From Arquette to Iñárritu, an Inspiring Oscar Speech Shouldn’t Transform a Celebrity Into a Political Leader

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Fiery political speeches became the highlight of an Oscars that were otherwise dull and regressive. But the practice of applauding celebrities and anointing them as the best human beings in the universe for daring to state opinions can also backfire, as the 12-hour social media saga of Best Supporting Actress winner Patricia Arquette demonstrated.

As a preface, I believe that Hollywood stars’ job is to act, and maybe to sing, to pursue interesting artistic projects and move us. It isn’t to read Howard Zinn and Audre Lorde and Thomas Piketty, to understand all the nuances of the current economic and social world. I deeply appreciate it, however, when they choose — as Common, John Legend, Arquette, Graham Moore, and Alejandro Iñárritu did last night — to use a major platform to express political views. But a courageous turn at the podium doesn’t make them unimpeachable political leaders.

Let’s start with the praise. John Legend’s speech in particular was a model of thoughtfulness, maybe one of the best Oscars acceptance speeches ever. Sobering statistic at the ready, he made a point about the erosion of voting rights and the effects of incarceration on the black community that doesn’t usually get aired a to broad audience. Meanwhile, Graham Moore’s “stay weird” exhortation was purely personal, and inspiring plea for teenagers who feel despair to hang in there.

But Arquette’s muddled mix of personal and political set her up for an “extol and enrage” cycle that happened with lightning speed. Her impassioned, if simplistic, plea for wage equality upon receipt of her Oscar got the audience fired up. Yet if we were paying close attention to her remarks (“To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen in this nation: We have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality in the United States!”), Arquette came across less like someone who had a studied approach to intersectional feminism and more like she had discovered some statistics about the pay gap, which resonated with her experience in a very sexist Hollywood climate, and was excited to say something about it. Her excitement got Meryl and J. Lo and all of us excited!

It was a genuine moment in the midst of a brutal night. But before she even elaborated on her comments, the New Republic had published a thinkpiece about the simplistic nature of the speech, while mainstream feminist organizations were calling her a heroine. She’d only had three minutes, in which she also had to thank her “team,” of course, and somehow she’d been both championed and taken down already.

Then Arquette herself compounded the problem. Here’s what she later said:

“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. And 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.”

This is a hot mess of a statement that probably arose from good intentions mixed with adrenaline and a narrow worldview. Twitter outrage ensued, and remains in full swing on my timeline. Many people, I imagine, felt ashamed at reacting so rapturously to Arquette’s initial speech and then realizing the rather flimsy ideological foundation upon which it stood.

And there’s a justified frustration with the version of wealthy white-lady feminism (I call it “just me” feminism) that Arquette’s words evoke. She may have been naive, but the brand of feminism she embodied in her statements both on stage and after her acceptance speech is decades old. At the same time, the reaction has been as though Arquette’s one Oscar moment earned her the title of Top Feminist in Charge and then her press-room comments made us automatically revoke the title. Why on earth did we give it to her in the first place?

All anyone needs to do to understand the dangers of that kind of uncritical Hollywood progressive worship is fast-forward to notable Hollywood “radical” (and alleged domestic abuser) Sean Penn’s remark at the end of the night, when awarding the best picture Oscar to Birdman. He asked of director Alejandro Iñárritu: “Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?” Har har har. Iñárritu’s speech of genuine solidarity with Mexicans at home and immigrants in the United States was sadly overshadowed by the Penn quip. The director’s response, later, was to laugh it off in the name of art and friendship:

I found it hilarious. Sean and I have that kind of brutal (relationship) where only true friendship can survive… Naked and in tighty-whiteys, we are the same. … That’s the beauty of art. Art doesn’t have those stiff ideological borders that [expletive] the world so much.”

Yet this is no excuse for Penn. Edgy humor in private is far different from the same humor before an audience of millions. It’s not unlike the Lemony Snicket snafu, in which he handed a National Book award to Jaqueline Woodson with a racist quip because the two were friends. Penn acted as if he was delivering a clever inside joke in front of a group of pals rather than to a worldwide audience of millions. It was purely obnoxious, as well a good reminder that what highly compensated artists do best is make art and say self-involved things.

The best way to honor the high points of the ceremony last night is to continue to talk about what was brought up: the wage gap, foregrounding race in the discussion; the prison-industrial complex; the need for immigration reform; and the dangerous erosion of the Voting Rights Act. Can we do this rather than argue about whether we’re on “Team Patricia” or “Team Patricia is evil”? I have my doubts as to whether this will happen, but here’s hoping.