Course:GRSJ300/2021/Lights, Camera, Intersectionality: Addressing interlocking forms of oppression in Hollywood

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Intersectionality: What is it?


Intersectionality is a framework and tool of analysis that highlights the dynamic ways that lived identities, forms of oppression, policies of marginalization, and systems of power and resistance intersect[1]. By moving away from singular-axis thinking, intersectionality acknowledges the ways in which privilege and discrimination overlap and interact. This is especially pertinent for individuals belonging to more than one social group by applying a framework that recognizes each factor of one's identity as valid and part of their compositional "all of who I am"[2]. These groups include, but are not limited to, race, gender, gender identity, sexuality, education, ability, spirituality, and socioeconomic status. By employing matrix thinking, intersectionality argues that an individual's experience is dependent on the simultaneous ways that identities and social structures interconnect[1]. As a tool of analysis, intersectionality articulates that the experiences of social inequality and privilege are often the result of multiple interactions between and within groups - rarely the result of a single factor[3].

The term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American lawyer, leading scholar of critical race theory, and civil rights advocate through the late-1980s[2]. However the idea of intersectionality was first mentioned in the 1970s by the Combahee River Collective, a collective of Black feminist lesbian socialists who introduced the concept of interlocking systems of oppression[4].

Intersectionality in Hollywood: Why is it important?

There is no doubt that Hollywood has an indelible effect on our society and culture, that can spark new conversations and become touchstones for people's lives. However, Hollywood tends to magnify the stories told within and make them larger than life, which can alter the consumer's perceptions of real life[5]. There is a complex dynamic relationship between Hollywood and culture in which Hollywood can influence mass consumer culture, but that culture produces films that reflect its ideals, attitudes, and beliefs[6]. For example, in the late 1940s to the 1950s, mainstream films reflected the conservative attitude that dominated the socio-political scene at the time. However, by the 1960s, the youth culture moved to an opposed stance against dominant institutions, which was then reflected into the screen in films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Graduate (1967)[6].

Lack of Diversity in Hollywood

Among Hollywood's most powerful decision makers (film executives and directors), a large majority are straight white cis-gender males[7]. Because of this lack of diversity, many films produced lack the insight for correct and true representation of minorities. In the past, Hollywood films were not as progressive as they are now. For example in 1915, D. W. Griffith, widely considered the most important filmmaker of his generation and known as "the man who invented Hollywood", created the film The Birth of a Nation, which perpetuated racist ideologies that portrayed African Americans (many of whom were played by white actors) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards White women[8]. However, recently, many notable Black filmmakers such as Jordan Peele, Ava Duvernay, Lee Daniels, and Raoul Peck have all challenged those racist ideologies and created films that show "real-life" and show that contemporary white supremacy is alive and terrifyingly artistic[9].

The absence or marginalization of women of colour has persevered as a constant in Hollywood films and is described by bell hooks as 'cinematic racism ... the violent erasure of black womanhood'[10]. Often, the portrayals of Black women on screen are isolated from the real lives of Black women, especially in films created by and for white audiences[10]. However over the last decade, there has been a shift in the demographics in Hollywood due to the overwhelming voices that push for better on-screen representation by both actors and the audiences at home[11].T Magazine gathered seven famous Black actresses including Mary J. Blige, Taraji P. Henson, Viola Davis, Kimberly Elise, Halle Berry, Lynn Whitfield, and Angela Bassett, where they shared that they instantly felt a connection due to their shared experiences as Black women in a predominantly-white male-dominated film industry[11]. Davis also recognizes that Hollywood's effort towards representation feels more like the executives are trying to fulfill a "diversity quota" rather than really trying to understand and truly support a diverse representation[11]. Many of the complaints about the roles that cast for Black women is that they usually lean in too heavily on stereotypes about Black femininity and rooted in trauma[11].

Representation of Minority Groups at Award Shows

The lack of diversity among award show nominees perpetuates a system of white male dominance in Hollywood[12]. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Oscars, Grammy's and Golden Globes. Among box-office films in 2019, women filled 19% of executive jobs, 12% of the director jobs, and 20% of writing positions[13]. However, among the top award shows in Hollywood, only 5.1% of nominations were allocated to female directors, and 94.9% were awarded to men[14]. As Kunsey notes, the wrongful representation of women on the international stage has led to multiple downstream effects[15]. Of particular concern is the impact that this has had on women occupying multiple, intersectional identities. This issue has had significant repercussions on the female filmmaking industry, removing job opportunities and reinforcing stereotypical images of men occupying these roles[14].


