Patricia Arquette injected some political fervour into the Oscars ceremony by calling for equal pay for women at the end of her acceptance speech for best supporting actress.
Arquette had been widely expected to win the award for her role in Boyhood, in which she plays Olivia, the mother of Mason, in a performance filmed over 12 years.
However, her speech was much more surprising. It began conventionally enough, with Arquette paying tribute to her cast members, family, and boyfriend Eric White, “my favourite artist in the world”.
It concluded with the impassioned words: “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 time to have wage equality once and for all. And equal rights for women in the United States of America.”
Her speech received wild cheers from the audience, with Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez getting out of their seats and waving their arms.
Equal pay is as controversial a subject in Hollywood as in the rest of America. The hacked Sony emails had revealed wide disparity between the pay of men and women in Hollywood. On American Hustle, the male stars were paid 9% of the profits, while Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence were on 7% each – despite the fact that Lawrence was an Oscar-winner at the time.
Backstage clutching her Oscar, Arquette repeated her call for equality in Hollywood. “It is time for us. Equal means equal.”
It was inexcusable that celebrities travelled the world preaching equal rights when at home “under the surface” women, gays and people of colour struggled to be treated equally, she said.
She called for a constitutional amendment, of federal laws, to end discrimination. Otherwise “we won’t have anything change”. The speech earned whoops from the media room.
The speech was immediately praised on social media, though some predicted that it could earn Arquette a rightwing backlash.
It was the second feminist moment of the night, after Reece Witherspoon used Instagram to promote #AskHerMore, designed to encourage the media to ask female actors on the red carpet weighter questions than the hardy perennial: “Who are you wearing?”
“Boyhood” supporting actress winner Patricia Arquette catapulted gender equality and the wage gap between men and women to the forefront of the media landscape while accepting her award at the Oscars on Sunday.
“To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights,” Arquette said in her speech. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”
Those remarks touched off a debate that advocacy groups hope will rally the public to their cause and will put pressure on legislators, particularly at the federal level, to pass laws designed to end income discrimination. They note that women on average make 78 cents for every dollar a man earns, and the gap widens with age and extends to nearly every industry.
“We were very pleased to see her use the bully pulpit to take a stand on that issue,” said Lisa Maatz, VP of government relations at the American Association of University Women. “That’s a huge audience. The only thing that could do more to get the issue of gender pay equality in front of the whole country is if she had given her speech during the Super Bowl half-time show.”
Arquette’s remarks inspired loud applause from the likes of Oscar-goers Ethan Hawke, Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez and instantly went viral as the millions of people watching the telecast at home weighed in. Women’s groups say that the only times they have seen more buzz around the topic of income disparity was when Lilly Ledbetter, the activist who sued Goodyear for paying her less than male counterparts, addressed the Democratic National Convention in 2008 and 2012 and when President Obama took up the mantle of equal pay in this year’s State of the Union address.
Initially, Maatz said the Twitter and social-media buzz around Arquette’s comments was largely positive, but remarks the actress made backstage at the Oscars press room, during which she implied that gay people and people of color should throw their weight behind the issue because of women’s past support for civil rights issues, struck many as tone deaf. The resulting backlash has been intense.
Slate’s Amanda Marcotte wrote that Arquette’s comments ignored the fact that lesbians and women of color also struggle with the issue of pay inequality.
“That’s a troubling message to send at any point, but it’s particularly disturbing right now, when some of the ugliest attacks on women’s rights, particularly when it comes to reproductive health care access, are aimed at low-income women who are disproportionately women of color,” wrote Marcotte.
The Nation’s Dave Zirin also faulted the Oscar winner for getting her history wrong.
“Saying ‘we fought for you, now you fight for us’ implies that battles against racism, anti-LGBT bigotry and other forms of oppression owe a massive debt to the heroism of straight white, middle- and upper-class women,” he wrote.
Activists hope that the furor over Arquette’s subsequent comments won’t drown out her message.
“Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished,” said Maatz. “There was a lot of truth and passion behind her statement. She’s not an expert, she’s not a policy wonk who lives and breaths the ins and outs of this issue. She said what she felt, even though she may not have articulated it perfectly.”
The actress herself has also tried to clarify her remarks, taking to Twitter Monday to argue she had not meant to be exclusionary.
“I have long been an advocate for the rights of the #LBGT community. The question is why aren’t you an advocate for equality for ALL women?,” she tweeted, adding, “Wage equality will help ALL women of all races in America. It will also help their children and society.”
Pay equality hasn’t been an issue that’s been widely discussed at awards shows and on red carpets, but it’s one that has the entertainment industry’s attention after leaked Sony Pictures emails revealed that actresses such as Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence earned less than their male co-stars.
“I don’t know if the speech would have happened had there not been the leaks of those emails highlighting that Hollywood is paying women less,” said Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center.“One of the things that’s hard about fighting pay discrimination is it’s difficult to get hard numbers.”
In the aftermath of Arquette’s speech, groups such as the American Association of University Women have used social-media platforms to draw attention to her comments while simultaneously offering statistics about the pay gap.
Not everyone has been receptive. There have been snarky commentaries, such as one Washington Examiner op-ed entitled “Female millionaire claims American women don’t have equal rights,” that imply that Arquette’s wealth nullifies her message.
Maatz vehemently disagrees with that logic.
“People should get paid the same wages for the same work,” she said. “Even women who are making millions of dollars, are making millions of dollars less than their male counterparts.”