she proclaimed:
“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!”
The unmarked “we” is a powerful and dangerous turn of speech. It deflects responsibility. It exists outside of history. It dances around questions of causality and ownership. It is an empty vessel and marker. It is lazy thinking that legitimates inequality and injustice.
Arquette’s language is an appeal to a reasonable, principled, and long overdue outcome that all people of conscience should agree with. However, it is in the facts and details of history (and the present) where the problems with Patricia Arquette’s statement are revealed.
As much as some folks would like—both because of hopeful humanistic dreaming and out of cowardice for hoping to evade the fact of their unearned privileges and advantages—we cannot escape history’s gravity in the present.
As Neil Patrick Harris’s opening monologue alluded to, the Oscars, and
Hollywood writ large, are examples
of white privilege and the white racial frame as lived practice and political
White supremacy is one of the dominant ideologies of the modern and post-modern age.
It is reproduced by and through popular culture as one of contemporary global society’s dominant institutions.
White supremacy and white privilege are also organized systems of willful ignorance, mass amnesia, and selective forgetting and remembering for White America.
The “we” in “we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights” in Arquette’s rousing feminist appeal for fair pay and equal rights ignores how white women as a group have historically been, and in many ways remain, deeply invested in systems of white privilege and white supremacy in the United States and the West.
In the United States, white women actively supported Jim and Jane Crow. There were also women’s and children’s auxiliaries of the Ku Klux Klan.
White women attended and participated in the spectacular lynchings of black men, women, and children. We cannot overlook how rape was one of the many false charges that were used to legitimate the torture and vicious murder of black men: black men were often killed by white men to protect the imagined “honor” and “virginity” of white women in Jim and Jane Crow America. Rarely if ever did white women intervene to correct this murderous lie.
Prominent white female suffragettes such as 1860s Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony used racial appeals against the full rights of black Americans in order to mobilize their white supporters.
For example, during the 1860s Elizabeth Cady Stanton stated that:
American women of wealth, education, virtue and refinement, if you do not wish the lower orders of Chinese, Africans, Germans and Irish, with their low ideas of womanhood, to make laws for you and your daughters … awake to the danger of your present position and demand that woman, too, shall be represented in the government!
Feminist warrior Susan B. Anthony was upset by how:
What words can express her [the white woman’s] humiliation when, at the close of this long conflict, the government which she had served so faithfully held her unworthy of a voice in its councils, while it recognized as the political superiors of all the noble women of the nation the negro men just emerged from slavery, and not only totally illiterate, but also densely ignorant of every public question.
19th and 20th century Herrenvolk, American, white society was sexist. As such, it viewed white woman’s personhood as something to be controlled and dominated by men because it was understood as a symbol and extension of white masculinity, honor, and power.
Unfortunately, the fight for white women’s voting rights against such a sexist order was legitimated within a white racist logic that deemed non-whites inferior.
In the post civil rights era, while modest (and very misunderstood) programs such as “affirmative action” were initially intended to provide a minor set of opportunities and fairness in initial hiring and promotion in some American industries for people of color, white women have been its greatest beneficiaries.
On an even larger macro-level scale, white American men and women both benefit from an inter-generational wealth gap that was created by racially unfair and disparate access to government programs such as the G.I. Bill and the F.H.A. home loan programs.
White supremacy, white privilege, and institutional systems of white advantage over people of color have a complicated relationship with gender politics. What social scientists, philosophers, activists, and others have termed as “intersectionality”, speaks directly to how race, class, gender, sexuality, ability status, ethnicity, and other markers of identity are contingent and circumstantial in how they locate privilege and disadvantage relative to one another.
2nd and 3rd wave feminists, womanists, and feminists of color more generally, have done incisive work in highlighting the complex relationship(s) between gender, race, class, and other identities. While the struggle for “women’s rights” is an honorable one, it does not exist separate and apart from broader systems of white racial privilege and relative disadvantage for non-whites.
The Oscars are a celebration of that billion dollar dream world and fantasy land.
Patricia Arquette chose to use her moment of triumph in that spectacular dream world to make a statement about politics, gender, and society.
By comparison, those of us who are not the unmarked “we” have to live in the real world, one where history echoes into the present, and where racism often trumps the imagined community of shared human experience and opportunities that the in-group, and the privileged, project outward onto others as a way of evading uncomfortable truths about how the world “is”, as opposed to how they wish it to be.
is in fact a bastion of “liberal thought”. Nevertheless, it remains an American
cultural institution that is steeped in white racism and white privilege.