Feminism's Oppression Obsession Hurts Women

What women need is a broad progressive agenda, not identity politics


Patricia Arquette
ikrichter / Foter / CC BY

Poor Patricia Arquette. No doubt she thought that by sticking up for wage equality for women during her Oscars acceptance speech, she'd become a real-life heroine of the feminist movement. She'd be showered with accolades, hosannas, and you-go-girl whoops.

Instead she's encountering ridicule and contempt that feminists typically reserve for white, male, Fox newscasters.

Why? Because, without realizing it, she's upset the oppression scorecard on which feminists' game of identity politics depends. But instead of pillorying Arquette for not knowing how to play, may be it's time for feminists to rethink the game.

This is not to say that Arquette's remarks weren't weird. They were. First, during her acceptance speech, she suggested that women deserve wage equality with men because they give "birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation." But where does this ova theory of value leave non-procreating women who fail to secure Uncle Sam's future revenue stream?

Then, backstage, she went into full Joan-of-Arc mode, demanding that "gay people, and the people of color" join her fight to end wage discrimination against women "once and for all." This is a very odd statement coming from a lady so rich that she actually chooses to forego wages. One can debate whether Hollywood's pay scale discriminates against female actors, but that's pretty irrelevant when it comes to Arquette. She has joked that she got paid less for Boyhood, a brilliant indie movie 12 years in the making that won her the Oscar, than she paid her dog walker. Why did she do it? Because it was a satisfying role that she could amply subsidize with lucrative gigs on TV shows such as CSI and Medium. In other words, she willingly traded monetary income for psychic income, a "luxury"—her word not mine—that the vast majority of men in the world—white, Asian, black, Latino, native American—can't afford, forget about women. If anything, instead of complaining, she should be marveling at a system that gives her such options.

But of course, feminists are not criticizing her for under-appreciating what she's got, because that would be tantamount to endorsing patriarchy. They are instead accusing her of "structural erasure," "intersectionality failure," and other feminist sins that are all fancy ways of saying she spoke out of turn.

In the feminist critical theory dogma, there is a hierarchy of oppression that Arquette apparently failed to respect when she asked "gay people and people of color" to support her fight for gender wage equality, given that the oppression they face is greater than hers. Also as per the dogma, she failed to appreciate that curing wage discrimination against (white) women like her would do little to cure it against, say, Latinas or black women, since it is compounded in their case by their racial membership. So suggesting that they drop their struggles and join hers bespeaks a tinny self-absorption, they accused.

Feminists may be right about that. But what they fail to understand is that if Arquette has fallen prey to what might be called the narcissism of oppression, it's their fault—or at least the fault of the identity politics that feminism has encouraged.

Identity politics instructs people to define their politics not by reference to general moral principles of justice and rights, but some shared experience of oppression. It divides people into myriad oppressed groups, each jockeying for power to secure its own interests against others—not put in place neutral rules that work for everyone (because such rules, in their thinking, only serve to entrench "existing power relations" and "structural marginalization").

The problem with identity politics is two-fold: One, given that everyone is oppressed in one respect or another, any group can invent a plausible narrative of oppression. Even white men increasingly see themselves as oppressed given that affirmative action policies favor other groups over them in admissions and hiring. In the game of identity politics, every group thinks only of the oppression it confronts rather than the opportunities it enjoys in order to move up the oppression scorecard. A balanced account of one's life and identity has become a ticket to marginalization, which is why it doesn't even occur to someone like Arquette that, all in all, she has it pretty good. Feminists can lecture Arquette and her ilk to "check their privilege" all they want, but it's unlikely that they'll convince them to take a backseat to other groups.

But the bigger problem with identity politics is not that it lets privileged people claim oppression, but that it prevents oppressed people from actually getting redress. That's because often the latter's main problems stem not from targeted discrimination but the unintended consequences of social policy.

For example, feminists like to point out that Latinas earn 54 cents for every dollar a white man earns (and white women 78 cents). But one huge contributing factor no doubt is this nation's immigration policy. Harsh deportation rules have produced a disproportionate number of Latino families headed by desperate single moms whose limited employment prospects force them to accept any job they can get. Black women likewise make 64 cents. However, that too is less due to discrimination by white employers and more due to the fact that, thanks to harsh drug sentencing laws, incarceration rates for black men are six times higher than the national average. One in every six black men is in jail. This means that many black moms, just like their Latina sisters, don't have the luxury of fully building their work skills and weighing their job options. Equal-pay mandates won't help either group's situation nearly as much as fixing America's broken immigration system or ending the drug war (or at least abandoning minimum sentencing laws that force judges to hand disproportionately long jail terms for minor drug offenses).

Identity politics and its oppression obsession prevents the emergence of a broader progressive reform agenda—even though that'll do much more to advance the cause of equality than directly chasing down every real or imagined experience of discrimination.

Arquette's feminist critics should focus less on her gauche Oscar comments and more on the lopsided framework that produced them.

 This column originally appeared in The Week. You can find the rest of Ms. Dalmia's Week archive here.