Course:GRSJ300/2021/The Importance of Intersectionality in Film: Netflix Original TV Shows

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The History of Intersectionality

Intersectionality, a landmark theory that has created an amount of interdisciplinary and widespread engagement unlike few others, has deep roots in Black feminism and Critical Race Theory (Carbado et al. 303). It is “a method and a disposition, a heuristic and analytic tool” that aims to highlight and dismantle the systems of oppression that marginalize people based on interlocking identities of race, gender, sexuality, class, and disability (Carbado et al. 303). The theory’s beginnings can be traced to the Combahee River Collective, a group of Black feminists, who in 1983 published “A Black Feminist Statement.” The group’s formation stemmed from their exclusion from both the racist feminist movement and sexist Black liberation movements of the 1960’s and 70’s (Combahee River Collective 211). Their statement  made visible the oppression of Black women not just on the basis of race or sex, but the oppression at their intersection. It is seen as the precursor to the theory of intersectionality, which was then coined by Kimberly Crenshaw in her 1989 essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” Her essay “introduced the term to address the marginalization of Black women within not only antidiscrimination law but also in feminist and antiracist theory and politics” (Carbado et al. 303). Since then, intersectionality has been taken up in many different fields to continuously resist and then transcend boundaries.

Netflix Originals

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A domain that has recently taken up intersectionality as a theory is the far reaching realm of popular culture. Within popular culture, streaming networks and the television shows and movies they produce, are relevant mediums for highlighting different multiple axis identities of people that have previously been made invisible in the tv and film industry. Netflix, the largest streaming platform with over 182 million subscribers worldwide, has branched out in the past decade to sign development deals with producers “whose identities were once deemed unmarketable” (Bean; Christian 458). These deals, some upward of $100 million, have produced Netflix Original shows that are “by and about characters who live on the margins of the intersections between race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, disability, citizenship, religion, and so on” (Christian 459). These shows use intersectional frameworks to call attention to the lived experiences of marginalized people and the oppression they face for who they are. In particular, the series Dear White People, Atypical, Sex Education, and Orange Is The New Black excel in their use of intersectional approaches to film production, each focusing on separate issues. Dear White People explores the complexities of Black women’s experiences; Atypical provides a more humanistic portrayal of disability; Sex Education makes the experiences of Black queer men visible, and through Sophia’s character Orange Is The New Black exposes the interlocking forms of oppression she faces as a Black transgender woman. However, Netflix Original shows can also at times display limited uses of intersectionality. For instance, certain aspects of Atypical’s representation of autism remains restricted and Sex Education deploys straight actors for some of their queer characters. Despite these downfalls, Netflix and their Original programs reflect an overall intersectional approach to media production and streaming.

Dear White People

The Netflix comedy-drama series Dear White People (2017-2021) created and directed by Justin Simien rejects the recurrent settler-colonial and white supremacist ideologies that are widespread in Western media today by constructing a narrative that centers a minoritized group of Black students in the fictional Ivy League institute of Winchester University. This series’s main characters Samantha “Sam” White (played by Logan Browning) and Colandrea “Coco” Conners (played by Antoinette Robertson) personas are established in light of their intersectional identities as well as their experiences with colourism and respectability politics (Minj). In doing so, Simien cultivates a competition-free lens by translating the unique challenges different characters experience which therefore does not pressure viewers to favour one character over the other. The complexity and relatability of these characters allows for the audience to reflect on the overarching theme of the show being race, internalized racism, feminism, and being “woke” - ultimately reminding us that “Black women's experiences are much broader than the general categories that discrimination discourse provides” (Crenshaw 33).

The Representation of Colourism and Feminism

Dear White People is unique as it contests the common trope of black women being in competition with each other by highlighting the intricacies of black female friendships. While Sam is displayed as a leading activist and speaker for her campus radio show, Coco is displayed as hard-working and palatable to the majority-white campus and sorority in which she is involved. These differences are underlined to convey the increasingly different experiences these women have had as children perhaps considering Sam is "light-skinned" while Coco is "dark-skinned". By centering a "dark-skinned" woman’s insecurities, achievements, gratifications, and shortcomings, viewers are able to humanize and understand the hardships Coco experiences throughout the series (Ray-Harris). The campus microcosm setting of the series forces Sam and Coco’s identity issues to the forefront seeing as these women disagree in terms of how they choose to live as black women. As viewers, we are meant to sympathize with both women as glimpses of Sam’s position as a mixed-race individual are stressed, for example when Sam is listening to conventional white girl folk music but feels pressure to change her music to rap when she passes a group of black people (Ray-Harris). It becomes clear to the viewer, especially in Season Two, that Sam is enthusiastically accepted by various clubs and different groups on campus, presumably due to her outspoken nature and ability to acquire the spotlight over her "darker-skinned" friends such as Coco and Joelle, thus “accurately reflecting the interaction of race and gender” (Crenshaw 24).

