TIME movies

Why Hollywood’s Diversity Problem Can’t Just Be Solved with Fancy Award Ceremonies and Gold Statues

Noble Johnson
John D. Kisch—Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images Publicity still of American actor Noble Johnson, 1920

For most of its history, Hollywood has worked hard to identify—and undermine—the work of black actors and filmmakers

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

Last Sunday’s Oscars have once again renewed debates over Hollywood’s diversity problem. “Not surprising that an organization who’s 94% White & 77% Male doesn’t recognize diverse talent,” one critic tweeted before the ceremony, using the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag that first trended last month, after the Academy announced its all-white list of nominees for best actor and actress, and snubbed director Ava DuVernay. Meanwhile, supporters of Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, who won for Best Director and Best Picture, argued that Hollywood was at least making progress. Iñárritu’s awards proved “compelling stories can be told by diverse talent,” Jack Rico wrote on NBC’s website the following day.

But recognizing black, Latino, and Asian talent has never been Hollywood’s problem. Hollywood has seldom overlooked the abilities of promising non-white filmmakers. In fact, for most of its history, Hollywood has worked hard to identify—and undermine—their work, which has been more detrimental to African American film than any Oscar snub. Keen to maintain its control over global film production, Hollywood wielded its political connections and economic might to establish systems that prevented independent black filmmakers from distributing their movies. When black filmmakers overcame these challenges, Hollywood responded by co-opting black cinema’s most marketable genres and directly competing with independent black film producers.

This history reaches back more than a century. When members of the first cohort of powerful American film producers, the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC),built up a national film market, they avoided offending their white audiences and censors in the South. That meant blacks wouldn’t be treated as equals either behind the camera or onscreen. Hollywood’s early producers were not members of the MPPC, but they gladly embraced and eventually strengthened these business policies as they battled their way to the top. When the first Hollywood blockbuster, Birth of a Nation debuted–a hundred years ago this month–Hollywood was already unmistakably invested in pleasing its white audiences at the expense of African Americans.

Fortunately, African Americans had their own cinema. It’s a little known fact, but long before the rise of Hollywood or better-known black filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux, black men and women began producing their own films. They developed sophisticated editing techniques, and invented new technologies for exhibiting motion pictures. In my book Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life I describe how African Americans such as Harry A. Royston toured the country in the 1890s with film exhibitions “put together to please a colored audience.” Just a few years later, filmmakers like Mr. and Mrs. Conley, and William G. Hynes produced motion pictures about black progress. These pioneers of black cinema were the children of former slaves, or were born into slavery themselves. Their motion pictures broadcast ideas about black progress and raised money for black churches and other institutions dedicated to the mission of “racial uplift.” By the early 1900s, African American film could be found throughout the country.

Hollywood studios were suspicious of any threat to their markets. With few exceptions, early Hollywood producers were unwilling to invest in black film, but they still wanted to lock out any competition. To do so, Hollywood played dirty. Hollywood studios forced theaters that wanted the screen their films into “block booking,” which meant the theater could only screen films by their production houses. Later, the big players, including Paramount, Universal, and Fox, directly purchased their own theaters and conspired to corner the market by marginalizing the opportunities of independent producers to distribute their pictures, and by closing in on profits of “second run” theaters–the only places that exhibited independent black films.

Independent black filmmakers continued to produce movies, but found themselves boxed in. To grow into an industry that could produce big-budget, feature films, black filmmakers would need bigger distribution markets. But as Hollywood tightened its grip on the channels of film distribution, filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux found it impossible to place their movies in enough theaters to earn back their money. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that Hollywood’s monopolistic practices violated US antitrust laws, but not before hundreds of independent black film companies had been destroyed.

In other cases, Hollywood muscled out black independents by making their most bankable actors sign non-competition agreements. In 1917, Noble Johnson, an African American actor who played Native American, Latino, and Asian characters in Hollywood movies, co-founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company. He produced and starred in three films before Universal demanded he disassociate himself from Lincoln Pictures or never work for Universal again. Johnson, who relied on his earnings from Universal to help finance his venture with Lincoln, had little choice but to resign. As the Lincoln Picture’s main draw, Johnson’s departure sounded a death knell to the company.

