colored illustration on intersectionality

Anthropology: Overview of the Concept of ‘Intersectionality’

Intersectionality is a term that has become more popular in recent years. The awareness of it has been steadily growing. Despite this, the concept of intersectionality remains confusing to many people. The idea behind the concept is complex. Social categorizations such as gender, class, and race interconnect. This means that both the oppression and privilege that we live in, overlaps. This article will overview the intersectionality of gender and race and explore how gender and race can be viewed as representational intersectionality in Oscar nominations and the film industry as a whole.

The origins of “intersectionality”

First coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Crenshaw wrote a paper titled ” Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: a Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics”. In this paper, she discussed Black feminism and how Black females experience the overlapping of two social categorizations (or identities) i.e. gender and ethnicity. Crenshaw highlighted that these identities are interdependent, they reinforce each other and create oppression (Crenshaw, 1989: 151). Therefore, “intersectionality” is defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage” (Oxford Dictionary).

Crenshaw explains the concept of intersectionality by referring to crossroads:

“Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in an intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination. . . . But it is not always easy to reconstruct an accident: Sometimes the skid marks and the injuries simply indicate that they occurred simultaneously, frustrating efforts to determine which driver caused the harm” (Crenshaw in Smith, 2016).

In 1990, Sociologist, Patricia Hill Collins, further developed the concept of intersectionality by saying that intersectionality is an “analysis claiming that systems of race, social class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, and age form mutually construction features of social organization, which shape Black women’s experiences and, in turn, are shaped by Black women” (Collins, 2000: 299). Collins referred to the intersection of different forms of inequality as the “matrix of domination”. These are the “vectors of oppression and privilege”. Collins looks at how differences among people (for example, class, race, gender, age etc.) serve as oppressive indicators towards women and change the experiences women face in society. The oppression is intensifying the differences further.

Black and white illustration for intersectionality of gender and race

Types of intersectionality

In “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color” (1991), Crenshaw suggests that there are three types of intersectionality.

Structural intersectionality – refers to how the experiences of people within a particular category are qualitatively different from each other, depending on their other intersecting identities. It focuses on the individual experiences of people at the intersections of multiple identities. Thus, structural intersectionality involves the ways in which classism, sexism, and racism intertwine and oppress women of color while molding their experiences in different spheres. Therefore, we have more than one identity and our position in society is influenced by all types of identities that we possess. However, if these identities intersect, then we are more likely to be oppressed.

Another aspect of intersectionality that Crenshaw highlighted is political intersectionality. She introduced the concept in 1991, to indicate how different inequalities intersect and how they are relevant to policies and political strategies of groups of people who possess multiple secondary identities. Crenshaw argues that the experiences of women of color differ from those of white women and men of color, as their race and gender intersect. White women suffer from gender bias, and men of color suffer from racial bias. Meanwhile, women of color suffer from the intersection of racial and gender bias. Crenshaw demonstrates that the concerns of women of color were neither addressed by feminist movements nor by antiracist movements. Therefore, she argues that “the failure of feminism to interrogate race…will often replicate and reinforce the subordination of people of color, and the failure of antiracism to interrogate patriarchy means that antiracism will frequently reproduce the subordination of women” (Crenshaw in Dennissen et al, 2018).

Finally, representational intersectionality explores how the media, especially film and television, represent and reinforce the oppressive stereotypes about women of color.  Middle-class white women are represented in a variety of roles and often portrayed as liberated. Meanwhile, women of color are portrayed in more stereotypical roles, which reinforces the oppressive state that many people believe Western societies have overcome.

Graph illustrating different forms of oppression intersectionality

Representational intersectionality – gender and race in the film industry

Representational intersectionality is especially prominent in the film industry. Women of color are often portrayed in films as sassy, or associated with crime. Crenshaw points out that Latina women tend to be portrayed as “loud, unscrupulous, racialized other”, African-American women “wild and animal-like”, and Asian-American women as passive. Women of color are also more likely to be nominated for the Oscar awards if they play a stereotypical role. Therefore, Black women portrayed in films do not reflect their authentic experiences (Crenshaw, 1991).

This is not only exclusive to America, in the UK, Black and ethnic minority groups also face tremendous levels of exclusion from the film industry. According to already existing research, film productions were over twice as likely to represent gender difference than Race/Ethnicity and other underrepresented groups across many on-screen roles and off-screen positions.

For example, Black women are often depicted in the film as maids or “Mammy”, an idealized figure of a loyal, maternal, caregiver or a sassy woman, devoted to her owners/employers. This can be seen in the roles of Hattie McDaniel (Gone with the Wind, 1939), Calpurnia (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960), Louise (Forrest Gump, 1994), or Aibleen Clark (The Help, 2011).

Another stereotypical representation of women is the Jezebel or sexpot. This is seductive, alluring, and tempting. Women of color are often portrayed as innately promiscuous, and even predatory. Examples of such roles can be seen in Pam Grier, 1973 (Coffy), Monster’s Ball, 2001 (Leticia Musgrove), or Nine, 2009 (Carla).

color image of a Black woman portraying Maid in a film
Hattie McDaniel in “Gone With the Wind” (

#OscarsSoWhite – representational intersectionality in Oscars nominations

#OscarsSoWhite is a social justice campaign that began six years ago after another year of an all-white set of acting nominations. It began due to the fact that 92% of top film directors were men and 86% of top films featured white actors in the lead roles. This is not representative of Western society, yet the pattern has been continuing for decades. Black girls and women are 6.5 % of the US population, but only 3.7% of leads/co-leads in the 100 top-grossing films of the last decade.  In 2020, actress Issa Rae announced a list of Oscars nominees for best director that excluded women. After announcing the list, she said “Congratulations to those men” (Ugwu, 2020). Every year for decades, the list of nominees suggests that there has been no change, and Oscars have not faced up to its race problems.