The Importance of Multidimensional Characterization

The series specifically depicts intersectionality by highlighting the differences between how Sam and Coco as women experience racism according to the tones of their skin. While Sam experiences racism in a mainly external manner, for example when she elaborates on how she was often left out as a child from playdates and sleepovers due to her blackness, Coco comes from the inner city of Chicago and believes in “working from within the system instead of warring against it” (Ray-Harris). This makes it apparent to the viewer that Sam compulsively performs blackness as a means to combat the hurt from her past and embrace her identity as that is an active way to highlight the racist society she experiences (Minj). This series summarizes “the point is that Black women can experience discrimination in any number of ways and that the contradiction arises from our assumptions that their claims of exclusion must be unidirectional,” (Crenshaw 33) by basing the narratives of the protagonists on their multifaceted identities.  


In the television series Atypical, the protagonist, Sam Gardner, experiences autism spectrum disorder. The central theme of the series focuses on his pursuit of finding a female partner to have romantic, sexual relations with. Atypical approaches Sam’s disability positively, but in some ways fails to accurately depict how disability manifests in the real world. Instead of focussing solely on his autism, this show provides a more comprehensive view of disability and employs a more thoroughly considered storyline. It doesn’t allow his autism to restrict his development as a sexual being, a perspective rarely encountered in the media, and thus takes on an expanded intersectional framework. Intersectionality “encourages us to focus on the personal experiences associated with disability rather than on conceptualizing disability as a singular experience within a homogenous population” (Julianne et al.).

Stigmas of Disability

Many disabled people are stigmatized, and one of the most frequently encountered stigmas is neglecting to consider them as sexual beings included in heteronormative, or other,  stereotypes. These stigmas are reinforced in the media where there is a lack of representation, and the representation that exists rarely characterizes disabled people beyond being defined by their disability. Barbara Waxman-Fiduccia and Anne Finger state, “The disability rights movement has never addressed sexuality as a key political issue, though many of us find sexuality to be the area of our great oppression” (Martino & Campbell 98). As such, these stigmas profoundly affect disabled people because they are constrained from considering themselves as sexual beings. In addition, it also prevents non-disabled people from viewing them as sexual beings. Correspondingly, disabled people are viewed as abnormal because they aren’t portrayed in the same broad manner as people without disabilities and they aren’t given the equal opportunities to express their full being. By refusing to portray disabled people as sexual beings, they are inhibited from asserting their own sexual desires and needs. In reality, disabled people experience the same passions as non-disabled people. Atypical does a more sophisticated job than most in exploring an autistic person’s sexuality, yet does so in the context of a white, straight, cis-gender male. Where it succeeds on one level, it fails on another. It lacks diversity and authenticity because it doesn’t include any autistic people of color or austistic LGBTQ+ individuals.

Although successful in diminishing the stigma of disabled people as asexual beings, this show still inadequately represents autism. Autism is conveyed as a burden. The writers create the impression of exaggerating some of his autistic behaviors for effect. They overstate his autism by excessively showing his restricted, repetitive behaviors and struggles in social circumstances. Predictably as someone with autism, Sam doesn’t understand all social cues, but Atypical makes fun of the difficulties he has in conversations. Rather than laughing with him, the show laughs at him. His autism makes other characters uncomfortable, and this is depicted as comedic. It is insensitive to use Sam’s autism in this manner. Autistic characterizations should not be made into jokes for non-autistic people. Simultaneously, his parents’ perception of his autism is portrayed as equally unenlightened. They constantly remind the viewers that they haven’t been on a date since he was born, making it seem like they’ve had to sacrifice everything for him and that he’s added unwanted stress and hardship to their lives. This suggests that the parents view his autism as a tragedy, which further conveys autism in a negative light. This misrepresentation is possibly the result of a failure to include the autistic community in the creative process. Any portrayal of autism by non-autistic people will therefore always be flawed due to an inherent lack of context.

Sex Education

The British Netflix series Sex Education explores the sexual experiences of teens through an intersectional lens. In particular, the series offers a more nuanced approach to exploring teen queer relationships through the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and religion without promoting binary and cisnormative behavior. The show centers on one of the personal intersectional struggles of the character Eric Effiong, played by Ncuti Gatwa, as he reconciles with his Black queer identity and faith. Eric is the best friend of the main character; however, the show subverts the gay, Black best friend caricature and adds depth to Eric’s intersectional identity. By exploring the intersectional identity of the character Eric, the show touches upon the struggles of Black queer men against interlocking systems of oppression.

Mirroring Crenshaw’s argument on voicing the experiences of marginalized communities, Sex Education offers a provocative perspective at addressing themes of sexual violence and homophobia (Crenshaw). In doing so, the show speaks to the importance of making the experiences of Black queer men visible. In Season 1 Episode 5, a group of men brutally attack Eric while he is alone wearing a drag costume inspired by the character Hedwig from the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The attackers continuously utter transphobic and homophobic comments, which demonstrate Crenshaw’s argument on the multiplicity in which oppression takes place, shape, and manifests (Crenshaw). The scene presents the vulnerability of Black queer men against systems of oppression inextricably linked that perpetuate homophobia, transphobia and racism. Furthermore, Eric comes from a religious and traditional family, yet the show avoids depicting his family as oppressive and perpetuating the common misrepresentation of the Black community as homophobic. Given that queer media representation primarily focuses on the experiences of white characters, the series offers more queer people of color a platform and demonstrates the importance of Black queer visibility in the film industry devoid of stereotypes.

