Intersectionality is a structure for conceptualizing a person, a set of individuals, or a communal problem affected by various shortcomings and judgments. It considers individuals' corresponding identities and experiences to comprehend the complexity of the injustices that they are subjected to. The theory of intersectionality emphasizes that individuals are highly disadvantaged by various sources of oppression, such as gender identity, religion, race, and other identity markers. The theory argues that social identities are mutually dependent and that the meaning of identities is obtained from their relationship to one another. Kimberley Crenshaw, a black feminist, is the originator of the word. She described it as a method, a disposition, and an analytical tool to increase critical race legal studies. During this era, black feminists, queers, and working-class individuals opposed the lack of intersectional perspective by coming up with their own spaces to organize. Even though numerous social experts recognize the framework as a significant step in the account of social actions, some philosophers have diverse and often contradictory explanations of its part in society (Lutz, Vivar, & Supik, 2016). Complex and intersecting identities result in the creation of nuanced subcultures such as hip-hop and the ways how some people interact with the subgroup they identify with. When individuals who fit into multiple categories of minorities experience any form of discrimination, some of the protective mechanisms implemented by the society in most cases do not meet the needs linked to the complex nature of their identities. This paper discusses the concept of intersectionality, how it has been taken up in the world, some of the dilemmas and contradictions of the concept, and its relevance in popular culture.
How has intersectionality been taken up?
While intersectionality is acknowledged for both its usefulness and flaws of its framework, popular culture has taken it up as the main avenue in forwarding third wave Feminism in the 21st century. In “writing without labels” bell hooks acknowledges that even in a multicultural and globalized environment we live in now, writers who do not fit the identification of straight,white, and/or male who have the privilege to resist confinement into any one category of writing and subject matter have found themselves limited in confined spaces by mass media, especially for those who are black and/ or a woman (hooks, 2015). She goes on to note that this creates an endless cycle of black women writers producing works specifically addressing their black female experience, that gets little press from demographics such as white women because the black female experience is not received as universal. When writers from marginalized groups write phenomenal pieces, they are seen as exceptions to the case, whereas there is space for everyone among white writers. She expands on this stating that there is an issue of coverage, in that the mass media that abides by dominant culture seems to only be able to take up one exceptional black author at time, which could be pointing at the issue of tokenization. Along the same rhetoric, she notes that stories written about the white female experience have universal appeal, highlighting the clear discrepancy in reach of these two demographics, solely based on identity along the lines of race and gender. By mentioning the difference in privilege between black women and white women, hooks is also highlighting the intersectional nature of privilege and lack thereof based on the racial and gender identity of the author, while calling attention to these disparities.
From a more personal perspective, Lavern Cox stands firmly by her identity as a black, LGBTQ+ trans advocate and American actress. She openly speaks on her subjectivity and her transition into black womanhood, and that of identifying as a black trans woman, and how these components shape her lived experience. In her article “Black, LGBTQ, American” she speaks on the daily harassment she received on the streets of New York City. She expresses how, while in male drag, she is seen as a threat on the street especially to white women, and when she is dressed as herself, a woman, she is met with harassment on her gender nonconformity from onlookers including black men (Cox, 2013). In this description of her lived experience, she is directly confronting the unique experience of a black trans woman, and how her social location places her in a vulnerable place with the public, even more so than being just black, or being just a woman, or identifying as non-heterosexual. In the way that race, gender, sexuality, and gender non-conformity intersect and create unique forms of oppression for her, she is taking steps to acknowledge these realities while actively putting herself in the public eye in her work as an actress.
What are some of the challenges in the framework of intersectionality?
Intersectionality has a rich history within black feminism in providing a powerful, demanding call for change from the dominant oppressive factors that govern current societal standards. Rising to the ranks of elite scholars such as bell hooks, further carried on by popular culture icons such as Laverne Cox, the message of intersectionality continues to gain traction as their voices reach an ever increasing audience. However, with any well rounded theory or argument comes a voice of criticism, weighing in on the cons of such a framework. Articles such as Jasbir Puar’s “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess” describe contradictions in the argument of intersectionality. Puar states how the predominant use of an intersectional framework to differentiate and qualify the narrative of black women (in an overarching context of “women of colour”) acts to undermine the very ideology that intersectionality preaches, that “all identities are lived and experienced intersectional”(3). By using intersectionality as a model to consistently fit the purpose of a particular group defined by singular axes such as gender or race, the intersectional principles of uniqueness and combinatorial axes creating distinct forms of oppression risks being contradicted.
The nature of an intersectional framework emerged through the labour and dedication of black women in the face of early 1990 oppression. While the messaging that intersectional factors of one's life merging to create unique forms of oppression is powerful, and should not be dismissed, critics of such intersectional ideology are often met with staunch resistance. This staunch resistance is reflective of the coordinated, tireless efforts it took to build up the framework for what intersectional ideology consists of today. Jennefer Nash describes the staunch resistance to critics of intersectional frameworks, citing black feminists engaged in women’s studies acting as “—relentless, demanding, policing disciplinarians—as they expose and condemn the critics who are imagined to fail to adequately and fairly account for intersectionality” (a love letter from a critic, (34)). This oppositional challenge to intersectional frameworks is argued by Nash to actually be “imaginatively produced” by black feminists themselves, as a strategy to assert territorial claim to intersectionality. (34-35).
