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At Oscars, wage equality gets its 15 minutes of fame

As she accepted the Academy Award for best supporting actress, Patricia Arquette spoke on issues of wage equality during last night’s Oscars ceremony. AFP/Getty Images

Today, for 15 minutes or so, we’ve been talking about wage equality. This is partly because there’s an interesting bill on Beacon Hill that attempts to address the issue in practical terms. But it has more to do with Patricia Arquette. She arrived at the Oscars prepared for her best-supporting-actress acceptance speech: No flustered faux modesty or shameful forgetting of significant others’ names. She put on a pair of reading glasses and pulled out a piece of paper.

Let me pause here to suggest that maybe her use of reading glasses was the real revolutionary act, a sign that female Hollywood stars can embrace the passage of time. But that wasn’t Arquette’s point. Her point came after she had read through her full list of requisite thank-yous, and nearly run out of air: “To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we (breath) have (breath) 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!”


Voluminous cheers from a roomful of people in tuxedoes and $15,000 dresses. Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez, sitting beside each other in the front row, had a moment. Arquette looked self-satisfied as she was whisked off the stage.

And almost immediately, the Internet started devouring itself. There were cheers, calls for Arquette to run for office — sorry, Elizabeth Warren, you’re yesterday’s news — a flurry of men’s rights counterattacks, a sprinkling of misogyny. (A commenter named Jim R., on a website called “Twitchy,” said wage equality would be fine so long as women forevermore promised “not to be able to use kids as a ‘get out of work free’ card,” and also “put stuff in the top of the closets themselves. It’s called a stepladder!!!”)


And even those inclined to agree with Arquette leapt into a furious parsing of her 44 words, plus a few more clumsy thoughts she added when addressing reporters backstage, along the lines of how the people who fought for gay rights and civil rights should now turn around and fight for women, because it’s women’s turn now.

Granted, this is not the most politic way to bring others to your cause; Arquette’s publicist was probably having a coronary. And granted, in the several minutes before she had to cede the spotlight to a half-naked Neil Patrick Harris and a penitent John Travolta, Arquette did not acknowledge the full portrait of inequality in the America, the disproportionate number of minorities in low-wage jobs, the fact that in some other countries and cultures, women have it worse.

Was that seriously what anyone expected? A Hollywood actress in Ferragamo shoes is not going to be the ideal standard bearer for wage equality, though even Hollywood has wage and equality issues of its own. Everything’s relative. And, more to the point, everyone there is inflated. We scoff when stars try to force their way into politics, but then, we invest them with unnatural attention, cheer them for their charity work, hold them up as grand examples of humanity. Every six months or so, Vanity Fair puts out a cover story declaring Angelina Jolie the greatest person who ever lived.

Can we blame Arquette for wanting to take advantage of her brief moment under a Jolie-esque glare? She had a feeling, and a moment. She started a conversation. Now, give her a break, and take it from there.


Watch clips from the speech

Joanna Weiss can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.