Updated: Jul 14, 2019
by Chloe Wong
What is intersectionality?
“The complex, cumulative manner in which the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect” - Merriam-Webster dictionary
Intersectionality as a term in current vernacular is popularly credited to Kimberle Crenshaw’s 1989 paper entitled “Demarginalising the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Anti-discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” Originally examining and discussing the compounding confluence of racism and sexism in the experiences of African-American women specifically and defining this particular combination of race and gender as “intersectionality,” the term has now been adopted to encompass any kind of combination of minority existence and discrimination including, but not limited to, gender, sexual orientation, class, disability, and race.
Intersectionality in screenwriting
Intersectionality may be described very simply as understanding that an individual’s lived experience is affected in a compounding way by the minority statuses they hold. For example, power structure between two characters or between a character and society at large is impacted by the presence of two or more forms of discrimination together (e.g. race + sexuality) compared to discrimination experienced in one form alone (e.g. gender). This intersection complicates a character’s lived experience and colours their perspective more than if they were one minority alone. As such, a recognition of intersectionality is able to truly reflect the complexities of the relationship two characters would have with each other and the world around them.
Why is this relevant?
Screen Australia commissioned a 2016 report, “Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on Diversity in Australian TV Drama,” to investigate just how diverse Australian television is. Taking five years’ worth of television drama, the report focused on three aspects of diversity: sexuality and gender, ethnicity, and disability, examining whether representation on screen truly reflected current society.
The report found that all three facets of diversity were largely underrepresented in Australian television drama, noting that “overall, the results show that a number of Australia’s minorities and marginalised communities are under-represented in TV drama compared to the population, in particular people of non-European backgrounds such as Asian, African or Middle Eastern, and people with disabilities.”
However, the report only focused on the aforementioned three aspects separately, not taking into consideration that many Australians are an intersection of multiple diversities. The lack of consideration towards intersectional identities contributes to an overall blind spot when it comes to addressing social cohesion in storytelling and screenwriting.
An awareness of how intersectionality exists in society may assist in preventing screenwriters from falling into a box-ticking exercise of minorities to represent, rather than acknowledging the compounding nature that these identities may have on a character’s experience with discrimination.
This is further elaborated in my colleague Nazli Sevinc’s research into the Hierarchy of Diversity. For example, wanting to write a homosexual character may inadvertently neglect the fact that the experiences of a White gay male will not be the same as a Black gay male, nor will the experience of a straight transgender male represent the experience of a transgender male who identifies as bisexual, and so on.
A lack of awareness in how different combinations of minority existence intersect, and the fact that an intersectional experience is greater than the sum of these minority identities alone, can lead to representation causing more harm than good when it comes to social cohesion.
What are the limitations?
There are issues to be acknowledged in the development of this rudimentary definition of intersectionality, which places White or Anglocentric cisgender male experiences as the norm in society. I argue that it is an unfortunate reality by which we have to adjust our perceptions against in this instance. It does limits the scope of this research as it necessarily demands that any improvement in the representation of intersectional experiences must be made within the bounds of an existing societal structure. Narrowing the scope through which change can be made makes it more difficult to attain that which we set out to change. Put simply, if intersectionality is to accommodate marginalised voices at the dining table of society, the current framework attempts to place more chairs at a table that has not been built to accommodate us, and by doing so limits the ways through which we can empower change.
Thus, this contribution to Cinespace’s social cohesion toolkit is a simplified form of how screenwriters may begin to approach understanding intersectionality and their social responsibility when choosing to portray a minority existence in their work. The real work begins when a new dining table is built entirely from scratch.
Below are a few examples of shows which portray intersectional lives in a way that addresses the complexities of the character’s identity in a positive and nuanced way, weaving their experiences into the fabric of the story and how they react to the world around them.
The Bold Type
The Bold Type is an American comedy-drama series inspired by Joanna Coles’s tenure as editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine. Having just finished its third season, The Bold Type has used the friendship and lives of the three main characters — Jane, Sutton, and Kat — who together effortlessly represent a range of intersections: middle-class straight White girl, an upper-class biracial and bisexual cis female, and a lower socioeconomic straight White girl. This is but a slice of real life; however, the intersectionality of these characters allows the writers to approach and address myriad issues such as politics, sexual identity, and relationships. Amongst other things, these are framed in the safe space of Jane’s, Kat’s, and Sutton’s friendships with one another. To me, The Bold Type is exemplary of a show which manages to seamlessly make a larger point about the society in which these girls live and work.
In season 2 episode 5, the show uses this strength to address the complexities that intersectionality affords any one person, and the privileges they may or may not hold in society. Jane, who is middle-class, straight, and White, clashes with Kat, an upper-class biracial and bisexual female, over a perceived “diversity hire” which costs the then-unemployed Jane a job. Feeling that she would’ve won the position if it hadn’t been for diversity, Jane’s privilege blinds her to the fact that factors outside of race could’ve played a part in her unsuccessful application, blaming a person of colour for costing her success.
Kat: Don’t you think that complaining about a job you didn’t get because you’re White sounds a little… White privilege-y?
