Posted: March 18th, 2023
The primary distinction between the perspectives of Patricia Hill Collins and Esther Chow on feminism and gender consciousness stems from their diverse interpretations of the influence of culture. Chow assumes a near apologist stance in her justifications for the slow uptake of feminist theory by Asian-American women. Chow cites the many barriers to the gender consciousness and ability to organize around women’s issues, and suggests that they have been particularly difficult to overcome and were won’t to locate feminism in the midst of larger, more generic issues that garnered the attention of Asian-American women. But Chow’s argument is not persuasive, as the same issues are endemic to Collins’ treatment of feminist thought, but are clarified by the construct of intersectionality, as posed by Kimberle Crenshaw (2004, and as cited in Collins, 1990).
Intersectionality is the study of the intersections that occur between various forms of oppression, and that include but are not limited to, class, gender, and race. It is useful to consider black feminism as a phenomenon when considering intersectionality theory. Crenshaw and Collins both argue that the experience of a black woman cannot be understood by examining her black experience or her female experience as independent experiences; rather, each of these variables must be considered in the manner in which they intersect, interact, reinforce, or negate each other.
The construct of intersectionality is a substantive paradigm in sociology, cultural studies, and feminist studies. Its utility is somewhat hampered by the complexities of making “multidimensional conceptualizations” which explain the interactions and relationships among the constructions of social categories that are used to differentiate and establish a social hierarchy. It is this aspect of the paradigm that Collins rejects, as further discussed below; however, Collins’ matrix of domination addresses the aspect of intersectionality theory that suggest discrete forms or expressions of oppression are most definitely shaped by each other. Specifically, then, in order to appreciate how oppressed groups are racialized, it is necessary to understand how social processes, social structures, and social representations are shaped by the conceptualizations of class, gender, and race.
Patricia Hill Collins rejects the theoretical framework of oppression that considers the additive influence of demographic attributes on the experience of oppression. A theoretical framework that takes the additive tact would consider each variable with potential negative influence to act as a multiple, such that the sum of the effects of the variables result in a sum total degree of oppression. That is to say that these variables would all have multiplier effects: the fact that a person is a woman, that the person belongs to an ethnic minority, that the woman is also poor. This approach suggests that these characteristics of an individual can be considered as separate systems of oppression. A perspective that separates rather than aggregates these factors of oppression will show evidence of quantification and categorization, and “associate with the belief that all characteristics must be ranked” (Collins, 1990, p. 555).
Collins suggests as a new paradigm of oppression the drawing of a matrix of domination that is at once “non-hierarchicalâ€¦[and would]â€¦refuse primacy to either race, class, gender, or ethnicity, demanding instead recognition of their matrix-like interaction” (1990, p. 556). Chow argues that a similar framework exists for women whose experiences lead them to “consider racism and classism to be so pervasive that they cannot embrace feminism at the same level [and] may subordinate women’s rights to other social concerns, this limiting the development of feminist consciousness” (1987, p. 286). That is to say that, similar to Collins, Chow makes salient the importance of an awareness of “multiple oppressions,” suggesting that women who engage in “collective action to supersede racial, gender, and class differences may develop a feminist consciousness that transcends gender, racial, class, and cultural boundaries” (1987, p. 286).
It seems that Chow reaches too deeply into the barriers to Asian-American women’s gender consciousness. She argues that Asian cultural values discourage activism and rebelliousness, and that filial piety, family interest, fatalism, obedience, and self-control are predominant values that undergird the Asian perception of oppression. The more pertinent issue that Chow brings into focus is that impact of immigration on the ability of Asian women to organize around the issues of feminism. Chow argues that the substantive issues of language and cultural adjustment for immigrants are fundamentally overlooked by feminist organizations. Asian women, particularly immigrant Asian women, are unlikely to have an invitational experience with feminist organizations, which tend to be dominated by white, middle-class women neglect to recruit women of color as an organizational priority. The result of this disconnect was the formation of women’s caucuses and study groups consisting of Asian women; these feminist organizations were fundamentally a reaction to the sexism, racism, and classism present in the Asian women’s own communities. Here is Collins counterpoint to Chow:
“African-American women have been victimized by race, gender, and class oppression. But portraying Black women solely as passive, unfortunate recipients of racial and sexual abuse stifles notions that Black women can actively work to change our circumstances and bring about change in our lives” (Collins, 1990, p. 237).
