“Pariah,” “Tangerine,” and the Particularities of Intersectionality

Intersectionality is a term often used to describe the ways in which different marginalized peoples — women, African-Americans, homosexuals, and so on — face discrimination in ways which are interrelated and overlapping. The term was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in order to address the unique kinds of prejudice which black women face in the workplace as well as in their private lives, prejudices which are not adequately addressed solely through anti-racist or feminist theories. This is the group that Crenshaw is most concerned with in her 1989 article “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex” and, in a follow-up article expanding on the ideas in the former, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” In these articles, Crenshaw demonstrates how overlapping categories like “female” and “black” not only tend to form their own distinct class which faces marginalization from the “female” and “black” fronts, but also from a distinctly and specifically “black female” front as well in areas of employment and in areas of domestic violence and rape.

For Crenshaw, the experiences of black women in particular have been subjected to what she refers to as “the single-axis analysis that distorts these experiences.” In her examples, drawn from several legal battles wherein black women alleged discrimination because they were black women, time and time again the courts tended to rule against the plaintiffs in the case, in some way or another, claiming that black women cannot specifically represent all women in discrimination charges, or must specifically represent all black employees in discrimination charges, and so on. The point which Crenshaw makes is that ultimately, there is a hierarchy — which Crenshaw likens to different marginalized groups standing on one another’s shoulders attempting to reach the “ceiling” — in reality, the most privileged class’ floor — while making the claim of “but for” the ceiling, they would be in the other room. The ones who are most subject to make the claim “but for” the ceiling, in Crenshaw’s analysis, are white women and black men, who are the most privileged representatives of womanhood and blackness. The experiences of white women are taken as the experiences of women as a whole, and so black womanhood and the prejudices encountered specifically by black womanhood; likewise, the experiences of black men are taken as the experiences of blackness as a whole. This tends to erase the experiences of black women in particular, who are not only often subjected to prejudice based on their gender and skin color, but also unique prejudices that come specifically because they are black women.

Continuing from this analysis of how the position that black women occupy is distinct from the positions of white women and black men, Crenshaw turns her attentions in “Mapping the Margins” towards the ways in which not just black women, but women of color from myriad ethnic backgrounds experience domestic violence and rape in ways that their white or male contemporaries do not. Crenshaw illustrates the lapses of understanding which feminist and antiracist efforts tend to exhibit by examining how institutions like the United States Congress, shelters for battered women, social justice groups, and the police overlook women of color. For instance, in amending immigration law, Congress exhibited a failure in understanding how, though some immigrated spouses may have the means of requesting a waiver in their application for US citizenship due to battery, many others cannot access information or readily navigate the world outside their homes due to not understanding English or coercion from their abusive spouses threatening deportation, whether legitimate or not. Shelters for battered women are often organized along white middle-class female experiences of violence, failing to take into account the needs of some women of color for basic necessities like food, or care for immediate relatives. Social justice groups argue for the suppression of statistics held by police forces like the LAPD related to battery to avoid either the dismissal of battery as a “minority problem,” or the further stereotyping of black men as brutal savages. It even affects how police conduct their business. Black women and Black communities are often resistant to police investigating in their affairs. Asian women and Asian families, desiring to save face and avoid perceived shame from the public, will often stay quiet.