Jane: I didn’t get a job that I was perfect for because I’m White. I was just stating a fact.
Kat: But how do you know that whoever did get the job wasn’t more perfect? The fact that you assume they only got it because of some diversity handout makes you sound entitled.
However, Kat is not exempt from the conversation — her class standing has benefited her in many ways, including her position at Scarlet magazine. Jane rightfully points this out, which Kat does not deny; but, by being a person of colour, Kat knows better than Jane through her own lived experiences with racism and prejudice that one kind of privilege does not negate the other circumstances a person may live through.
Jane: And coming from someone who lives in their parents’ loft and has never paid a bill in their entire life, that’s pretty rich.
Kat: It’s actually not about me though.
Jane: Excuse me for being pissed that I didn’t get a job that I know I can do because of something completely out of my control.
Kat: Welcome to the entire existence of people of colour, Jane.
Both perspectives are right, and the brilliance of The Bold Type is that it shines a light on the fact that privilege can’t be weighted or measured in particular ways. The complexities of privilege (and lack thereof) that intersectionality creates makes it near-impossible to measure the power dynamic between any given relationship, and once again underscores the importance of having that intersectional and varied representation on our screens in the first place.
Special follows the life of Ryan, a gay man who lives with cerebral palsy (CP). Feeling limited by his disability, a car accident offers him the chance to reinvent his identity around CP, thus opening up his social and work life. Ryan embraces life without limitations and explores what it means to become an adult, in his eyes. It’s a heart-warming, often hilarious show that chronicles the small instances that make up a whole. Ryan struggles to tie his shoelaces, in the end settling for tucking them into the sides instead. He stresses out about losing his virginity, and ultimately hires a sex worker in a hilarious yet touching scene. Riding the wave of newfound confidence, Ryan also decides to untether himself from his mother and announces that he’s moving out.
All of this is written directly from a lived experience — the series is based on Ryan O’Connell’s memoir — and along with it comes the flaws of a whole person who happens to be gay and have a disability at the same time. Ryan, as a character, deceives, pushes people away, is caustic — but is also vulnerable and coming of age with the same awkwardness and obliviousness the rest of us have felt at some point or another. Special brings us a character who is a true, real, human being who just happens to be intersectional. With disability often a neglected aspect of representation (Screen Australia’s report found only 4% representation to 18% of the population), here it shows why it is important and humanising, allowing us to empathise with those who may be different in the most universal way. As O’Connell himself says in a feature by Vulture, “You don’t have to have cerebral palsy to relate to my story.”
Master of None
Master of None is a Netflix comedy-drama which centres on Dev Shah, a first-generation Indian-American actor, and his life in New York City with his friends Brian, a first-generation Taiwanese-American, and Lena, an African-American lesbian.
Master of None navigates life and communication in the age of Ubers and social media, exploring themes such as migrant life, dating, and balancing those two things with professional ambition in current-day America. By doing so, Master of None approaches intersectionality in a way that doesn’t announce its presence. Lena is a black, lesbian woman — a confluence of race, gender, and sexuality that affects her uniquely compared to her counterparts who may not belong to the same class or group as she.
In season 2, episode 9, “Thanksgiving,” the viewer is taken from Lena’s childhood through to adulthood as she gradually comes out to her mother and family over several Thanksgiving dinners. It addresses concerns her mother has about Lena being black and female, and her concerns about “adding something else to that.” Over the years, Lena’s relationships with both her mother and girlfriends are shown; it’s a tender, touching and extremely personal story through the impersonal view of a lens.
In “Thanksgiving,” Lena’s identity is specifically mentioned only for the purposes of highlighting the impact they each have on her daily life; the show gives the viewer a lens through which to understand the experiences of marginalised groups without drawing attention to what it’s doing. The episode is an example of how empathy can be built through the authentic and personal portrayal of intersectional identities on screen.
The above examples are but a few which writers can look to when considering representation in their work. Diversity isn’t just one thing and intersectionality is a powerful tool for writers looking to address broader themes while truly reflecting current society. Interrogation of intent is crucial and must be taken into account at the beginning of the writing and development process. With care and due diligence, intersectionality may assist in crafting a well-rounded narrative without falling into a box-ticking exercise.
Definition of intersectionality: https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/intersectionality-meaning
Kimberle Crenshaw’s 1989 paper: https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1052&context=uclf
Screen Australia’s report “Seeing Ourselves”: https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/getmedia/157b05b4-255a-47b4-bd8b-9f715555fb44/TV-Drama-Diversity.pdf
Vulture interview with Ryan O’Connell: https://www.vulture.com/2019/04/ryan-oconnell-special-netflix.html
Chloe Wong was a Fellow in the 2019 Cinespace Social Cohesion on Screen Writer's Fellowship, funded by the Victorian Government.
Chloe is a writer and pharmacist from New Zealand. She was born in Singapore to Malaysian parents and is now based in Melbourne, which confuses people who ask where she’s really from. She calls herself a minority trifecta and is passionate about the authentic portrayal of sexual identity and ethnic diversity in any form of media.
This article was first published on https://medium.com/the-screenwriters-social-cohesion-toolkit