Despite the challenges that independent black producers faced, they proved there was a market for “race films.” Hollywood producers, having established a national (white) market for their films, began paying attention to the audiences they had ignored for decades. In the late 1920s, a growing number of Hollywood studios began producing “race films”; others toned down the virulent racism in their own films, and replaced white actors in blackface makeup with more African American performers. When the Great Depression hit, Hollywood, strapped for profits, doubled down on its efforts to woo over black audiences. The industry was still unwilling to offend the South, but after decades excluding African Americans actors, Hollywood producers could pitch featured roles as maids and butlers as “progress.” The 1939 film Gone with the Wind, and black actress Hattie McDaniel’s Academy award an Oscar for best supporting actress, exemplified Hollywood’s new inclusivity.

Hollywood’s strategies in Mexico haven’t been all that different from its efforts to squelch independent black film in the US. From World War I, when US films first came to dominate Mexico’s film markets, to NAFTA, the industry has relied on its powerful lobbies, tactics like block booking, and the recruitment of talented Mexican actors and filmmakers to work on Hollywood films. None of this, of course, is any secret. “Freed of fences and trade spikes, more folks in foreign countries will want to buy what Americans make and market,” Jack Valenti, former president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPPA) wrote in support of NAFTA in 1993. Today, Hollywood controls about 90% of Mexico’s box office.

Without a doubt, Hollywood has a diversity problem, but one that can’t just be solved with fancy award ceremonies and gold statues. Above all, Hollywood is an industry motivated by profits, with a century-long history of aggressive and monopolistic business practices. So next time the Academy hands out its awards, we should remember to ask ourselves–who’s really winning the prize?

Cara Caddoo is the author of “Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life (Harvard University Press, 2014). She teaches at Indiana University, Bloomington.

TIME Television

Tig Notaro Wants to Be Your Next Oscars Host

Awards Night Ceremony - 2015 Sundance Film Festival
Michael Loccisano—Sundance/ Getty Images Host Tig Notaro speaks onstage at the Awards Night Ceremony during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival at the Basin Recreation Field House on January 31, 2015 in Park City, Utah.

"I’ve been known to perform topless just like Mr. NPH did"

If you thought Neil Patrick Harris’s hosting gig at last weekend’s Oscars was a snooze, you might want to get on board with Tig Notaro’s campaign to land the job in 2016.

The comedian has written 11 reasons why she should host next year, and while the letter is in jest and not all of the reasons are persuasive (“I’ve only seen Grease and Star Wars, so after-party chitchat will be a definite strength”), her turn on the mic would definitely be worth tuning in for.

Notaro’s fame got a boost in 2012 with some help from Louis C.K. when she did a landmark stand-up set about her breast cancer diagnosis (it may not seem like great material for comedy, but listen for yourself: it’s incredible). She pushed the material even further last year by performing shirtless, the scars from her double mastectomy visible. She counts this as reason #4 that she’s prepared for the Academy Awards: “I’ve been known to perform topless just like Mr. NPH did.”

Notaro self-deprecatingly listed her limited experience writing for and hosting awards shows, but also played up her visual appeal: “I’m drop-dead cute in a suit,” and “Whenever I tour [through] middle America, inevitably 3 people a week tell me I look EXACTLY like award show host favorite Ellen Degeneres, to which I respond, ‘Oh, so basically you can tell that I don’t have a boyfriend.'”

Sure, her dry jokes wouldn’t be everyone’s taste. But maybe that’s the problem the Oscars has run into in recent years—hosts trying too hard to hit that middle-of-the-road sensibility. Maybe what we need is a little more quirk. After all, the weirdest person at the Academy Awards this year (Lady Gaga) was also the most lauded.

TIME Crime

Eddie Ray Routh Found Guilty of Murdering American Sniper Chris Kyle

The 27-year-old was sentenced to life in prison

A Texas jury on Tuesday found Eddie Ray Routh guilty of the murder of American Sniper author Chris Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Routh, 27, a former Marine, admitted to killing ex-Navy SEAL Kyle and Littlefield at a shooting range in 2013, but professed his innocence because of supposedly suffering a psychotic break. Erath County district attorney Alan Nash told the jury to ignore Routh’s insanity defense, arguing that his apparent episodes of mental instability were caused by alcohol and marijuana abuse, according to the Associated Press.

“I am tired of the proposition that if you have mental illness that you can’t be held responsible for what you do,” he said.

Routh’s defense attorney Warren St. John insisted that his client was battling schizophrenia, claiming that the mental disorder created a delusion that Kyle and Littlefield were going to kill him.

“He was not intoxicated, folks, he was psychotic,” he said.

The case, heard in Stephenville, Texas, attracted national interest in large part because of Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-nominated film adaptation of Kyle’s book about his four tours during the Iraq war, with the controversial movie grossing over $430 million worldwide.

Kyle was renowned as the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history with 160 confirmed kills.

Littlefield’s mother, Judy, expressed her relief at the guilty verdict outside the courtroom, “We’ve waited two years for God to give justice for us on the behalf of our son,” she said in a statement. “And as usual, God has been faithful and given us the verdict we want.”

MONEY Hollywood

Fifty Shades of Grey Box Office Already Tops 7 Best Picture Nominees Combined

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
Chuck Zlotnick—Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection Fifty Shades of Grey

In light of the glaring disconnect between the movies celebrated at the Academy Awards, and the movies that people actually pay money to see, the critique that the Oscars are out of touch seems more valid than ever.

The one overarching criticism of the 2015 Oscars isn’t exactly a new one. People have been complaining for years that the Academy Awards—who gets nominated, and who eventually wins—are generally too snobby, too elitist, and just plain too out of touch with mainstream American culture and the movie-going masses. This year, the near absence of minority nominees was especially glaring, noted by host Neil Patrick Harris’s joke that the night’s purpose was to honor “Hollywood’s best and whitest—sorry, brightest.”

“Members of the Academy have simply grown too old to appreciate, understand or even notice pop culture,” noted one USA Today column, citing data indicating that Oscar voters are not only past their prime (median age: 62) but also are overwhelmingly male and white.

As one film expert explained to the New York Times, the 2015 show gives much credence to the critique that the Academy Awards are snobby, and perhaps are growing increasingly irrelevant:

“It’s sad, but most people have to finally accept that the Oscars have become, well, elitist and not in step with anything that is actually popular,” said Philip Hallman, a film studies librarian at the University of Michigan. “No one really believes anymore that the films they chose are the ones that are going to last over time.”

For one indication of how out of touch the Oscars are with what fans want to see in theaters, look no further than how the current most popular film, Fifty Shades of Grey, compares at the box office with the Academy Awards’ darlings. Best Picture winner Birdman has taken in a total of $37 million in domestic ticket sales, while Boyhood—universally regarded as the runner-up in the category—did about $25 million at the box office in 2014. Together, that’s $62 million, or about two-thirds of the $94 million in revenues that Fifty Shades of Grey made in just four days around President’s Day weekend.

Overall, in less than two weeks, Fifty Shades of Grey has surpassed the $400 million mark in global ticket sales. Remove American Sniper—the one Best Picture nominee with truly blockbuster sales, to the tune of $320 million and counting—and the box office take of Fifty Shades already handily trumps that of the remaining seven Best Picture nominees combined. (Collectively, they’ve earned roughly $300 million in ticket sales, per BoxOfficeMojo.com.)

Based on this disconnect of the movies the Academy wants to celebrate and the films that the public actually wants to see, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that TV ratings for the show were exceptionally lackluster. The number of viewers dropped 16% compared with the year before, making for the fourth worst performance in four decades. Twitter usage related to the awards was down as well, by about 6%. Insult to injury: The show’s most tweeted moment didn’t feature a movie star or a new film, but was Lady Gaga singing a medley from The Sound of Music.

In the aftermath of the 2015 Oscars, which opened with a musical number in which Jack Black—star of Kung Fu Panda, Kung Fu Panda 2, and (soon) Kung Fu Panda 3, mind you—bashes Hollywood for focusing on box office results and pushing sequels and superhero films, James Gunn, writer and director of Guardians of the Galaxy, took to Facebook to defend comic book movies and, by extension, popular movies in general.

“The truth is, popular fare in any medium has always been snubbed by the self-appointed elite,” Gunn wrote on Monday:

“What bothers me slightly is that many people assume because you make big films that you put less love, care, and thought into them then people do who make independent films or who make what are considered more serious Hollywood films… If you, as an independent filmmaker or a ‘serious’ filmmaker, think you put more love into your characters than the Russo Brothers do Captain America, or Joss Whedon does the Hulk, or I do a talking raccoon, you are simply mistaken.”

Perhaps The Lego Movie—like Guardians, in the top five at the box office in 2014, but mostly snubbed at the Oscars—had the best response to the Academy’s elitism. The film was featured in what had to be the show’s Most “Awesome” Performance, with an wild and energetic version of “Everything Is Awesome” by Tegan and Sara and The Lonely Island. And in the middle of the song, dancers handed out “Oscars” built with yellow Lego bricks to the audience.

The move could be viewed as just some clever product placement, much like the movie itself. But it also might have sent a little message, along the lines of: Members of some elitist “Academy” aren’t the only ones who get to give out awards. Heck, anyone can make their own awards and hand them out however they please.

Isn’t that essentially what we’re doing when we plunk down good money to buy tickets to a movie?

TIME movies

See What American Sniper Chris Kyle’s Widow Brought to the Oscars

87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
Kevork Djansezian—Getty Images HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 22: Taya Kyle attends the 87th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 22, 2015 in Hollywood, California

A simple, moving tribute

Taya Kyle, the widow of American Sniper Chris Kyle, not only impressed at the Oscars on Sunday, she also brought with her a small memento to honor the late Navy SEAL: his dog tags.

As she made the rounds on the red carpet, Kyle was spotted clutching the tags and an accompanying metallic cross. She told ABC’s Robin Roberts that she wanted to represent her husband and “embrace everything that he should be here to do with me.”

The appearance at the Academy Awards was not easy for Kyle. In an emotional Facebook message posted hours before the Academy Awards, she wrote, “I am blessed to have my beautiful loving sister with me to hold my hand and dry my tears from what is sure to be an emotional evening.”

For the past two weeks, Kyle has also been at the murder trial of her husband’s killer and plans to continue attending the proceedings that were postponed until Tuesday due to icy weather in North Texas.

American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood, depicts the life of Chris Kyle, one of the U.S. military’s most lethal marksmen. The film has grossed nearly $430 million worldwide and was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (losing out to Birdman). It won the award for Best Sound Editing.

Read next: American Sniper Screenwriter on the Challenges of Adapting a Book Into a Movie

87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
Kevork Djansezian—Getty ImagesHOLLYWOOD, CA – FEBRUARY 22: A detailed view of the purse of Taya Kyle at the 87th annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on Feb. 22, 2015, in Hollywood
TIME movies

Sorry, Haters: America Loved Lady Gaga at the Oscars

87th Annual Academy Awards - Show
Kevin Winter—Getty Images Lady Gaga performs onstage during the 87th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on Feb. 22, 2015 in Hollywood, Calif.

The pop star goes from popular to praised

Some were skeptical when they heard Lady Gaga would be honoring the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music. After all, the star is better known for elaborate pop spectacles than for her vocal dexterity, and the movie’s songs demand a certain irony-free commitment it was unclear if Gaga could pull off.

But from the second she started singing a medley of songs from the 1965 Oscar-winning musical, it seened clear she was quite worthy of the honor. Even Julie Andrews, the star from the original film, praised Gaga for her performance.

And TIME readers agree, voting in a poll 97% to 3% that they loved the performance. Though Gaga’s performance seems to be one of the few uncontroversial aspects of an unpopular ceremony, it’s not too late to register your dismay, or hop on the Gaga bandwagon.

TIME Oscars

These Four Policy Issues Got Our Attention at the Oscars

Hollywood is never shy about sharing its thoughts on politics, especially on Oscar night. But after the acceptance speeches fade, what happens next? Here’s a look at the status of several issues raised at the Academy Awards ceremony Sunday night.

Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood,” on Equal Pay

The issue: The Pew Research Center estimates that women earn 84 percent of what men earn, though the gender pay gap has narrowed since the 1980s. This is the rare issue that also affects Hollywood. The 10 highest-paid actors were paid $419 million in 2013 while their female counterparts earned $226 million, barely half as much.

What Arquette 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 outlook: Legislation introduced last year would have made it illegal for companies to retaliate against employees who share how much they make, a key step in ensuring men and women are paid equally. It failed to pass the Senate and is dead in the current Republican Congress. Some states, such as Vermont, are tackling the issue, however.

Common and John Legend, “Selma,” on Racial Justice in the U.S.

The issue: Racial disparities persist decades after the events depicted in Selma. In their acceptance speech, singers John Legend and Common highlighted two: the high rate of incarceration among black men and changes in voting rights laws, such as requirements that voters show government ID at polling stations.

What Legend said: “We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now, the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today then were under slavery in 1850.”

The outlook: Protests over how police have handled black male suspects have given the cause momentum. The Eric Garner case helped inspire New York City officials to begin to rethink their approach to policing. Activists on the left and right are coming together to push for reforms to the criminal justice system, though voting rights legislation isn’t going anywhere in Congress.

Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, “Birdman,” on Immigration Reform

The issue: Immigration reform has been a hot button political issue for years. Millions of undocumented immigrants live in the U.S. and there’s widespread disagreement about how they should be addressed.

