#AskHerMore and #OscarsSoWhite are Not Separate Issues

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 our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America.

So proclaimed Best Supporting Actress winner Patricia Arquette at this year’s Oscar ceremony, after gaining the coveted trophy for her role in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Her speech immediately went viral, but as much as it received high-fives and righteous applause, including side-by-side ovations from legendary actor Meryl Streep and the iconic Jennifer Lopez, there were some on Twitter who gave Arquette the side-eye.

“Fighting for everybody else’s rights.” Doesn’t that presume that women’s rights don’t intersect with “everybody else’s rights,” whether this concerns #BlackLivesMatter or LGBTQ rights or a host of other issues?

If, by “women,” Arquette was narrowly focusing on white women, then yes, her statement would be highly problematic—given her assumptions that “gays and people of color” don’t include women in their movements. However, women of color—and Black women in particular—have been leading on several fronts, and have been doing so for centuries: from antislavery to anti-lynching to anti-colonialism to Civil Rights to anti-war to climate change to #BlackLivesMatter. We’ve been fighting for “everybody else’s rights” (even though we see ourselves in the “everybody”).

Yet, let any woman bring up street or sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, rape culture or pay equity and we are collectively told—as women (cis or transgender, white or of color)—to step behind the cisgender men, to bury our gendered concerns for the good of “everybody else.” While Arquette was most likely addressing the gender inequity that exists within the movie industry (and that’s why her statement resonated for the women in the audience), the issue extends to all other industries, and yes, all women—and when I say “all women,” I don’t mean “All the women are white, all the Blacks are men. …”

Within the context of “all women,” I can appreciate Arquette’s sentiment, even though she needs to be more intersectional in her approach. After all, her “feminist” moment was already preceded by the #AskHerMore campaign, led by fellow Oscar nominee Reese Witherspoon, who urged reporters on the Oscar red carpet to ask women more questions besides which designer gown they were wearing.  (A wonderful coup, I might add, for had Witherspoon not encouraged this, we may never have gotten the crucial information that the stunning Lupita Nyong’o—who was fabulously decked out in a Calvin-Klein pearl ensemble—is set to work with the accomplished Indian filmmaker Mira Nair; two women of color working on a film together as director and actor is a moment worth treasuring.)

Suddenly, women at the awards ceremony were being taken seriously, even though all the Best Picture nominees featured male-centered stories, while the film that won—Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)—encapsulates the self-absorption and insular theatrical world of white masculinity, which is perhaps why Oscar voters could relate. The one female director to have her film, Selma, in the line-up, Ava DuVernay, was not even among the contenders for Best Director. Actually, it is worth noting that the twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite sought to highlight DuVernay’s snub, which could also have easily been highlighted with #OscarsSoMale—as Ms. senior editor Michele Kort had already noted—considering that it was only last year that Black male director Steve McQueen received a Best Director nomination and took home the top prize for his celebrated 12 Years a Slave. Even within African American spaces, as represented by the NAACP Image Awards, Ava DuVernay, while recognized in the Best Director category, lost out to a man, Antoine Fuqua, who won for his inferior film The Equalizer.

In other words, #AskHerMore and #OscarsSoWhite are not mutually exclusive social movements. They call attention to the intersectional forms of oppression that continue to marginalize women and people of color, and those whose identities intersect these issues—women of color—experience the most invisibility. Ironically, the Oscar telecast worked overtime to represent people of color, as a steady parade of Black celebrities—Lupita Nyong’o, Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kevin Hart, Eddie Murphy, David Oyelowo, Idris Elba, Zoe Saldana, Terrence Howard and Oprah Winfrey—presented awards. Somehow, this supposedly made up for not being on the receiving end of awards, as if the lack of nominations for Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who starred in not one but two breakout roles, Belle and Beyond the Lights) and for David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo in Selma could be conveniently forgotten by such high-profile visibility. When the one Black woman, DuVernay, deserved a camera shot during the telecast’s panning of the audience in response to the powerful performance of John Legend and Common’s “Glory” from Selma, she, too, was rendered invisible for the sake of showcasing the tear-stained faces of others.

To be sure, the performance was stirring, and the representation of the Edmund Pettus Bridge with “marchers” lifting their voice in song reconnected us to a past that still has so much resonance. But what does it mean that DuVernay is once again erased, something that could have easily been remedied with one shot of her applauding John Legend and Common, whose song elevated the story she told in Selma? That the song “Glory” is the only Oscar award that her accomplished film received is a reminder of what James Baldwin once said in his essay “Many Thousands Gone”:

It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story.  It is a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear.

We have many stories to tell, and it is more than time  for Americans and the rest of the world to hear and see them. When Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu can only win big at the Oscars by telling white Anglo stories (often interpreted as “universal”), even though his “foreignness” can still be rendered as a “green card” punch line by Sean Penn; when Mexican Americans and other people of color are effectively erased from Best Picture nominees like Boyhood; and when anonymous Oscar voters think films like Selma “have no art” or that its cast and crew were too political for wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts … well, a parade of Black presenters cannot solve this whitewashing problem. Their very presence reminds us of the missing stories of people of color and of women who, incidentally, are “everybody else.”

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Oscars, Black & White, from Flickr user Mike Licht under license from Creative Commmons 2.0


Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.