I was watching the Oscars last night when Patricia Arquette busted out some equal-pay feminism in her acceptance speech.
"To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else's equal rights," Arquette said, her voice intensifying. "It is our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America!"
I was hooting and hollering too much, I assume, because I got shushed. Apparently some other people in the room wanted to hear what else was being said or whatever.
So it was with some confusion that I saw backlash later on the Twitts about her. It seemed to be of the intersectionality sort of criticism. Also known as the Oppression Olympics. Not to make light of it but look, we all come with various attributes that confer privileges upon us in this society we inhabit. Most of us have one or two attributes that confer the opposite. Some unlucky folks have a pretty tough menu of biases slanting against them. So yeah, there seemed to be a drumbeat of Twitterage against Patricia Arquette's immense privilege of wealth, whiteness and heteronomativity. I thought at first that this was undeserved, based on what she said from the stage...it's the Oscars for goodness sake, of course they are all white and perfect and immensely rich.
Then today I finally happened upon her expanded backstage comments. From this account:
"The truth is: even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America, right under the surface, there are huge issues that are applied that really do affect women," she mused. "And 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."
Look, I've spent a lot of time in my life feeling sorry for myself. I get it. It is really, really easy to focus narrowly on that one aspect, attribute, experience, factor or misfortune that leaves the self at apparent disadvantage. And it is correspondingly easy to forget all about all the other factors and attributes that have conveyed immense privileges upon our lives.
This is not solved by the data, of course. Firstly, because we can all pick and choose which truthy stat we want to brandish. Is it equal pay? Very easy to brandish the generally accepted, broad brush stats for men versus women. And very easy to ignore that women of color are even more screwed than woman not of color. Easy to have no idea whatsoever how well minority men are paid relative to women not of color. Or what being gay confers in terms of salary.
And it is incredibly seductive to argue the anecdote. Well, Oprah! And J.Lo. And Eddie Murphy! And FFS Neil Patrick Harris is the Master of Ceremonies for goodness sake! They are sitting right there, so therefore why would anyone think of how their respective skin tones and desired life-partner would have anything to do with equal pay for women, eh?
Academic science is no different my friends. If this highly public case makes the intersectionality issue clearer to you than it has ever been, do try to turn that inwards.
We run across these examples on the blog all the time, of course. Whether we're discussing the struggles of women in science, the Ginther report, outing yourself to search committees or thesis advisors, the Baby Boomer hegemony of NIH Grant funding, postdoctoral pay rates or the evils of PIs with too many grants, the issues are the same.
"Sure, sure, there are these other biases in careers. But what is REALLY important is that I, the speaker, haven't experienced* any of those advantages that adhere to my classes and characteristics. And let me tell you about my specific set of life events that prove that really, I personally have been at huge disadvantage. So it is totally misplaced to talk about the general advantages of my characteristic X because the anecdote of me proves that X is much less important than this totally other thing that I happen to suffer from."
At this point one or the other of you, DearReader, may suspect I am talking about you in particular. Naturally, I am not. This is a common theme. Very common.
It is something that I have suffered from in my life and continue to do so. I have felt immensely sorry for myself a lot over the years.
Like many of you, I can claim one or two disadvantages within a context of immense privileges when it comes to pursuing the career of academic science. Like many of you, I CANNOT HELP BUT IGNORE MY PRIVILEGES AND PITY MYSELF ABOUT MY HARDSHIPS. Like many of you, I feel compelled to speak out about perceived injustices in the world. Like many of you, some of those injustices I speak about happen to be ones that I think affect me. Like many of you, some of those injustices I speak about do not happen to affect me in any direct way.
And, like many of you and Patricia Arquette, I often speak about injustices in a way that appears to ignore the fact that other people have it a lot worse.
Social media has a way of helping us to remember that other people have it even worse. And that trying to recruit others to help you in your fights, without ever appearing** to be that concerned about their fights comes across as selfish and tone deaf.
*of course you have, you just think that this is totally normal and average and deserved, and thus not worthy of inclusion in any discussion.
**For all I know Patricia Arquette is a huge fighter for underrepresented groups, including ethnic minorities and LGBT folks. But her comments certainly didn't convey that.
The tldr; version of this post: