Intersectionality – specifically, the intersection of feminism and race as it pertains to Black women – has become a bit of a Tumblr buzzphrase that is generally applied to major social issues. But it has a real and important place in fandom as well, and while that is generally accepted on the surface, it has come to mean (to folks to don’t actually get it) simply acknowledging the existence of Black women.
Here’s the thing, though. Intersectionality isn’t white women reblogging photos of black women with the caption “omg so beautiful!” It isn’t fancasting Lupita in everything or having “poc” headcanons of white characters. It doesn’t even necessarily mean supporting existing Black women characters (though that’s a start). Those things are inclusive, but they’re not necessarily intersectional.
To understand the intersectionality of feminism and race in media (and, by extension, fandom), one must understand the fundamental differences between what is considered empowering for white women vs. what is empowering for Black women. (Hint: due to many years of dehumanization of Black women while white women have been portrayed as The Ideal, these two perceptions are almost diametrically opposite.)
Take the Strong Woman who isn’t there to be loved. White women love this trope, because white women in media are so often primarily seen as love interests. I can understand how that can be frustrating, and how it can be refreshing to see, say, Furiosa in Mad Max. But – and this is important – the Strong Woman trope, applied to a Black woman, reads entirely differently, and to ignore that ignores intersectionality altogether.
Black women have almost never been the ones who need protecting in media. Black women aren’t sick and tired of always being love interests. The Strong Independent Woman (thanks in part to fandom repeatedly using the term to try and keep women of color in their romance-free place) has become virtually a slur when it comes to Black women in media in the same way the Damsel in Distress makes white women’s skin crawl. If you care about intersectionality at all, it’s important to understand that. The experience of Black women in media is the Bizarro World version of white women’s experience.
Most “inclusive” feminists can see the disparity between Scarlett O’Hara and Mammie, and (I hope) understand that Mammie was dehumanized and otherized. The Scarlett and Mammie trope lives on today, with only the most un-PC parts of the Mammy character removed. Otherizing Black women is not yet widely considered un-PC. It still continues in the media we consume every day. And just because they’re often glorified for being so strong, so tough, and so independent it doesn’t make it OK.
Abbie Mills is a tough, independent badass – but Katrina embodied “womanhood,” precious and pure. Michonne is a tough, independent badass – but Jessie embodies “womanhood.” And on and on.
It has been said so many times, but it hardly ever seems to sink in: It is progressive and feminist for Black women to be the precious ones, the love interests, the damsels who need saving.
So if you instinctively ask why a Black woman can’t just be strong or get upset if she is “reduced to a love interest,” allowed the kind of romantic storyline you take for granted and spit on, the answer is: Your brand of feminism doesn’t apply here.
And, you know, that doesn’t negate that brand of feminism. Intersectionality (of all kinds) asks you to look at feminism as something that is complex, not a set of one-size-fits-all rules.
One of the many reasons why I will never stop writing my characters in loving relationships and being adored by their love interests. Other than the fact that I adore that shit. But this is what I’ve been saying forever.
There’s a sizable gap to overcome between being a writer who cares about representation and even-handedness and combating harmful tropes, and a writer who can actually do those things through their fiction. Posts like these help me be a better writer. Thank you.