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Why women like Patricia Arquette continue to whitewash feminism

Patricia Arquette will be billed as a feminist hero for raising awareness about the wage gap in America during a fiery Oscar acceptance speech Sunday night — but maybe she shouldn't be.

Holding her first golden statue after years of great roles, Arquette waved her arms around the microphone stand and proclaimed that women "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."

She was riveting and passionate. She drew hearty applause from Meryl Streep in the front row and left the stage triumphant. But backstage, maybe in the heat of the moment, Arquette defined a little more clearly exactly whose equality she wanted to fight for — her own.

"It is time for us. It is time for women … It’s time for all the women in America, and the men who love women and all the gay people and people of color we’ve all fought for to fight for us now."

Just like that, with one comment backstage, Arquette muddied the golden speech she had made minutes before. She created a divide between what straight white women want and what everyone else wants, and that's exactly the problem with modern feminism.

The wage gap isn't equal for all women

Watching Arquette, a talented veteran actress who likely hasn't been afforded the roles or the pay that she deserves, proclaim from a stage that women aren't paid enough was deeply effective.

It's demoralizing to feel like you aren't paid what you're worth. It's worse to know that other people you work with who do the same job are rewarded for it when you aren't. Arquette's absolutely correct that women are not paid equally in Hollywood.

The top 10 highest-paid actors from 2013 made a collective $465 million dollars. The top 10 highest-paid actresses made $181 million. The highest-paid actress, Angelina Jolie with $33 million, made the same amount of money as the ninth and 10th highest-paid men, Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington.

The wage gap in America extends far beyond the film industry. A Labor Department measure of weekly wages finds that women make 78 percent of what men make. It's a controversial topic because the pay disparity is influenced by so many different factors (such as state, and employer, and time worked). But it certainly exists, and it is even more stark for women who aren't white.

wage gap

(data from the U.S. Census Bureau)

As you can see in this chart based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, while white women make 78 percent of what white men make, Hispanic women make 54 percent. That's a massive wage gap, and one that should be even more appalling to all women regardless or class, race, or sexuality.

devil wears prada

Anne Hathaway plays a magazine editor's assistant in Devil Wears Prada (Twentieth Century Fox)

The problem with wage-focused feminism is that it is often white woman feminism.

What Arquette said backstage, and the way many people took her comments, is that people of color and gay people need to drop their causes and struggles and turn their focus to the problem of wage disparity, to the problems that affect her, as a white woman. This undertone, that white women's issues are the important ones, has been the source of tension and anger among feminists and their allies for decades.

The first wave of feminism, which focused mainly on property rights and women's suffrage, was led by white women and involved almost only white women. The second wave, which ran somewhere from the late 1960s through the 1990s, was a bit better about including non-white women, and focused on not only gender and reproductive rights but civil rights and fighting the Vietnam war, as well.

The reality, though, is that feminism for far too long has focused on the issues of just a specific segment of women. As Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist, tweeted last night:

Feminism is now, theoretically, in its third wave. The main goal of this phase is to deconstruct the idea of a "universal woman" — the straight, white, rich woman who led and dominated feminism for so long — and replace her with an understanding of the world that sits a the intersection of race, class, sexuality, and gender. But Arquette's comments, even if they were just a slip up, show that we are not quite there — that far too many of today's feminists still base their views on an exclusionary understanding of womanhood.

Boyhood

Patricia Arquette in her Oscar winning performance for Boyhood (IFC)

Arquette needs to hear more voices, just like all of us

Arquette doesn't need to be ridiculed for her ignorant remarks. She needs to expose herself to more voices—the voices of women who aren't white, straight, or upper class. She needs to listen to voices like John Legend's, when he said during his acceptance speech that "Selma is now because the struggle for justice is now," Legend said.

The struggle for justice and equality in America is everyone's struggle, but those struggles are not equal. Arquette on the stage Sunday night told the story she related to — she's not paid equally for the work that she does. Meryl Streep in the front row clapped for a story she personally related to. Arquette got a hearty applause because the 28 percent of women in that room knew that she was right.

That doesn't excuse her comments or her ignorance. But it does explain them. To care about others requires an understanding — however shallow — of the trials they face. But the world we live in doesn't and the movies Arquette and her colleagues largely ignore the stories of people who aren't aren't white, straight, and male.

Arquette's misstep isn't the end of the world. It was an off-hand comment in a press room after receiving the biggest award of her life. But her words were so painful because they twist the knife in a wound that's taking far too long to heal.