Let Me Fix That For You: A Dramaturge Explains What's Wrong With Patricia Arquette's Speech
In my former life, I was, among many other things, a dramaturge for young playwrights. In theater, a dramaturge is responsible for supporting the work of the playwright by doing research when necessary to ensure the play is historically and culturally correct. My job was to dig beyond the surface of the words to uncover deeper meanings and intentions.
I had to anticipate what the audience would take away from the dialogue and from character actions, and make sure that it aligned with what the playwright wanted them to take away. It wasn't an easy job. Playwriting is very personal, and often the writers created dialogue from their own experiences and perspectives.
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They didn't always understand when I explained to them about a particular word being offensive, or a gesture being demeaning. They'd often fight me on it at first, defensive at my note, but usually by the next rehearsal they would have had a chance to think it over, and make a non-emotional decision about what to do with the line of dialogue.
The skills I perfected as a dramaturge have been useful in my personal life, too. I have the ability to find the real root of most issues, even beyond the emotions. I thought that it'd be helpful for me to pull out my old dramaturge hat to explain why so many people are upset with Patricia Arquette's backstage at the Oscars comments that followed up her speech on the main stage.
"Every Woman Who Gave Birth"
First, a little background. Patricia Arquette won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. While at the podium accepting her award, 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."
I have to admit, when she gave that rousing speech, and then the camera panned to Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez in the audience cheering, I got excited, too. Yes! Wage equality matters! Yes! Women deserve equal rights! However, when I put on my dramaturge hat (and really, take off my "I'm a woman who gave birth to a citizen of the nation" hat), there are some glaring problems with this statement that, if I were Patricia Arquette's dramaturge, I'd have to address with her.
Let's look at this line:
"To every woman who gave birth to…"
Does this mean that women who are not mothers are excluded from this right to wage equality? Wait. Stop. Please just read that back one more time.
Maybe she didn't mean to leave non-mothers out of her statement, but she did. She is clearly referring to mothers in this line of dialogue, so it makes sense that it resonated with me. I'm a mother. I'm her target audience for that statement."Everyone Else's Rights"
Let's go to the next line:
"We have fought for everybody else's equal rights."
As a mother and a Black woman, I can really connect with this. I'm used to being a martyr and have great experience using the guilt tactic. I'm not being trite; I'm being honest. "I do everything around here for everyone! I cook, I clean, I work, I take care of the kids, I take care of my husband, I volunteer at the school! The least you can do is take out the trash!"
Whether or not Patricia meant it that way, by bringing up what "we've" done for other people, she's creating a pedestal, and placing those of us who gave birth to those citizens of the nation on it. We deserve for you to fight for us! Look at all we did for you!
I don't believe that it was Ms. Arquette's goal to position herself and all mothers as martyrs, but her words don't convey that. Her words, the things that she said in her speech, they mean different things to different audiences, and as the person who has a large platform on which to say those words, she has to be aware of the way that different members of her audience will react. Yes, even women who aren't mothers.
If I had been Patricia's dramaturge, I would have cut the whole first line, leaving only, "It's our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America," and then moving into thanking the crew. And scene."All Women In America
Now, let's dig into her backstage interview answer. Among other things, Patricia Arquette said:
"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."
Okay, so, let's start with "all the women in America." That's great! That means Black women, White women, Asians, Latinas, transgender women—all of us, right? Well, it could have, if Patricia hadn't continued on, separating out different groups. Gay people? People of color? Does that mean I can't be a gay, Black woman? I have to pick one?
Based on that statement (and remember, I'm wearing my dramaturge hat), many people in the audience listening to that dialogue could deduce that "all the women in America" is referring to all of the women who are not men (which I think is correct), who are not gay, and who are not of color. Who does that leave? White women. Who, we know from her earlier speech, are moms.
And then, there's that mom guilt thing again, with "... that we've all fought for to fight for us now." Hmm. Okay. So, haven't any of these people fought for y'all before? If you want to create allies, you should choose better lines of dialogue—lines which would endear people to you, rather than throwing in their face the work that you've done on your behalf, and insinuating that they've never fought on your behalf.
From a dramaturge's standpoint, Patricia Arquette's speech was extremely effective if the audience she was hoping to move were white American moms. If the plan was to get all feminists pumped up, and all people on her team, her dialogue wasn't effective.
In reading her words again, it became obvious that I'm not the type of "all women" that is on her team. I'm the others. The folks that she has fought for (?) and now I owe her (?). I'm not offended. But I'm also not going to jump on her bandwagon.
Words mean different things to different people. They are incredibly powerful tools of progress and connectivity, but they can also be outrageously divisive and oppressive. Those of us who have the great gift of having a stage, or a platform, or a podium in which to spout these words, also have the great task of being responsible for them and how they make our audiences feel. Or hire a dramaturge. They'll help you get it right.
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