While critics outside of the black feminist scholarly circle exists, a significant challenger to the notion of black feminist intersectionality is argued to be black feminists themselves. In developing a fictitious, overarching critic to the theory of intersectionality, black feminists are able to engage challenges and arguments specific to support their community purpose. While the framework for intersectionality has the potential to provide oppositional relief for anyone with any combinatorial axes factoring into unique oppression, black feminism’s domination of intersectionality from a scholarly perspective acts to dilute the expression of unique individuality. As soon as intersectionality is applied to serve the purpose of a group sharing the same axes of oppression, the idea of unique, intersectional axes becomes inherently flawed. In focusing on specific axes of oppression, such as gender and race, one thereby overshadows the contribution of outside axes with a less prominent voice.
Aspect of popular culture
Popular culture, such as movies or TV shows, is a strong cultural component that is commonly shared among people. Through movies and TV shows, we emotionally connect with one another, get inspired, and learn new things. The framework of intersectionality is a topic that is barely seen in popular culture, but there are a few shows that represent the overlap of identities such as race, gender, class. RuPaul’s drag race is among the shows which are quite popular among people and heavily promoted drag culture to a wider audience. The contestants in this show are racially and sexually diverse drag queens and the main message of this show is self-love. It can be argued that RuPaul’s drag race represents an intersectional platform on TV, but it is questionable whether this representation is truly intended to promote inclusivity and intersectionality or if it is simply another form of entertainment for garnering viewers. Starting on a positive note, the contestants in RuPaul’s drag race are almost 100% from the LGBTQ+ community, with the majority being gay, and some queens being transgender and non-binary. There is a racial combination among the contestant queens which consists of white, black, Hispanic, and Asian queens. In addition, many of the queens including RuPaul herself, have a low-class financial background. The intersectional of race, gender, and class is seen among the queens, and the show sometimes displays the conversations that the queens have about their experience with coming out as a gay black man. Overall, the show has the foundational building blocks for an intersectional framework, but it does not fully promote intersectionality. RuPaul’s comments about transgender women have been controversial and the minor visibility and representation of transgender women in the show is evident (Jenkins, 2013). There are many slurs that are used throughout the show by RuPaul herself which could potentially be normalizing the use of offensive words among the viewers of the show and spreading a negative message (Hermes & Kardolus, 2019). The show promotes and stereotypes a certain type of body to be considered good looking and in fact, many of the plus-sized queens do not make it far in the competition and none have ever won (Jenkins, 2013). Lastly, despite the diversity that is seen in the show, many of the drag queens that are winners and finalists are usually white. It is important to have diverse representations that are not simply there for tokenization within popular media. However, it is also important to have a true and honest purpose behind acknowledging intersectionality. Being a truthful representor is crucial due to a couple of reasons. First, because there are very limited shows that promote and display intersectionality as a framework and the individuals affected by it. Second, the audience of shows such as RuPaul’s drag race could potentially be queer people of color whose lives are affected by an intersection of various axes, so it is important to make them feel represented truthfully and in honesty. To conclude, unfortunately there is no true promotion of intersectionality through RuPaul’s drag race despite the show being diverse from various aspects such as race, gender, and class.
Intersectionality is a model that excellently describes complex individual, relational, structural, and ideological aspects of supremacy and freedom arising from forms of oppression. Even though intersectionality theory acknowledges that there are differences within the groups of individuals with a common identity, it has attracted criticism from individuals who consider the cons of the theory. Some authors argue that the predominant use of the theory to differentiate and qualify black women's narrative acts to destabilize the same ideology that the theory supports (Heard Harvey & Ricard, 2018). Since the theory is a model to steadily fit a specific group's purpose defined by singular characteristics such as gender and race, the principles of exceptionality and combinatorial axes promoting different forms of oppression risks being opposed. The concept also presents the dilemma that, even though the intersectionality framework has the power to provide oppositional relief for individuals with any combinatorial axes considering the unique oppression, the dominance of black feminism on the framework from a scholarly view may weaken the expression of distinctive originality (Crenshaw, 2017). Despite the fact that the framework has been recognized for its practicality and faults, popular culture has taken its benefits in promoting the third wave of feminism in the current century. Although the framework initiated as a strategy for black women to become accustomed and recount to women's liberation, its lens has been used to comprehend an extensive diversity of social connections and multifaceted social chains of command. By relating and conflicting intersectionality scenarios within subgroups in society, researchers can comprehend how the framework plays an integral role in numerous social life aspects. The theory argues about justice in the society from distinct social backgrounds. Failure to understand the form of opposition from individuals whose experiences of inequalities we seek to eliminate, the society risks replicating organizations that emphasize domination through distinct ways.
Cox , Laverne. (2013). Black, LGBT, American: Laverne Cox. ADVOCATE MAG , Advocate.com, www.advocate.com/print-issue/current-issue/2013/07/15/black-gay-american-laverne-co.
Crenshaw, K. W. (2017). On intersectionality: Essential writings. The New Press.
Heard Harvey, C. C., & Ricard, R. J. (2018). Contextualizing the intersectionality concept: Layered identities of African American women and gay men in the Black church. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 46(3), 206-218.
Hermes, J., & Kardolus, M. (2019). Occupying the intersection: RuPaul’s celebration of meritocracy. Critical Studies in Television, 14(4), 462–467. https://doi.org/10.1177/1749602019875864
hooks, bell. (2015). Writing without labels. Appalachian Heritage, vol. 43, no. 4, p. 9. Gale Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A471554460/LitRC?u=ubcolumbia&sid=LitRC&xid=6dbfd34e
Jenkins, S. T. (2013). Hegemonic “realness”? An intersectional feminist analysis of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” In ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:11043/
Lutz, H., Vivar, M. T. H., & Supik, L. (Eds.). (2016). Framing intersectionality: Debates on a multi-faceted concept in gender studies. Routledge.
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