The danger of pronouns: Patricia Arquette’s relationship problem

In her Academy Award acceptance speech, Patricia Arquette, made the error of exclusion, even in her attempt to advocate for equality. In a clearly crafted statement, she said,

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.

The question is who is the “we” she is claiming to be a part of? Is it we Americans? Is it we “taxpayers,” we “citizens?” Is it women? And if it is women, who is the “everybody else” that she refers to fighting for?

Her backstage press room comments only made the “we” and, in this case, the added “us” more confusing.

It’s time for women. Equal means equal. The truth is the older women get, the less money they make. The highest percentage of children living in poverty are in female-headed households. It’s inexcusable that we go around the world and we talk about equal rights for women in other countries and we don’t [have them],” she said. “It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.

In this comment, the “we” appears to change. Here, she seems to have redefined “we,” but who does she mean is “talking about equal rights for women in other countries?” It’s hard to know.

It’s the final sentence in her statement that has raised the most ire around the web when she entreated that “all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.” One has to assume that, in this case, the “we” and “us” refer to women who are not gay and not people of color. As a lesbian, am I included in the people others have fought for, i.e. gay, or the people who need fighting for, i.e. women? And where do lesbians of color fit in? What about trans women of color, the demographic who are among the people with the fewest rights of anyone who lives in the United States?

Many have posited that this is another example of feminism’s failure to include anyone who is not a white, cisgender, heterosexual woman. I recognize how, since the first wave of feminism in the 1800s, feminism has been steeped in white privilege and, in some instances, intentionally exclusionary of people of color, lesbians, and trans women. I also believe that, in most instances, this exclusion is because the speaker/writer/activist does not have significant relationships with people different than themselves.

I don’t know much about Patricia Arquette, about her story, or her experiences. I believe that she was sincere in her efforts to advocate for women’s equality. I also believe that when Arquette said “we” she was ignorant of who she was excluding, that she thought she was speaking about and for all women.

Arquette’s error did not come from an intention to exclude, but rather from her failure to be in relationship with women who are not like her. If she had listened to the stories of other women and truly understood the inequality faced by all women, she would have crafted a much different statement, one that did not posit women against each other in “we” and “them,” but one that came from her sense of accountability to her relationships.

That’s the problem with pronouns. Pronouns demand relationships. For me to use pronouns such as “we” and “us” responsibly, I have to be in relationship with those I’m including under the pronoun umbrella.

As a white lesbian woman, I have made a personal commitment to forge those relationships, to learn how the struggles of a Latina lesbian diverge from mine, how the discrimination faced by a trans woman is different from mine as a lesbian, how an African American woman’s fight for pay equity starts in a whole other place than mine, how a women with disabilities experiences barriers every day that I never have to face. It’s not easy and I can’t say I’m always successful. But when I am, I am richer for it.

And even then, after I have a deep understanding of these differences, and feel I can speak about them in a responsible and accountable way, I try to use caution when using the word “we” — when I dare speak for others. Because, when it comes down to it, I can really only ever speak for myself.

I hope Patricia Arquette uses this lesson to develop those deep, and incredibly rewarding, relationships. She’ll be better for it and so might ALL women in the struggle for equality.

Categories: Justice, Women's Lives

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