The 35th anniversary of Desperately Seeking Susan inspires actress and activist Rosanna Arquette to look back on her feminist roots.

By Rosanna Arquette
Feb 18, 2020 @ 9:00 am
Arquette (center) on January 6, the first day of the Harvey Weinstein trial, in New York. Weinstein denies all allegations made against him. Photo: Kena Betancur/Getty Images

Growing up in a family of activists and artists, I was taught at an early age to speak up for myself and for others. As a young girl, I accompanied my mother, Mardi Arquette, while she marched for civil rights alongside Martin Luther King Jr. Her grassroots approach and bohemian lifestyle shaped my worldview and motivated me to use my voice not only to cultivate the life I wanted but also to become a change-maker. Little did I know how profoundly the two would intersect in my professional and personal life.

This March marks the 35th anniversary of Desperately Seeking Susan, a film executive-produced, directed, and written by women, which was a groundbreaking feat for the time. My character, Roberta, was a homemaker who was too spirited and curious to adhere to social stereotypes, so she trailed Susan (played by Madonna) on her various adventures, looking for a road map to her own identity.

Originally, the film’s ending wasn’t a traditional happily-ever-after. Instead of following their guys, Roberta and Susan leave together riding camels into the desert. I wish that version had been used. If the movie were being made now, I can see that resolution appealing more to today’s audience. 

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These days women in film face an uphill battle because being female is inherently political. We are told that we are so many things: too old, too fat, too loud, too opinionated. We are measured by our attractiveness and age, as if by getting older we are not wiser but somehow less-than. We have to fight harder for jobs and equal pay. And we have to be vigilant about protecting our individualism, independence, and bodies. This all became crystal clear to me while my career was on the rise in the early ’90s.

With Madonna while filming Desperately Seeking Susan in 1985. Photo: Sunset Boulevard/Getty Images

Around then, the world thought that I had disappeared from acting by choice, but in reality I was one of the hundreds of women assaulted and then blacklisted by Harvey Weinstein. Roles that I was promised were suddenly given to others with no explanation. Invitations to events for projects I worked on went missing. I thought, “Is this really happening?” 

I knew that there were more of us, but at the time no one else was saying, “Yes, this is happening to me too.” When women did start to confide in me, I knew I had the power to do something, not just for myself and other brave silence-breakers but for all women who have been attacked and bullied by men who abuse their power. After all, activism is in my DNA. And the women’s trust in me was a reminder that it takes only one person to listen to and believe you to validate your truth. 

Speaking out about my experience with Weinstein, as I did in Ronan Farrow’s 2017 New Yorker article, was a critical moment for me. But I have been standing alongside female activists long before #MeToo became a movement. And I plan to continue to support those peacefully fighting for change. Today that means celebrating my longtime friend and fellow activist Jane Fonda’s birthday by getting arrested on Capitol Hill along with Gloria Steinem and Eve Ensler for #FireDrillFriday. Times are changing, but the bond among women is strong. And I feel bolder than ever.

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Despite attempts to derail my career, I have been doing what I truly love for years, and my future has never looked brighter. I’m working on exciting projects with supremely talented women both in front of and behind the camera. And being a silence-breaker has cast a spotlight on sisterhood across the globe, sparking hope and change. 

My daughter, Zoë, is another light in my life. It fills my heart with pride to see her take on the world. I hope she knows that helping others runs in her blood. And I hope she is inspired, as I am, by the scores of women standing up to say time’s up for predators, not survivors. Collectively, these women will illuminate the path for others to come forward. And when they do, they will be supported in the spirit of sisterhood too.

For more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Feb. 14.

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