The perceptions Chow and Collins discuss are reflected in the portrayal of women in the mainstream media of films and television. Wang argues that particular symbolic and cultural representational elements are utilized by the media to portray women in both purposeful and incidental ways. The cultural and symbolic elements that are used most frequently — and across generations of film and television — and in the media include “Oriental” dress, ideologies, geographies, and stereotypes. Indeed, Wang asserts that the way Hollywood, in particular, portrays Eastern or Asian women has not seen substantive change over time. However, a caveat does apply: films from the early 2000s are replete with Asian women who have achieved power through their martial arts abilities. This is a distinct rupture from the stereotypical portrayal of Asian women in Suzi Wong roles or the contrasting roles of Mei Li and Linda Low in Flower Drum Song.
It is a rare film or television show indeed that demands a more discriminating viewer — one who cares to consider the complexities of theoretical intersectionality or multidimensional conceptualizations, as these constructs might be represented in media — for entertainment purposes. At one level, the considered choice of a film or television viewer lies with that individual, but it is also an artifact of the choices that are offered by the media. Indeed, can the distinction between what the media offers and what audiences demand be made in isolation? Or does a framework similar to the matrix of domination apply here, too. However, in the media matrix of box office domination, the elements include: The producers’ propensity to be conceptually cautious; the even more conservative tendency of venture capitalists and angel investors; the audience’s demand for sequels; the dearth of compelling and high concept scripts; the agents’ games; and the evasiveness of green lit status. Any one of these elements can be shown to interact with and shape any other element, with the end result being the production of conceptually simple scripts that diminish the perception of authentic aspects of class, culture, gender, race, and religion. To further consider why and how the television and the film industries perpetuate simple stereotypes, it is interesting to turn to Marchetti’s (1993) summation:
“â€¦the image Hollywood creates of race and ethnicity point to something more fundamentally pernicious about the relationship between American society and the mass media. Hollywood has the power to define difference, to reinforce boundaries, to reproduce an ideology which maintains a certain status quoâ€¦the means to challenge Hollywood’s hegemony over the representation of race and ethnicity remain elusive. Alternative media exist, but appear marginal and far-removed from a popular audience. Access to the industry also exists, but entrance demands a tacit agreement to assimilate, at least to a certain degree, with the dominant culture” (1993, p. 278).
Media portrayals of women contribute to societal views and perceptions. Indeed, Punyanut-Carter (2008) found that the perceptions of television viewers with regard to the occupational roles and the negative personality characteristics that African-American portrayed in television programs were true to life — that is to say, that they were real and authentic representations. Viewers also perceived the occupations in which African-Americans were portrayed as realistic, a phenomenon that may be supported by the observation of African-Americans employed in those roles in real life (Punyanut-Carter, 2008). Contrarily, when African-Americans were portrayed on television in low-status jobs or exhibiting positive stereotypes, viewers did not perceive those as accurate or real portrayals (Punyanut-Carter, 2008).
The influence of culture on the expression of feminism and on the perpetuation of stereotypes perceived as accurate or real is inarguable. The film and television industries tend not make substantial alterations in the way people are portrayed. Indeed, the currency of film and television, with the notable exceptions occurring in the form of documentaries or news programs, is that of fiction which is shored up by both simple and complex stereotypes. This is not to say that emerging culture does not influence change in the portrayal of black women or Asian women, as notable exceptions can be found in popular genres and the media viewers’ perceptions as they are influenced by those genres. Collins asserts that, “each individual has a unique personal biography made up of concrete experiences, values, motivations, and emotions” (1990, p.224). In as much as the media competently portrays black and Asian women holistically, incorporating the individual and unique attributes into those portrayals, then it is fair to argue that audiences may be brought along to more accurate perceptions and understandings.
Chow, E. (n.d.). Gender consciousness and women’s groups. [lecture notes.]
Collins, P.H. (1990). Black Feminist thought. [lecture notes.]
Collins, P.H. (1990). Black feminist thought in the matrix of domination. In Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Though: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman, pp. 221-238.
Crenshaw, K. (2004). Intersectionality: The double bind of race and gender. Perspectives Magazine, p.2.
Marchetti, G. (1993). Romance and the “yellow peril”: Race, sex and discursive strategies in Hollywood fiction. Berkeley, London: University of California Press.
Punyanunt-Carter, N.M. (2008). The perceived realism of African-American portrayals on television. The Howard Journal of Communication, 19, 241-257. DOI: 10.1080/10646170802218263.
Wang, H. (2012). Portrayals of Chinese women’s images in Hollywood mainstream films: An analysis of four representative films of different periods. Intercultural Communication Studies, XXI (3).
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