Intersectionality is a very popular buzzword at the moment, and it’s worth defining before we start the exploration of responses to feminist responses to pop culture that come from an intersectional perspective.
Essentially, the concept boils down to the idea that people experience oppressions in overlapping ways, not as separate and distinct entities that can be teased apart and viewed individually. A person who is trans and disabled, for example, does not experience life separately as a trans person and a disabled person, but experiences life as a disabled, trans person. It is impossible to separate out these experiences of oppression, but they are also not the same oppression or equivalent oppressions.
This concept is also designed to stress that, for people who experience multiple oppressions, these oppressions cannot be put in a box and pulled out to be examined at will. They are an integral part of lived experience and daily life. People who do not share those oppressions may choose to engage with them at their leisure. This is a function of privilege: When you are not experiencing something, you have the luxury of deciding when you do or do not want to engage with it.
Intersectionality also applies to privilege, something that can be experienced in layers as well. It is possible to be privileged (as I am, being a white person) while also being unprivileged (as I am, being a transgender person). Self-awareness of personal privilege is a very important and sometimes overlooked aspect of intersectionality, as it is possible to exercise privilege in some settings and not in others, for the oppressed to become the oppressor.
A common problem I encounter in feminism is the idea that all women experience the same oppressions because they are women, and their shared identities as women override any other identities; this focus on women alone of course ignores other people who can benefit from or work in solidarity with feminism, like people of nonbinary gender. Intersectionality attempts to rectify this problem by underscoring that people can experience separate, overlapping oppressions that all play a role in how they identify, interact with the world, and prioritize their social, personal, and political goals.
This brings me to the second and key part of this discussion about intersectionality.
Intersectionality is not enough. There is a tendency in some spaces to believe that using (or not using) certain words is sufficient, that the use of codewords brands someone as a supporter and is a form of activism. This is, to be blunt, not the case. Using the word ‘intersectionality’ does indeed reflect the fact that someone is thinking about this issue, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the idea has been internalized.
Internalization of these concepts is critical to making concrete changes in feminism, and it’s one of the areas where feminism has fallen woefully short. I see ‘intersectionality’ being thrown around a lot in feminist conversations, but it often seems to take the form of lip service, without concrete action to reinforce it and to show that people really are thinking about the role of intersectionality in the lived experiences of others.
For example, saying, ‘Oh yes, trans women probably have different experiences and needs than cis women’ is not enough. Interacting with trans women to find out what those experiences and needs are, listening to trans women when they speak up, centering the voices of trans women, is necessary. Acknowledging the experiences of trans women is necessary. Thinking about how to actively include trans women in social justice discussions is necessary. Understanding that trans women may have different priorities than cis women, or nonbinary transgender folks like myself, or agendered people, and finding ways to accommodate the needs of all groups, is necessary.
Otherwise, ‘intersectionality’ becomes code for ‘wait your turn.’ Rather than being a reflection of a highly inclusive movement that integrates different lived experiences and priorities, it is used to say ‘just as soon as we get our needs taken care of, we’ll turn to yours.’
The conflict between proud statements about viewing things intersectionally and actually being an intersectional feminist is at the core of many problems within the feminist movement right now—including the feminist pushback to critiques of pop culture that focus on issues other than the depiction of cis, nondisabled, heterosexual, white women.
One cannot conclude a discussion about the role of oppressed groups within the feminist movement without pointing out that there is a tendency to view marginalized people as a single hivemind. The idea is that because people have a shared identity, they all think, act, and believe in the same ways. This ignores both individual identities and intersectionality, and it’s unfortunately very common in social justice communities, where the opinions and statements of individuals are taken as representative of an entire group.
Many individuals are heavily burdened with the knowledge that even when they speak for themselves, their statements are taken as pronouncements made on behalf of the groups they belong to. It bears stressing, for example, that I do not speak on behalf of all people with disabilities, all queer people, all fat people, or all trans people. Members of oppressed groups do not appreciate seeing our words tokenized to prove an argument, nor do we appreciate being treated as authorities on everyone who shares certain characteristics with us.