ORIGIN STORY

Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) coined the term intersectionality. The concept traces its roots to black feminism in the U.S. which analysed how not only gender but also race and class affect the lives of black women (Crenshaw, 1990; MacKinnon, 2013). The scope of intersectionality has now widened within and outside academia to include other social categories. Intersectionality scholars, activists, and practitioners investigate how multiple and complex social inequalities interact with each other (Cho et al., 2013; Choo and Ferree, 2010; Collins, 2015; Davis, 2008; Jordan-Zachery, 2007). Your life is significantly better or worse based on where you live and on your gender, gender identity and expression, class, race, sexuality, ethnicity, national/regional origin, religion, disability, and age. Intersectionality can thus be applied to different local and global contexts. The internet has played a significant role in popularising the concept of intersectionality in non-academic contexts (Hancock, 2016; Kanai, 2019). Social media hashtags, discussions, and debates about popular culture representations are used to raise awareness about various intersectional issues.

Some scholars believe that including more categories in an intersectional analysis may not allow researchers to examine a single group with the same depth. However, as Lykke (2011) and McCall (2008) argue, including categories which are overlooked in intersectional scholarship can provide new insights. Which intersectional categories gain prominence is based on social, political, and geographical contexts. People may be oppressed in some contexts and privileged in others. For example, I’m suddenly a person of colour and an immigrant in the UK whereas these two categories have no relevance in my life in India. Intersectional categories are fluid, contested, and open to debate – they largely don’t have universal applications (McCall, 2008; Okolosie, 2014; Romero, 2018). People can also be both oppressed and oppressor based on their specific social and systemic contexts – people are rarely only privileged or only oppressed (Alinia, 2015; Purkayastha, 2012; Windsong, 2018). Geerts and Van der Tuin (2013) believe that intersectionality’s focus on the most marginalised categories erases the experiences of those who are partially or fully privileged. Ignoring how privilege intersects with oppression can lead to a less nuanced understanding of complex identities and social structures. Intersecting oppressions and privileges shape most people’s experiences (Choo and Ferree, 2010; Nash, 2008; Śliwa et al., 2018).

Much of intersectional scholarship and discussions privilege black women’s experiences – so much so that sometimes intersectionality is equated to black feminism rather than as a concept with roots in black feminist scholarship (Okolosie, 2014). Crenshaw (2015) herself notes that while the term intersectionality was originally meant to talk about black women’s experiences in the U.S., it now encompasses all those marginalised groups whose experiences are erased. Privileging race and gender in intersectional discussions can end up marginalising other identities and oppressions (Hancock, 2007; Okolosie, 2014). Yosso (2005) notes that conversations about race in the U.S. usually end up focusing on African Americans and ignoring the perspectives of Latinx and Native American populations. In the context of Indian feminism, privileged urban issues tend to drown out the perspectives and experiences of rural, tribal, Dalit, and poor women (Chakraborty, 2018). I believe that intersectionality need not always be restricted to women either. While women do face a disproportionate amount of social and structural oppression, men can also inhabit oppressed identities based on their contexts. Intersectionality encourages us to examine more than one injustice at a time. Inhabiting a marginalised identity does not automatically mean you share the perspectives of others who are oppressed. Intersectional scholars and practitioners advocate for collaboration between different marginalised groups so that people can learn from diverse lived experiences in order to challenge and transform unequal systems (Chakraborty, 2018; Gentile and Salerno, 2019; Gillborn, 2015; Roberts and Jesudason, 2013).  

Intersectionality does not exclusively or primarily focus on social categories; it also examines structural and political inequalities (Alinia, 2015; Cho et al., 2013). This project focuses on the established structural systems of cultural representations. Stories within mainstream media are important because they shape ideas about cultures (Gatson and Reid, 2012). The ways in which dominant and marginalised groups are represented in popular culture can normalise oppressive stereotypes. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes “the danger of a single story”:

“It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is ‘nkali.’ It’s a noun that loosely translates to ‘to be greater than another.’ Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

(Adichie, 2009)

The internet offers room for diverse intersectional identities and experiences. Intersectionality has emphasised the importance of including the perspectives of multiply marginalised people and groups. Inclusion is not a trivial issue since marginalised experiences can provide complex and nuanced insights about social injustice (Choo and Ferree, 2010; Purkayastha, 2012). People from marginalised backgrounds use social media to engage in intersectional, multidimensional conversations and  “talk back” to dominant mainstream narratives which peddle stereotypes (Tynes et al., 2016). They use “the personal is political” framework to contextualise their multiple and diverse lived experiences (Geerts and Van der Tuin, 2013). Such conversations can help raise awareness about issues which are otherwise invisible in mainstream discourse. However, as with everything on the internet, discussions about intersectionality can attract anger and targeted harassment. Early internet researchers believed the shift to online life would allow people to escape racism but racism, among other forms of hate and oppression, has also shifted to the internet and manifests in new ways (Daniels, 2013; Yao, 2018).

