Famous White Women: Stop Saying Other Oppressed Groups Have It Better

Add Madonna to the list of prominent white, female cultural figures who think women have it “worse” than people of color and gay people. In an interview with Out magazine last week, her Madgesty had some real wisdom to drop about what women face as they get older. But then she veered into sounding a lot like Patricia Arquette after the Oscars.

Madonna declares, “Gay rights are way more advanced than women’s rights. People are a lot more open-minded to the gay community than they are to women, period.” For women, she feels, the situation has hardly improved since 1983. “It’s moved along for the gay community, for the African-American community, but women are still just trading on their ass. To me, the last great frontier is women.”

Coming from Madonna, the analysis seems significant. I ask her to elaborate. “Women are still the most marginalized group,” she says. “They’re still the group that people won’t let change.” To be a successful woman, she asserts, “you must fit into this box: You must behave this way, dress this way.”

As the Out article notes, this holds true for Madonna, who has been scrutinized and pigeonholed by the press for her appearance for decades now. It’s no coincidence in my mind that both Arquette and Madonna are “older” by the standards of their brutally ageist industries. The more I talk to feminists of all ages, the more I understand that many women of all backgrounds share a terror of getting  — or resentment about being — older precisely because of the way age renders women invisible and extraneous to many segments in our society.

To empathize with Madonna and Arquette for a moment, I imagine they feel they are facing a particular kind of discrimination that probably makes social movements with visible activist fronts and banner-waving campaigns for change seem almost enviable. It’s true: there’s no “united coalition of older white ladies who don’t want to be treated as over the hill” raising funds on Indiegogo so they can hold rallies on the steps of their local city halls.

But to follow that thought to the conclusion that “women have it worse” is a huge mistake, as anyone familiar with the controversial but useful term “Oppression Olympics” knows.  Unlike people who believe we can never compare oppressions, I think there are a great many discussions that we ought to be free to engage in, in terms of teasing out the realities of different kinds of structural oppression. What is it like for me? What’s it like for them?

Where those conversations cease being useful, though, is where they begin to pit oppressions against each other in competition. Round one: ageism vs. ableism. Round 2: sexism vs. racism. To do this is to compare apples to oranges. More importantly, to engage in Oppression Olympics rhetoric is to erase the many people who fall into multiple categories, who cannot split one facet of themselves off from another. This is Intersectionality 101, and it’s something Madonna would do well to understand.

And she is capable of understanding it. As Imani Gandy wrote about Arquette, “Any claim that she’s ‘just an actress’ is actually rather anti-feminist. It implies that she is incapable of critical thought and incapable of growth in her feminist praxis.” Indeed, Madonna and Arquette may not be well-versed in social justice theory. They may express themselves on certain issues better through their art than they do through quick media interviews, and we certainly shouldn’t expect them to be advanced, Audre Lorde-spouting feminist wisdom-fonts. But we also shouldn’t assume that they can’t learn, or outgrow their mistakes.

I imagine, although I don’t know the truth, that Madonna’s recent comments about gender speak to her pain, her exhaustion at being judged in a vicious and gendered way over the course of a lengthy sojourn in the public eye. I know that the day in and day out of any kind of bigotry can be tiring, and I imagine that’s why she’s speaking out about it in this round of press.

Still, we can’t just let her comments go by without saying something about why they’re misguided. Gandy continues:

And finally, there are white folks who have never even thought about the intersection of gender and race (or sexual orientation or gender identity) in their approach to feminism. And you know what? That’s fine. It was only a few years ago, thanks to extensive reading and researching, that I was able to put the term “intersectionality” to my life experience. Not knowing all the feminist terminology is nothing to be embarrassed about. But that lack of knowledge certainly does present an opportunity. And if when presented with that opportunity, White Feminists™ choose to ignore it, then that says something about how invested they are in equality for “all women” as opposed to equality for white women.

So I’d like to remind anyone who thinks Madonna and Arquette are “right on” that they’re not, entirely. Yes, we should talk more about how the entertainment industry treats women artists, and the way that age factors into that treatment. But surely we can do this without putting down the biases and oppressions other people and groups face.