The Importance of Authentic Queer Representation

Although the writer’s room of Sex Education is predominately female with queer voices, the show perpetuates a common issue in the film industry—many of the actors playing queer characters on the show are straight in real life (McLean). The issue of “authentic” intersectional representation is evident by the queer character Ola Nynam played by Patricia Allison, a straight cis woman. The series also explores Ola’s journey as she accepts her identity as a pansexual and becomes romantically involved with her friend Lily. The real-life identity politics of Allison demonstrates the limitation of LGBTQ2S+ media representation in film. bell hooks remind us of the struggles of marginalized communities for voice and recognition in ways that highlight their intersectional identity (hooks 20). The lack of “authentic” LGBTQ2S+ representation is an ongoing issue in the film industry as there are double standards for queer actors (Zhu 51). Heterosexual cisgender actors have the privilege of having roles outside their gender and sexuality, whereas LGBTQ2S+ actors are provided fewer opportunities or perceived by casting directors as incapable of playing straight roles (Mandle; Zhu 34). While it is important to note that LGBTQ2S+ actors are not constrained to LGBTQ2S+ roles, there is an increasing need for “authentic” queer representation and performers who can incorporate their experiences into their characters.

Orange Is The New Black

In one of Netflix’s most successful original series, Orange is the New Black (OITNB), an ensemble cast of women lead fictional incarcerated lives depicting the American female prison system. Among the diverse female convicts includes a transgender character, Sophia Burset, who is a Black woman who committed credit card fraud as she struggled to raise funds to pay for her sex reassignment surgeries in the past  (“Lesbian Request Denied”). Both in her backstory and throughout her time at Litchfield Penitentiary as documented by the series, Sophia suffered various interlocking axes of oppressive violence including transphobia and sexism.

Representation of Oppression against a Transgender Character

In her backstory, viewers are shown how Sophia’s relationships are very complicated due to her transition. When she began her transition, her wife Crystal did her best to be supportive, but ultimately the couple did not continue their marriage after Sophia transitioned and was then incarcerated. Sophia’s crimes were also reported to the police by her own son, Michael, who felt that it was shameful to have two mothers and struggled with accepting Sophia post-transition. Sophia’s personal relationships proved to be complicated and difficult, as her family struggled to come to terms with Sophia’s transition.

The administration at the prison instigated oppressive violence against Sophia as well, where they limited the amount of crucial hormonal therapy medication which caused Sophia extreme discomfort from hormonal imbalances (“Lesbian Request Denied”). As a transitioned woman, Sophia required a regular dosage of estrogen and other female hormones in order to maintain her body and to avoid severe menopausal-like symptoms. When the prison underwent financial auditing and signed a contract with a new pharmaceutical provider that was cheaper, Sophia’s dosage was changed and she was refused her required dosage of medication as a transgender woman, dangerously affecting her physical and mental health.

Sophia not only suffered in her complicated personal relationships and administrative policies, but also suffered transphobic hate crimes from the cisgendered female inmates in the prison. Three members of the prison harassed Sophia while she was working in the prison salon, making comments about her genitalia, claiming she was “pretending” to be a woman, and calling her various transphobic slurs (“Don't Make Me Come Back There”). The harassment escalated to physical altercations, where the three other women attacked Sophia’s hair, face, and body, leaving her visibly injured following the incident. Not long after the attack, the prison administration decided to further incarcerate Sophia in the solitary Security Housing Unit (SHU) “for [her] own protection”, which was extremely unfair as she was the victim of a hate crime while the instigators went unpunished (“Don't Make Me Come Back There”).

A Metaphor for the American Prison System and Western Society

Despite the violence and oppression Sophia suffers, she is shown to always approach the situation with reason, and she never chooses to escalate things unless she absolutely needs to. In her personal relationships, Sophia chooses to accept her wife’s decision to pursue another relationship and gives her son plenty of time and space to come to terms with Sophia’s identity. When she is denied her hormonal medication, Sophia considers illegal ways to get them, but ultimately chooses to reasonably petition for her cause towards the admins at the prison (“Imaginary Enemies”). Finally when she was attacked while working in the prison salon, Sophia refuses to use violence against the other inmates committing hate crimes towards her until Sophia’s safety is endangered (“Don't Make Me Come Back There”).  OITNB’s character Sophia Burset demonstrates the intersectional, interlocking oppressions against a Black transgender woman, and sheds light on the very real issues plaguing both the American prison system and transgender women in modern society.

Works Cited

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