What Iñarritu said: “I want to dedicate this award for my fellow Mexicans, the ones who live in Mexico. I pray that we can build the government that we deserve. And the ones living in this country who are part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country, I just pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones who come before and built this incredible nation.”

The outlook: Immigration reform is a thorny issue, and legislators in Washington repeatedly have had trouble finding common ground. President Obama took action on his own, taking executive actions providing temporary legal status to millions of immigrants. Still, those actions remain contested in court and Congress isn’t likely to do much on this issue.

Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry, “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1,” on Veteran Suicide

The issue: Twenty-two veterans commit suicide everyday — a rate that more than double the rate in the general population. While the Veterans Affairs Department provides mental health services, mental health experts say many the veteran culture makes many hesitant to take advantage of the resources.

What Kent said: “This immense and incredible honor goes to the veterans and their families who are brave enough to ask for help.” What Perry said: “I want to dedicate this to my son Evan Perry, we lost him to suicide, we should talk about suicide out loud.”

The outlook: President Obama recently signed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which creates an outreach system for veterans suffering from mental health issues and provides financial incentives to encourage psychiatric doctors to treat veterans. The law is a good start, but activists working to stem suicide say the issue requires more attention.

TIME celebrities

How Hollywood’s Finest Partied After the Oscars Ended

The most popular responses were eat, drink and party

People‘s Jen Garcia asked the stars what they would be doing after all the golden statues were handed out at Sunday night’s Academy Awards. Watch the video to see celebrities’ after-party plans — a lot of eating and drinking, basically.

MONEY Oscars

Patricia Arquette Wants You to Get a Raise — Here’s How to Make It Happen

The Oscar winner gave a shout-out to American women—and called for fair pay regardless of sex.

An exciting moment for many Oscar viewers on Sunday was Patricia Arquette’s Best Supporting Actress acceptance speech for her role as the protagonist’s mother in the film Boyhood.

“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. “It is our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America!”

Those words, which drew cheers from fellow actresses Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez, reflect growing tensions in Hollywood over the way women in the industry are represented and compensated. Not only do actresses have fewer roles available to them than men—only 30% of speaking characters—but they are paid less across the board. Even Academy Award-winning women face a huge pay gap: They get an extra $500,000 on average tacked on to their salary after winning an Oscar, compared with a $3.9 million bump for men.

Of course, pay discrimination is not limited to La-La Land. Women still make only 78¢ for every dollar a man makes, the Census reports, and that’s true across all wage levels, for everyone from truck drivers to top executives.

If you’re frustrated by your salary (or the pay earned by a woman in your life) and Arquette’s words resonated with you, here are some ways to change things right now.

1. Talk to a man whose job you want

A recent study found that women tend to express satisfaction with low pay because they compare themselves with female peers, and therefore never get a full picture of how underpaid they are relative to men.

Finding a male mentor in a position a notch or three above you can be a huge asset for many reasons, but one of the biggest is that he can give you an unbiased idea of what salary you should be asking for when you seek a promotion or new job.

2. Don’t say “yes” without making a counteroffer

Whether because of social expectations or a hesitation to appear too aggressive (a fear that is not unfounded given proven workplace biases), women are less likely to negotiate than men. One study revealed that only 31% of women countered the salary offer for their first job after grad school, versus 50% of men.

When you are asking for a raise or naming your salary expectations for a new job, it helps to come prepared. You’ll want to be ready with a clear description of your successes and how you have added value in your current position. And you should have an exact dollar figure in mind; research shows negotiating with a specific number makes you sound more authoritative than using a ballpark one.

If you get a resounding “no,” don’t just give up: Consider asking for a one-time bonus instead.

3. Become a mentor

It’s obvious advice to seek out strong mentors to get ahead at work. But taking subordinates under your wing can be just as effective for increasing your status.

Wharton professor Adam Grant has shown that women and men alike tend to be most successful when they balance both giving and taking at work. And women in particular can get a leg up as negotiators when they are in a mentor position, Grant found.

When the higher ups see you as a person who gives a lot and supports the people around you, it’s easier for you to take a little back—in the form of higher pay.

 

TIME celebrities

Don’t Tear Down Patricia Arquette for a Well-Intentioned Speech

It's important to find a way to critique her comments about the rights of others without dismissing her feminist message

When Patricia Arquette took the stage to accept her Academy Award last night for Best Supporting Actress in Boyhood, she made a brave political statement and demanded gender equality. “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 in her speech. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”

Her words were initially greeted with with loud cheers, especially from Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez, whose enthusiasm culminated in one of the most-shared memes of the evening.

