Patricia Arquette’s Oscars acceptance speech was always going to incite a Twitter orgasm. In a world where we’re all so distracted sharing cat photos and mourning the defunct confectionary of our youth, a celebrity demanding equality still happily energises us.
Unquestionably there’s a positive tale here about a woman using her few moments in the sun to make a worthy political statement. Rather than loquaciously thanking the supernatural – yes, I’m looking at you McConaughey – Arquette used her powers for good. For the kind of propaganda that I’ll readily champion.
If only that were the whole story.
There’s a relevant question to be asked here about why we need a celebrity to bring such issues to our attention. About why feminism, why equality, are only ever palatable, are only ever newsworthy, when celebrities are the ones to alert us to women’s tougher/poorer/riskier journey.
Equally it’s worth asking why we talk so little about the gobsmacking irony of Arquette’s plea being made at an event watched largely for the Westminster Dog Show-style parade of gorgeous coat-hangers. A night where success for a lady centres on dodging a Frock Shock list and complying with this week’s arbitrary standards of beauty, of style.
The aspect of Arquette’s speech that interested me most, however, is how her comments have been reported. About the extraneous information her equality appeal has been coupled with.
Arquette won her award for her performance in Boyhood, a film where she dared to – as a Salon.com article termed it – “age gracefully” across the course of 12 years.
Even prior to her highly-anticipated win, one particularly perceptive Academy member pre-empted, “it’s a bravery reward. It says, ‘You’re braver than me. You didn’t touch your face for 12 years. Way to freakin’ go!'”
This ageing gracefully refrain is, of course, very well-worn territory. A recent article on Rebecca Gibney reminded us that she’s apparently doing it. Ditto recent stories on Halle Berry. Naomi Watts. Melissa Gilbert. Helen Mirren. Julianne Moore.
What the hell does this even mean? Can one age disgracefully? More so, is this not the same very sexist rubbish Arquette is railing against?
Not only is grace a word underpinned by narrow – and classist – connotations of elegance and refinement, but the never-spoken definition centres on looking one’s age only if that age is a good decade or two younger than one’s non-Hollywood age-peers.
Accordingly, cosmetic surgery needs to be subtle. Constant maintenance is key: a wholesale do-over means we’re less able to deny that it’s nature at play and it’s much harder to play coy about our fetishization of youth and our contempt for public ageing.
Renee Zellwegger therefore, not only failed to age with “grace”, but in displaying a clearly altered face she exposed how very vacuous and contradictory we are and reminded us – in true firebrand style – that regardless of whether a woman looks good, looks bad, looks different or whether she just says f*** it and wears a swan, that she will be judged using the most shallow of criteria.
Criteria which, while upheld, will always work to subordinate us.
Patricia Arquette made a handful of really good and necessary points in her acceptance speech. Alas, she did so inside an industry that not only sells fantasy, sells dreams, but continuously repeats a deluge of lies, misnomers and disingenuous rhetoric about gender, ageing and beauty standards.
And did so at an event that for many people is only ever watched for the dresses.
February 24, 2015
© Lauren Rosewarne