Does the Mainstream Press Finally “Get” Intersectionality?

By Catherine M. Orr

About  three weeks ago, an article appeared on the front page of the Style section of the Sunday New York Times: “A Woman Like No Other.” The accompanying graphic made clear which woman we’re talking about:  long straight blonde hair, aviator glasses, hip hugger jeans, and long, lean limbs.  It was the iconic image of Gloria Steinem.

Now I love it when feminism and its legacies are treated as newsworthy. But I also wince a little as I wade in, ready to be disappointed by some skewed bit of history (bra burning) or  one-line dismissal of early radical feminist theorizing (wages for housework or 24 hour day care centers or abortion on demand). It’s always a mixed bag.  And, let’s face it, it always has been; popular media both popularized and dismissed as completely wacky the work of the women’s movements of the 60s and 70s. Therefore, I greeted this article with the assumption that, once again, Gloria Steinem will be reified as some mouthpiece of feminist thinking both then and now.

So when I read in paragraph four, “Where is the next Gloria Steinem, and why — decades after the media spotlight first focused on her — has no one emerged to take her place?”, I let out an audible “ugh!”

Don’t get me wrong, starting from the abjection of Steinem’s brand of feminism characterized in early histories and biographies of late 20th century feminist activism, I’ve actually come a long way. Once I started listening what she had to say, I came admire this icon greatly.  As a straight, white, urban, comfortably middle-class feminist who got more than her fair share of media representation, I’ve found her analysis astute, especially about the intersections of gender, race, class, and sexuality.

In the 1970s, she made a point of speaking along side and continually promoting the ideas of other feminists, most notably Florynce Kennedy, an African American lawyer and civil rights activist who sued to get into Columbia University, represented the Black Panthers, and regularly challenged her audiences’ assumptions about race and gender. In a film I show on day two of my intro course titled, “My Feminism,” Steinem is one of the talking heads who provides the historical and theoretical content for visually rich images that make about a dozen feminist causes come to life in 53 minutes time. In it, she argues that all women must be invested in making “lesbian” a badge of honor as long as that label has the power to take away your job or your kids or your medical benefits, regardless of how you identify.  Somehow, Steinem’s words get through to my straight students in ways that the queer theory I teach seems to too often mystify them. I really appreciate that.

But the perennial focus on Steinem means that other feminists–feminists of color, feminists who do social justice work on issues other than gender, feminists who have more complex readings of the category “woman,” feminists who actually are lesbian–get squeezed out. And the assumption that these articles often make–that their own media norms had nothing to do with the Steinem-as-spokesperson phenomena in the first place–is absolutely maddening.  In fact, this laser-like focus on gender as a singular category of analysis seems to have changed little in press coverage, as Astrid Henry and I discussed earlier on this blog.

So imagine my surprise when the article’s 6th expert weighed in:

Latoya Peterson, editor of the blog Racialicious, said: ‘We’ve entered a period where there isn’t a single narrative about anything. “Feminism” has given way to what other women have termed “feminisms” — all the various ways that we seek justice and equality.’ Take Racialicious, for example. It’s a blog about race and pop culture, but conversations about sexuality, body image and gender stereotypes are regular features. The big political issues of yesteryear have been supplanted by messier sociocultural questions that a new generation debates in its own patois of activism, with terms like ‘rape culture’ and ‘slut shaming’ and ‘fat positive’ and ‘cisgender.’”

I nearly fell off my chair.  Finally, someone that is articulating intersectionality from an intersectional location like Racialicious (a blog I love, by the way) is part of the conversion in news coverage of feminism! Are we turning a page? Or, have I trained myself to keep my expectations so low for so long that even this feels like a game changer?

This was a puff piece after all, mostly an attempt to take a softer news angle on the recent debate on reproductive rights in the U.S. going on in section A.  But I felt heartened, nevertheless.  I want to believe that the versions of feminism that I teach in my Women’s and Gender Studies courses are seeping into the mainstream, even if it is on the front page of the Style section.  Since most folks do get to know feminism through its representations in pop culture–as opposed to their local feminist bookstore or in a WGS course–it’s good to know that those representations are starting account for the complexities and contradictions that have always been a part of feminist theorizing.

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