But no good deed goes unpunished — especially on social media — and within hours of the ceremony, Arquette was being attacked by people who said she was prioritizing the rights of white women over those of LGBTQ people and people of color. These criticisms are legitimate and deserve to be heard. Still, Arquette’s heart was in the right place and it’s not right to completely dismiss one of feminism’s most visible advocates.

It wasn’t Arquette’s speech that came under fire so much as her comments in the pressroom later.

“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,” 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.”

Many people on Twitter, including feminists like Roxane Gay and Morgan Jerkins, wrote that Arquette’s plea was tone-deaf for suggesting that gay people and people of color have achieved equality while women have not. They’re absolutely right. Feminism has often come under fire for being a movement for white women’s rights, not all women’s rights. Comments like these make queer women and women of color hesitant about joining the mainstream movement, which can seem exclusionary and oblivious to intersectionality.

But out of last night’s winners, few used their time onstage to get political. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu begged for respect for Mexican immigrants; John Legend and Common spoke about why the messages of Selma still resonate today; and Arquette made a plea for women’s rights. The rest of the show was dull and occasionally verged on racism. On a night when the nominees were overwhelmingly white, Octavia Spencer was forced to stay in her seat and stare at a box, Sean Penn made an offensive green card joke about Iñárritu and Neil Patrick Harris managed to botch the names of both Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo.

There was a lot to criticize at this year’s ceremonies, and the well-meaning Patricia Arquette should rank a lot lower on that list than, for example, Sean Penn.

MORE Watch Sean Penn’s Oscars ‘Green Card’ Joke That Sparked Controversy

Let’s state the obvious: the wage gap exists and needs to be closed. According to the White House, full-time working women earn just 77% of what their male counterparts earn. (That number is under dispute — the Pew Research center recently estimated it’s closer to 84%, but that’s still a significant gap.) Though some politicians might have you believe that women just work lower-paying jobs, studies show this gap persists within industries: female lawyers make 82% of what their male peers earn; physicians 77%; financial specialists 66%. And research shows the pay gap exists for women without children — women who don’t take time off to have babies and raise them.

The wage gap affects women of all races, and Arquette didn’t demand that we only close it for white women. Arquette’s message was that women ought not subordinate the fight for their own rights over fights for other people’s rights. As she wrote on Twitter today, we can fight for rights for different groups of people simultaneously; we just shouldn’t forget women along the way. Sure, her speech wasn’t perfect, but she had the right intentions.

While Gay and others had more nuanced takes on Arquette’s comments — supporting her message while critiquing her phrasing — folks on Twitter are dismissing her entirely, and that’s dangerous. Even while we recognize the problems with her speech, feminists should be careful not to tear down their best and most visible advocates.

MORE These Are the Worst Paying Jobs for Women

Last year, Lena Dunham — perhaps the most famous feminist in Hollywood — endured a similar backlash. In a strange turn of events, feminists joined conservatives in attacking the Girls creator over a section of her book in which she describes her seven-year-old self looking at her little sister’s vagina. They called her a sex offender and attacked the feminists who tried to defend Dunham’s actions as normal childhood behavior. A group of feminists even wrote an open letter to Planned Parenthood asking them to drop Dunham as a rep.

Love her or hate her, there’s no greater public advocate for feminism in pop culture than Lena Dunham. Dunham personally convinced Taylor Swift (and therefore millions of tweens) that calling yourself a feminist is okay; she wrote about her own sexual assault so that other victims would feel comfortable talking about their experiences and reporting them to the authorities; she created a show with explicitly feminist themes. Joining conservatives in attacking people like Dunham and Arquette only serves to hobble the movement.

Different women can choose to express their feminism in different ways. But when women begin to tear down their best, most popular advocates, we hurt our own cause. As Sally Kohn wrote at The New Republic after the Dunham incident: “The minute feminism becomes hypercritical and humorless, it becomes too easy for the mainstream to dismiss our more valid complaints.”

Let’s take to social media to protest the fact that Selma director Ava DuVernay was overlooked for an Oscar nomination and that red carpet interviewers insist on asking women about the dresses they are wearing instead of their work — and let’s not vilify the people actively trying to create change, even when they do it imperfectly.

This post was updated to include Monday’s tweets from Patricia Arquette.

Read next: Lady Gaga’s Performance at the Oscars Could Redefine Her Career

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