In 2015, media strategist and advocate, April Reign ignited a conversation on the lack of diversity among nominees using the viral #OscarsSoWhite[16]. This tweet came at the same time as the Black Lives Matter movement and the Oscar's first nomination of an African American woman in the Best Director category. The movie Selma (2015) depicted rampant discrimination in the south of the US, despite passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The historical drama was directed by Ava DuVernay, a well-known female African American filmmaker[17]. Although Selma had been expected to win its category, voters opted to reward a film with a predominantly all-male white cast. This intensified media attention on the industry's historical treatment of marginalized groups and initiated a conversation on voting membership[15].


In the last ten years, a total of seventeen black artists have been nominated for the Grammy's title of Album of the Year[18]. This is had led to widespread criticism of apparent racism, bureaucracy, and lack of diversity in the nomination and voting process. In part, this is due to the Recording Academy's membership as only 26% of women and 25% of minority groups make up its membership. As a result, African American artists tend to be nominated in traditionally Black categories such as Rap and R&B[19]. Yet, they are rarely ever recognized in the most prestigious categories, i.e., Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist. Critics cite institutionalized racism as the main culprit, arguing for the need for more inclusive representation within the music industry[14].

Golden Globes

The 2018 Golden Globes proved to be a powerful moment in history for women. It was the year when actors and actresses stood in solidarity with the women involved in the Harvey Weinstein allegations, calling for a change in the treatment of women across the industry[20]. However, as Hollywood led the #Timesup movement to advocate for change, conversations around sexual misconduct were heavily skewed towards white celebrities. The awards ceremony became dominated by white women, and thus, did not capture an intersectional lens on its international platform[1].

Intersectional Social Movements and their Connections with Hollywood

The concept of intersectionality has always been tied with the foundations of social movements from its inception by Kimberlé Crenshaw, as it advocates for the voices of the most marginalized[21]. In a 2015 study of immigrant rights activists based in California revealed that queer respondents who are referred to as a “disadvantaged subgroup” were more likely to engage in protests and online activism[22]. An “intersectional consciousness” was cited by the queer activists as a significant motivation to advocate for anti-discrimination policies as they understood the multiple axes of oppression they faced[22]. Moving from intersectionality’s theoretical understanding to practical usage in our world, it is seen as tool to bring forward hidden power dynamics in order to bring social awareness and change[21].

#MuteRKelly started gaining momentum as a social media hashtag after the debut of Surviving R. Kelly, when allegations of sexual assault and pedophilia were finally taken seriously after years of being overlooked[23]. A wide-spread boycott and disassociation from R. Kelly's music/image soon followed and his record label RCA records dropped him shortly after the documentary was released[24].

The emergence of many contemporary social movements has had considerable influences on Hollywood, whether it is within the industry or externally driven. Some major campaigns that have involved Hollywood celebrities and other people of influence in the industry include the #MeToo movement and Stop Asian Hate.

#MeToo Movement

In 2006, activist Tana Burke started the MeToo movement to share the experiences of underprivileged women of colour who had faced sexual violence but had largely been ignored[25]. Mainstream media had not covered this campaign until 11 years later in 2017, when many prominent White women raised their voices detailing their stories of sexual assault and harassment against many powerful men in the film industry[25]. This new era used the “#MeToo” hashtag on social media to generate momentum against perpetrators that had used power structures to avoid the consequences of public outcry and criminal prosecution.

The movement however did not have an intersectional approach as it was mainly gender-based, with race as an additional factor of discrimination being side-lined. This can be seen through the contrasting treatment of Harvey Weinstein’s victims compared to how the R. Kelly scandal was handled[25]. Even though R. Kelly’s African American female victims had come out with their stories three months before the Weinstein Scandal, they were shunned from media coverage and were overlooked by audiences consuming R. Kelly’s music[25]. In 2019, the ground-breaking documentary Surviving R. Kelly detailed allegations of the singer sexually assaulting women and having sexual relationships with underage girls[25]. It also explored how Black women were made invisible even when the #MeToo movement was gaining recognition, as there was considerable backlash that the victims faced from the Black community itself[25]. The documentary acted as a turning point in how R. Kelly was viewed in the public sphere, because for the first time the victims were seen as real people that were severely harmed and were not disregarded because of their race.

Stop Asian Hate

Since the Atlanta shooting of six women of Asian descent on March 16, 2021, the Stop Asian Hate movement has gained greater media coverage and public acknowledgement in response to the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes becoming harder to dismiss[26]. The group Stop AAPI Hate stated that it received 3,785 reports of anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic[27].

