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My Personal Understanding of Intersectionality

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Intersectionality in Media: Representation is not Optional

As an underclassman in high school, I was an avid Netflix watcher. The majority of my free time was spent watching the latest episode of a show, and then creating art about it or discussing the characters with my friends. Shows such as Supernatural, Sherlock, and Doctor Who dominated my media consumption. Recently, I watched a few episodes of these shows, and was appalled at what I saw. All three of them had a heterosexual white male as the lead character, and in the case of Sherlock and Supernatural, barely had any women with speaking parts at all. I realized that as my worldview was expanded, and as I learned more about intersectionality and representation, especially in media, my taste in television has dramatically shifted and I’m more able to point out the problematic aspects to shows and also find new shows to watch that represent the reality. The new Netflix original Sense8 is a great example of a show that revolves around a very diverse cast, but does not make the main focus of each character their minority status. Diversity is no longer optional in television, proven by the success of Sense8. This show serves as a model for other programs in that it features strong female leads, many people of color, and a fascinating storyline balanced with social problems.

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Sense8 is a science fiction drama about a group of people around the world who are somehow connected to each other and have to work together to survive a plot to kill them all. While at times the storyline is a bit murky, the truly interesting part is the characters and their developments. Because the show frequently employs the use of flashbacks, it is much easier to track each character’s growth throughout the series. Sense8 not only has an interesting plot, but it also deals with issues such as transphobia, racism, homophobia, sexism, and classism. Through character analysis of Nomi Marks, I will discuss the issue of transphobia and racism presented in this show, while connecting the issue of diversity to the larger idea of television as a whole.

Nomi Marks is one of the first characters introduced in the series. It is established that she lives with her girlfriend Amanita in San Francisco, and that she is some sort of blogger or journalist, specializing in the queer community. She is also transgender, and because of this faces a lot of discrimination, both in the queer community and in her own family. Trans discrimination within the queer community is a huge issue, and before Sense8 I had never seen it discussed on television before. In a flashback scene to when Nomi and Amanita first met, Nomi had written an article on why the T should be dropped in LGTBQ+ and was being harassed by a group of people at pride. This issue was framed in a way that made it clear that the people harassing Nomi were in the wrong, regardless of where you stand on the issue. This made me think of the article in Bitch Magazine called On the Ground, where black female journalist Kimberly Adams talks about “the systematic problems of diversity in the media” and says “It allowed me to do what I really like: Tell the stories of women, challenge people’s perspective on something they think they already know about, and represent the diversity of opinion on something that many people view as monolithic” (Hammer, 22). Nomi represents women speaking out about injustices, evidenced by her refusal later in the series to comply with the government or anyone telling her what to do or believe. Later on in this episode, Nomi collapsed during a parade and was taken to the hospital, where her mother and her doctors referred to her as Michael, her birth name, and purposefully misgendered her. The doctor proposed that she had a brain disease, and she must undergo surgery to fix it, and so she was kept in the hospital against her will. This is indicative of a larger problem within the trans community surrounding healthcare.

A very important factor in Nomi’s character is her relationship with her girlfriend Amanita. Not only is it unusual to see a lesbian couple portrayed in a healthy relationship in television, but it’s nearly unheard of to have an interracial lesbian couple. As Nathaniel Philips says “Race is one of the most, if not the most, significant factors of our identity. It shapes our ideas on sexuality, gender, power, success, love, religion, our ideals, our hopes, and our dreams. We are all racialized beings, and the media is inherently interested in portrayals of race in American society” (1). While I do agree that the media is interested in portrayals of race, I think it tends to be tired stereotypes, or the token person of color that is portrayed as opposed to an independent character. This is something I see differently in Sense8. Because half of the main characters are people of color, and of the white characters only two are Americans, it would seem sloppy and bad writing to fall back on the tired racial tropes. I believe this is the push we must make towards more diversity, because let’s be honest, stereotypes aren’t funny or clever. Derald Wing Sue says “Many white Americans have a difficulty acknowledging race-related issues because they elicit guilt about their privileged status, threatens their self-image as fair, moral, and decent human beings, and more important, suggest that their “unawareness” allows for the perpetuation of inequities and harm to POC” (1). I believe this to be true, which is why it is imperative that not only white people run the show. When we made our own television short in class, I realized that it’s much easier to fall back on characters you share some experience with, which made it harder for me to empathize and talk create a realistic character who struggled with their gender, because that is something I’ve never personally dealt with. It might have been easier if I had input from other people who have gone through a similar situation as I was writing the script. This speaks to the need for diversity among writers and directors of other television shows as well.

Because Sense8 has so many complex female leads, it is a strong example of feminism in media. Not all the women presented are strong in the same way, but each has their own unique strengths. In her book Fantasy Girls, Elyce Rae Helford states “Though we now have female warriors, ships captains, witches, aliens, and superheroes, they remain overwhelmingly white (or at least portrayed by white actresses), heterosexual, and silent on such issues as class disenfranchisement” (5). While this definitely proves to be true for much of the media currently out there, I can sense a definite shift in television culture, as consumers push for more diversity. Netflix is pioneering in that it has debuted quite a few shows in the past few years that deal with intersectional identities and issues, and hopefully other media outlets will begin to follow suit.

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