Intersectionality Theory: A way of looking at texts so as to trace simultaneously the interlocking oppressions they describe and enforce; a recognition that authors, characters, and societies produce and are products of all their particular privileges and oppressions acting at once, and cannot ultimately reduced to or explained by any one of them.
(A thing I wrote in my notebook today, while sitting, ironically, in my undergraduate alma mater‘s library – working while I waited for the 2:30 curtain of their production of Avenue Q, a musical that debuted the year I graduated from said alma mater and that had me singing “What Do You Do With A B.A. in English?” and “I Wish I Could Go Back to College” right about the time a stageful of pottymouthed puppets made them cool.)
Even after admitting that all I’ve wanted since I was nine years old was a Ph.D. in English, and even after realizing that I have absolutely zero desire to perform any job for which my J.D. might be required ever, I’ve hesitated to go back to graduate school for English because, frankly, until now I’ve had no idea what the hell I would study. English graduate programs are nearly all theory-based these days, or so I hear; students are expected to have read the books before they get there, and instead spend five to eight years speculating wildly about their contents. But what kind of speculation was my speculation?
Then, see this helpful example, because my definition makes no more useful sense than any other definition of a literary theory:
After several months of speculating wildly about Sapphira and the Slave Girl, I’ve come to think of this novel as a “yes, and” book. Yes, there’s some intense rape culture narrative going on here, and you can’t talk about it without also talking about sexism and feminist theory. Yes, and there’s a huuuuge race angle, as one would expect in a novel set on an antebellum Virginia plantation. Yes, and there are some definite gender identity issues at play, particularly in the portrayal of Sapphira Colbert and her husband. Yes, and no discussion of any of this makes sense unless you also consider how Sapphira’s disability works in this book.
Yes, and. Yes, and. YES, AND….
I’ve been in vehement agreement with Flavia Dzodan’s now-iconic Tiger Beatdown post ever since I first read its title in October 2011: MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WILL BE BULLSHIT. That’s held me back from just throwing myself into feminist literary theory, actually: yes, I feminist all over the place, and what about all these other things too? What about race, gender identity, disability, class? YES, AND?
Intersectionality, or the need to look at multiple categories of oppression and corresponding privilege, has occupied third-wave feminists for at least twenty years. I intend for it to occupy my graduate work (because, let’s face it, a Ph.D. in English is STILL the thing I want most in the world, followed immediately by teaching postsecondary English, even and perhaps enthusiastically freshman composition). I think intersectionality matters a great deal, not only as a way to speculate wildly about texts, but also as a way to “read” the world – not just books and films and song lyrics, but legislation and court opinions and human behavior and “throwaway” Facebook memes. Intersectionality is a tool I can give students that will help them be better human beings, even if they never pick up another book once they’ve passed my final exam.*
Because I think that not only do racism and sexism and classism and insert your kyriarchical oppression of choice matter, but that they cannot be treated independently of one another without turning our literature – and thus ourselves – into caricatures. The way we use all of these things in books affect not only what goes on in the text itself, but also how we talk about that text, how we teach it, and how we use it for or against ourselves and others.
The stories we tell about ourselves and others matter. The way we decide who is “ourselves” and who is “others” and how we communicate that in the stories we tell matters. And how we use those texts for and against ourselves and others plays out differently depending on what privileges or oppressions are at stake.
The definition of what I want to do coalesced for me today, but it’s been percolating for a while, and largely thanks to Sapphira and the Slave Girl. I’ve been trying to pin down the rape-culture narratives rampant in this book while still managing to produce a paper and not another book – but there is no getting around the respective races of the two title characters, no matter how badly I want to focus just on the rapey bits. The race matters to the rape. So does Sapphira’s disability. So, I suspect, does the gender-queering Cather engages in in this book, though that’s a topic on which I still feel largely clueless. (Back to the library!) And I feel like a sellout when I ignore those for the sake of a single – here, sexism-centered – argument.
I can do better. And by doing better, I can leave behind work that in turn expects and inspires more from those who come after me. I can live, and die, happy with that.
*Everything I say is fair game for the exam. Including all my bad puns, all my references to movies made before you were born, and all my swear words.