However, the fact that police officials investigating the Atlanta shooting echoed the shooter’s self-reported motive of “sexual addiction” over its categorization as a hate-motivated crime can reveal the underlying influences of interlocking oppressive structures[27]. Asian women were 2.3 times more likely than Asian men to be a victim of a hate crime and many were targeted at places of business like spas[27]. An article by Elaine Low and Rebecca Davis states that the fetishization and dehumanization from years of racist and sexist tropes in Hollywood like the hyper-sexualized “Dragon Lady” are possible sources of the current hate crime trends[27]. From an intersectional perspective, there is a clear compounded nature of discrimination in past American media from viewing women as “sex objects” and the dehumanization of Asians as a “foreign virus”.  

Looking at the media industry today, many female celebrities of Asian descent and other backgrounds have been publicly advocating for the Stop Asian Hate Movement like Sandra Oh, Gemma Chan, Katie Holmes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Shannon Lee, and Kate Hudson[26]. Gemma Chan has also stated that “sexualized racial harassment and violence is something that many of us face regularly”, clearing addressing the intersectionality of misogyny and racism that Asian women experience[26].

Challenges of the Intersectional Approach

Limitations of intersectionality.

The “I” Word

Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to define disparities in social-justice systems that erased black people, specifically black women. However, the concept has been widely acknowledged, tokenized, and disconnected as a result of its widespread adoption across multiple disciplines resulting in it becoming reduced to a “buzzword”[28]. The consequence of minimizing the concept to a “buzzword” takes away its value while opening the door to misinterpretations of the original theory. Crenshaw herself mentioned how she is “amazed at how [intersectionality] gets over- and under-used; sometimes I can’t even recognize it in the literature any more”[29]. The push towards representation in Hollywood demonstrates an example of the matter in hand.

Disparities between Representation & Intersectionality

Hollywood’s rendition of intersectionality fails to embody the true nature of the theory. Considering the American TV series Glee that aired in 2009, showcases a predominantly White cast and minimal minority characters[5]. The only diversity present in the show is through the one Asian-American, one African-American and one Hispanic character[27]. Although the show portrays minority characters, it promotes the stereotypes and prejudice against the marginalized groups. As seen with the Asian-American character who is portrayed as timid and introverted which plays into the stereotype surrounding Asian women being docile and submissive[26]. Politics takes precedence over the performers, refusing them the chance to give their characters a life beyond what they represent. What Hollywood fails to realize intersectionality is more than making marginalized groups visible. It is taking actions against social, cultural, systemic and institutional oppressions upholding and creating experiences of discrimination and exclusion.  

Identity politics

Furthermore, many are hesitant to commit to intersectionality in Hollywood because it is labelled as “identity politics” which imparts negative connotations to the concept. Identity politics is more about dealing with people on the basis of group membership rather than each person as an individual[30]. A consequence of identity politics is that an individual is seen and treated according to their group instead of their individual particularities[30]. However, as intersectionality explains, one's membership of an oppressed social group may provide insights into their policy priorities and preferences, given a common struggle against institutionalized racism[1]. While this remains true to an extent, these shared goals are not ubiquitous - while general identity groups may trend towards a specific attitude, there is a massive diversity of in-group opinions and beliefs. As such, while identity politics can be used as a means of discrediting seemingly insincere, performative activism, the underlying intersectional idea that identity groups share commonalities in political priorities informs a more nuanced understanding of societal interactions between groups with disparate social capital.


From this outline, and expanding upon intersectionality as defined above, critical analysis centering group power dynamics and identity differences can be systematically applied to social, political, economic, and cultural institutions throughout society[1]. By analyzing a case study of 'Hollywood' as a cultural institution, a robust intersectional critique has highlighted profound racial asymmetries in the industry. Given it's positioning as the center of American cultural output, the ideas and stories recognized and portrayed authentically by Hollywood have resonating consequences for broader popular culture. These racial disparities, and identity power imbalances, are contextualized by social movements like the '#MeToo' campaign and 'Stop Asian Hate' messaging that work in tandem through a cycle of empowerment and awareness[9]. This cyclical relationship is demonstrated clearly by the vocal outcry against outcome manifestations of Hollywood's racial asymmetries, (made evident through disparities in the number of racialized nominees and winners of major cultural awards like the Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes, etc,). While Asian-American's were experiencing a vicious rise in anti-Asian hate-crimes, the broader social movement, under the banner 'Stop Asian Hate' empowered prominent members of Hollywood's Asian-American community to provide a platform to activist messaging, explaining their own racialized experiences with both their industry and society more broadly[27]. When taking corrective action in response to increased calls for intersectionality, one ought to be aware of the specific parameters and properties of an intersectional analysis and portrayal - not employing racial stereotyping/tokenization in the name of representation, and enacting dynamic action in opposition to social injustice. As such, intersectionality proves relevant to an analysis of power imbalances and institutional behaviors, offering effective insights into impacts on members of diverse and overlapping identity groups.


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