Since the 1980s, Black actresses have won only 9% of Oscars. Hispanic and Asian actresses both won 3%, compared to 89% of white actresses and 84% of white actors. There have also been only six people of color who have won the Best Actor/Actress award in a leading role. Five of them were men, and only one was a woman (Halle Berry). This illustrates that if two or more identities intersect, it is less likely to be cast in a film and win. In other words, women of color are basically invisible in Oscar nominations.

One of the main reasons for this is because, when casting actresses, film directors are looking for women that have more Eurocentric features. For example, Zoe Saldana, who played Nina Simone (Lorenzo, 2016). In addition to this, most Black leading ladies (57.1%) from popular films in the past decade are portrayed with hairstyles that conform to European standards of beauty as opposed to natural Black hairstyles.

Women of color are even less likely to be recognized for their work as film directors. In the 90-year history of the Academy Awards, they have never been nominated for categories such as the Best Director. Overall, there have been only five women nominated for this category. This is due to the general belief in contemporary Western society that filmmaking is a man’s job. Thus, women are completely neglected in the nominations.

data on oscar nominations and wins by race

What has changed since 2016?

Although Hollywood loves to talk about diversity and inclusion, it is not implementing any dramatic changes. However, there seems to be a greater need for diverse storylines and content, suggesting that perhaps, the industry is moving towards a positive change. In a study by Professor Stacy L. Smith and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, there seems to be some evidence suggesting improvement toward inclusion.

According to the report, which examined 53,178 characters in 1,200 top films from 2007-2018, 27 movies had leading or co-leading roles, played by underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. The percentage of characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups rose from 29.3% in 2017 to 36.3% in 2019. In addition to this, 11 out of 100 top-grossing films in 2018 featured women of color or an underrepresented racial/ethnic group in a lead or co-lead role – almost three times as many films as a year before, in 2017. There was also an increase in black directors who directed movies in the 100 top-grossing films of 2018. However, the directorial inclusion and representation for women and people of color is still far below 50%, despite some increase in females represented at the Sundance Film Festival.

Intersectionality of gender and race across cultures

In a global context, different cultures show differences in how gender and race (and other social identities) interdepend and interact with each other. In Malaysia, for example, the discipline of computer science is dominated by women. Meanwhile, in Western societies, we tend to have a gender bias when it comes to gender and technology studies. Thus, the way in which gender and race intersect varies across cultures and times.

Some scholars reject the Western feminist theory when they associate global women of color with “third world women”. Women experience intersections of oppression that are influenced by their location, history, and culture, and when Western feminists write about women in the global South, they often neglect their many intersecting identities. This leads to a lack of homogeneity and intersecting identities. This is presented in the feminist movement in India, where women practice feminism within social structures and the continuing results of colonization that are different from Western and other non-Western societies.

Moreover, there is an ongoing issue around the world between the relationship of the law and intersectionality. In the UK, for example, Section 14 of the Equality Act 2010, contains a provision to cover direct discrimination on up to two combined grounds – known as combined or dual discrimination. However, this section has never been brought into effect as the government deemed it too ‘complicated and burdensome for businesses” (Wren, 2018).

Third World feminists and transnational feminists criticize the concept of intersectionality for being rooted in WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) societies that generalize women’s experiences.

Significance in cultural anthropology

Intersectionality is a major paradigm of research in women’s studies around the world. Feminism and the theory of intersectionality are necessary to understand that women of color possess overlapping identities that influence their everyday life experiences, and that this can be especially seen in the media and film industry. In Hollywood, and Western society as a whole, actresses of color continue to be underrepresented, despite some positive changes in the last five years.

According to Marxist Feminism, although all women are oppressed, white women have privileges within western society and are less likely to be subject to stereotyping and discrimination than black women. Unpacking the relationship of anthropology with the intersections between gendered and raced dynamics is very complex. As a field of study, anthropology has been attempting to overcome ethnocentrism and to remove the beliefs of cultural and ethnic supremacy.


Crenshaw, K. (1989) Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. Available:

Dennissen, M., Benschop, Y., van den Brink, M. (2018) Rethinking Diversity Management: An Intersectional Analysis of Diversity Networks. Vol. 41. No. 2. SAGE Journals. Available:

Hill Collins, P. (2000) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd Ed. London: Routledge.

Lorenzo, A. (2016) The Film Industry is Steeped in Racism Whether You Want to Admit it or Not. Available:

Ngan-ling Chow, E., Segal, M., Tan, L. (2013) Analyzing Gender, Intersectionality, and Multiple Inequalities: Global, Transnational and Local Contexts. 

Smith, S. (2016) Black Feminism and Intersectionality. Issue no. 91. International Socialist Review. Available:

Ugwu, R. (2020) The Hashtag That Changed the Oscars: An Oral History.  Available:

Wren, A. (2018) Intersectionality: What is it and Why Does it Matter for Employers?

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