This approach to intersectionality, which pays attention to the particular overlapping of various positions of privilege and positions of marginalization, could be expanded further by examining the distinct experiences of two other subjects: black, butch lesbians, and black, transgender women. Indeed, Crenshaw notes in “Mapping the Margins” how the factors she addresses do not fully include categories “such as class or sexuality,” which “are often as critical in shaping the experiences of women of color.” Black butch lesbians, who favor more masculine means of expression in clothing and hairstyles, feature prominently in the 2011 film Pariah, directed by Dee Rees and starring Adepero Oduye as Alike, a teenager who has long known about and been comfortable with her own sexuality, but who must closet her butch, lesbian tendencies when at home due to her homophobic mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans). There are myriad instances of erasure throughout the film which demonstrate how butch lesbians like Alike and her friend Laura (Pernell Walker) face instances of erasure, but the most notable ones involve their respective mothers. An early moment in the film involves Audrey discussing with her coworker a blouse she has bought for Alike and venting how difficult it can be clothes shopping for her daughter. Besides the kind of erasure which comes with insisting on Alike wearing more feminine, less masculine clothing — a later argument over church wear results in Alike shedding a masculine suit for the very same blouse from this scene — Alike’s identity is erased in another way, in how Audrey’s coworker mistakenly believes Alike to be her younger sister, Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse). This moment throws Audrey for a moment before she corrects her coworker, but already it is apparent that by substituting the more feminine presenting sister in for the “tomboy” which Alike represents, the distinct experiences that come with butch lesbianism are passed over and further subjected to marginalization. Laura more explicitly experiences the marginalization that butch lesbians like herself face when she attempts to reach out to and update her mother (Ozzie Stewart) on the advances she’s worked toward in her life. Standing on the walkway to her mother’s home, Laura speaks to her mother about how she has found an apartment of her own and how she has obtained her GED. The entire time, Laura is met with a cold stare and silence from her mother, who has disowned her for her sexuality, and Laura’s mother keeps the front door between herself and her child as a further means of disavowal, as a means of guarding herself and closing herself off. This gesture, of keeping the door almost closed, essentially pushes away Laura, and it is when Laura attempts to bridge this distance by offering proof of obtaining her GED that her mother shuts her out completely. Even as individuals like Laura attempt to assert their own experiences as being real and legitimate, individuals like her mother will take overt means of silencing and erasing them. If Pariah could be considered inadequate in any way, it is in how it does not quite convey every dimension of the unique position of characters like Alike in society at large. Alike exists entirely within a black community and the film is concerned mainly with her sexuality rather than her position as a black woman; one could easily transplant Pariah’s story and characters into a story involving gay white men. It does not make Pariah less valuable or true as a film, but it perhaps should not be taken as the total experience of butch, black lesbians.

Black, transgender women are another class of marginalized individuals to whom Crenshaw’s analysis can extend. In 2015’s Tangerine, directed by Sean Baker, two transgender street prostitutes named Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are the focus of a Christmas Eve day in which Sin-Dee, in a fit of righteous fury, attempts to track down a white “fish” — a term used derogatorily to refer to women born biologically female — with whom her pimp and boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) had an affair. At the outset, the status which these two women occupy is precarious because of their gender identity and their occupation, which they most likely did not choose but rather were pushed to accept because of their circumstances. In more specific instances, there are again two that can be discussed among many in the film. One involves Alexandra’s musical performance at a bar that she pays for in the hopes of expressing herself to others, which ultimately proves to be a hope dashed as only one of her friends manages to appear, and late at that with Chester’s “fish” lover Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan). Contrary to what could have been a drag show sequence, Alexandra sings instead a quiet, moving rendition of “Toyland,” from the operetta Babes in Toyland, an ode to lost innocence; however, the bar’s manager is derisive in his references to Alexandra’s performance, and Dinah herself mocks Alexandra for having to pay to perform there. It is unlikely, though, that a white, cisgender woman such as Dinah would have had to pay for the opportunity to perform even a song as “respectable” as “Toyland” in such an establishment; it certainly would not have been expected for her to dress in drag as well. Besides this, a later, disturbing instance of violence marks the other distinct ways in which transgender individuals like Sin-Dee and Alexandra are marginalized compared to other women of color. As a sullen Sin-Dee tries to secure johns for money, she approaches a vehicle which has rolled its window down to arrange for a session. Instead, one of the men inside throws a glass of urine into her face, and calls her a “tranny faggot” before driving off into the night. The slurs and the assault with the glass of urine are the most overtly violent aspect of this moment in the film, but it also implies the precarious position of these two women as well in that they do not have the same access to institutions of justice or the same rights as other minority figures. Antidiscrimination law protect transgender individuals is sorely lacking in society, as are policies and practices which seek to accommodate such subjects in pursuing cases against hate crimes such as these. Combined with the fact that, as Crenshaw notes, black communities are unlikely to cooperate with the police, the act of violence which Sin-Dee experiences is unfortunately one that is unlikely to be prosecuted.

Though Pariah may not quite capture the unique ways in which being black, being female, being lesbian, and being butch intersect to produce distinct subjects who are subjected to prejudice, Tangerine more capably demonstrates the ways in which black, transgender women are vulnerable in society through a combination of their gender expression and skin color. Reduced to fetish objects, devalued in favor of white “fish,” Sin-Dee and Alexandra are in a particularly precarious position compared to characters like Dinah, or even in comparison to Alike. Pariah does not lose value as a film or as a window into the experiences of its characters, but it does not demonstrate the pitfalls that can come with multiply-marginalized identities like Tangerine does.