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The Problem With Patricia Arquette's Oscar Speech

Robyn Beck/Getty

On Sunday night, Patricia Arquette won an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her performance in the 2014 film Boyhood. She deserved it; hers was certainly a unique and demanding role. Nonetheless, her acceptance speech veered into odd political territory.

The Oscars have traditionally served as platforms for the political opinions of various artists over the years, with Marlon Brando famously declining his best actor award for political reasons in 1973. So Arquette was by no means out of line in airing her sentiments about, inter alia, women’s wages and women’s role in the economy; it’s just that the ideas she proposed were a little off-kilter.

The thrust of Arquette’s speech seems to have been an appeal for gender equality. She thanked “every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation,” declaring that “we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights!” The progressive internet rejoiced, and so did Meryl Streep; a meme was born. But Arquette’s words warrant scrutiny.

The feminist project in general tends to be suspicious of attributing women’s political significance solely to their role as mothers, as in old-fashioned reactionary visions of Republican Motherhood. Further, addressing people as taxpayers is a rather unsavory (and typically right wing) habit that advances the notion people are worth what they pay in taxes. Children, among others, are a direct challenge to the pay-in-cash-out way of conceptualizing the destination of resources: people are intrinsically worthy of the necessities of life, regardless of what they pay in taxes. Programs that attempt to distribute resources based on tax payments rather than need generally don’t shake out in women’s favor, as is the case with child tax credits versus child allowances.

And there’s more. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and to fight for equal rights for women in America,” Arquette went on, evidently referring to the struggle to match women’s wages to men’s in the American labor market. The gender wage gap certainly exists, with working women making on average 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. On the other hand, Wonkblog reports that the average CEO makes 350 times what the average worker does, and America still has no federally mandated living wage. Consider Wal-Mart’s well publicized wage hike, for example: If in 2016 all its lowest paid male and female employees make $10 per hour as pledged, none of them would be making enough to raise a child alone even in my disaster zone of a hometown in Tarrant County, Texas. For women to have any kind of genuine economic independence, wage equality will have to be predicated upon either a living wage or transfer programs that raise everyone’s income to a reasonable standard.

So, Arquette deserves praise for her work as an actress, and certainly for her effort to foreground women’s efforts and challenges in politics. Nonetheless, thinking outside the frame of taxpayers and equally low wages would be something worth fist-pumping over.