THE FANDOM STORY

Online fan communities attract fans from different cultures and countries. There are possibilities for intersectional conversations within fandom where fans use the fictional framework to navigate experiences which matter to them. As Alinia (2015) argues, intersectionality isn’t just concerned with oppression but also the activism and agency of marginalised groups within oppressive social structures. Rukmini Pande (2017) has done extensive research on race, racism, and representation in fandom. Many conversations about intersectionality within fandom tend to mirror those in other parts of the internet and within intersectional scholarship. One of Pande’s respondents complained that while discussing race in fandom, the focus tends to be on African American and Latinx issues, marginalising Asian and Asian-American perspectives. This also erases other intersections of oppression which go beyond race.

Mel Stanfill (2019) features a discussion with fans of colour about their experiences in a marginalised corner of the fanfiction community. The fans believe that even in those areas of fandom which are populated by queer marginalised groups and which position themselves as progressive and inclusive, there are racist and ableist undertones. Ableism refers to discrimination against people with physical and/or mental disabilities. The fans argue that inhabiting one marginalised identity is often used as an excuse to not question implicit biases about other marginalisations. They also critique the lack of representations and conversations featuring queer and trans people of colour. Gatson and Reid (2012) note that fans of colour have long borne the brunt of antiracist work within fandom. The fans Stanfill spoke to echo this sentiment and contend that fans from dominant groups need to be allies so that marginalised fans aren’t the only ones engaged in activist work. They also advocate for more intersectional coalitions between fans from different marginalised groups (Stanfill, 2019). Conversations about intersectional issues shouldn’t be relegated to a niche category, restricted to only those whose lives are oppressed or whose experiences are erased. These discussions need to be a part of mainstream discourse to challenge the normative idea of a fan as white, able-bodied, middle class, and from the U.S. or the UK. Eri, a Brazilian, nonbinary, and neurodivergent fan sums it up:

“Don’t think you know what it’s like to go through something that you personally don’t/didn’t experience yourself. You may think you do, but believe me, you don’t. Never stop listening to other people’s experiences with oppression, and never stop learning.”

(Stanfill, 2019)

Conversations about marginalisation tend to be isolated to separate corners of fandom. However, Pande (2017) proposes that with fandom’s shift to more dialogic platforms like Twitter and Tumblr, marginalised fans are growing more comfortable about expressing their identities and about advocating for stories and characters which represent them. This allows other marginalised fans to find like-minded members where conversations about erasure aren’t dismissed. Online fan communities can increase awareness of intersectional issues. Fans use their diverse personal, social, cultural, political, and ideological contexts to interpret and respond to the texts they read. Marginalised fans, whose lives are missing or misrepresented in popular culture, can use fan texts to offer diverse and complex representations of themselves. For example, there are now an increasing number of conversations about how disabled students navigate Hogwarts, the ways in which the Doctor can make the world more accessible for disabled companions, how Muslim Hogwarts students celebrate Ramadan, trans student experiences in Hogwarts, and the need for more diverse Time Lords in the TARDIS.

Image: A screenshot of a Tumblr post by bertiebottsbigbean

Text: why don't we talk about muslim kids in hogwarts during ramadan? imagine waking up at 3 every morning and walking down for suhoor, to find the house elves have prepared a feast for them. imagine the kids having extended curfew, so they can go and eat iftar at 10, where the house elves once again provide a ten course meal, topped with dates and traditional delicacies from around the world. imagine the kids being allowed to go into the kitchens in the middle of the night if they were still in the mood to eat. imagine the kids being allowed to leave class to do their prayers, and spending lunch times to read the quran. we need to talk more about muslim kids in hogwarts.
A fan text on Tumblr imagining how Muslim students celebrate Ramadan in Hogwarts. (bertiebottsbigbean, cited in life-of-fandoms722, 2018).
Image: A screenshot of two tweets by Gene Demby (@GeeDee215)

Text: "They shouldn't make The Doctor a woman or POC to make some political point!" 

Whiteness is not neutral. Maleness is not neutral. 

Thirteen white dudes in a row playing a character meant to regenerate with a totally new identity every few years...is a political stance.
A fan text on Twitter calling for more diverse Time Lords in Doctor Who (ithelpstodream, 2017).

MY STORY

I’ve encountered diverse viewpoints within the context of online fandom which have made me re-evaluate my interpretation and understanding not only of the fictional text but also my own experiences. I consider intersectionality in fandom as something that fans belonging to both multiply marginalised and dominant groups negotiate together. By using their favourite texts to voice their perspectives and experiences, fans educate both me – the researcher – and each other. My project uses an open-ended approach to explore practical examples of intersectionality and invisibility which occur in spaces beyond academia and traditional feminist circles. Most intersectional scholarship and discussions I’ve encountered are USA-centric and tend to largely focus on race as an analytical category. My project seeks to expand both the geographical and categorical contexts by using the framework of fan podcasts to include other intersections of oppression.