portrait of bell hooks

bell hooks and Intersectionality

What is Intersectionality?

There are many critical frameworks which attempt to explain prejudice and privilege in our society. Feminist discourse focuses on the oppression of women by the patriarchal system. Marxism criticises the ruling elite for perpetuating economic inequality. Racism is the discrimination of a person because of the colour of their skin, ethnic background, or religious beliefs.

However, the American author and activist, bell hooks, emphasised how the interplay of race, gender and class reinforced what she called the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”. If you want to have a better understanding of identity and the politics of difference, she argued, you have to analyse all these interlocking systems that control our lives.

intersectionality infographic

Since our focus is on media studies and representation, this introduction to bell hooks draws heavily from her collection of essays and interviews in “Reel to Real: Race, class and sex at the movies” which was first published in 1996.

Film Criticism

bell hooks argued films were so accessible they offered a “common starting part” for “diverse audiences” to discuss issues of race, gender and class. She also believed films had the capacity to “transform culture right before our very eyes” because they shaped and informed our view of the world.

hooks was eager to “interrogate specific films” that supposedly offered a counterpoint to the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. She wanted to see if they really did challenge the dominant ideology.

For example, in her first critical essay, hooks questioned the representation of women in Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have it” (1986). Although the film was widely praised at the time for its depiction of an empowered and independent black woman, hooks believed the male director was unable to escape his patriarchal mode of thinking and simply mimicked some of the “mainstream patriarchal cinematic practices” that objectified white women for the male gaze.

If you watch the trailer, you will get an immediate sense of how the protagonist, Nola Darling, is defined in the narrative by her male partners. Nola’s story is not progressive or transformative because she remains the object of a “male-biased patriarchal tale”.


The representation of people and places on the big screen may look “familiar”, but films give the audience a “reimagined, reinvented version of the real”. That mixture of reality and fantasy makes the narratives wonderfully “compelling”. However, bell hooks criticised mainstream Hollywood for not conveying the “complexity of black female experience” and reducing black women to the stereotypes of “mammy or ho”.

She wanted to see a “broader, more complex vision of womanhood”, especially “black womanhood”, portrayed in the cinema.

For hooks, decolonised images were a “representation of blackness that challenge and oppose racist stereotypes” rather than the friendly colonialism that represented, for example, black men as successful but still subordinate to the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Consider Danny Glover’s character in the commercially successful Lethal Weapon series or Morgan Freeman in the critically acclaimed “The Shawshank Redemption”. Both men possess terrific “wisdom and moral integrity”, but their blackness is commodified, and old stereotypes are presented in a new “fashionable disguise”.

The Pelican Brief

Denzel Washington’s character arc in “The Pelican Brief” (1993) is another example of a black male in a subordinate role. hooks wrote that “ads are a primary vehicle for the dissemination and perpetuation of white-supremacist and patriarchal values”. The official film posters for “The Pelican Brief” seem to confirm her point of view.

The Pelican Brief One-sheet Style A
Style A
The Pelican Brief One-sheet Style A
Style B

The first poster is the original one-sheet which was used to promote the film. Notice how Julia Roberts is the dominant signifier and her equally famous co-star is reduced to a bit-part in the composition. hooks described how Washington’s “public-relations agents threatened to withdraw him from the film if the publicity images were not retaken to portray the two stars on equal footing”. Even the second poster still makes the imbalance of power quite clear.

For two more recent examples, look at the controversy surrounding the Italian posters for “Twelve Years a Slave” (2013) and the Chinese poster for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015).

In terms of The Pelican Brief’s plot, Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington work together to uncover the truth about her lover’s death and expose the corrupt political leaders involved in the assassination of two Supreme Court Justices. Interestingly, the audience never see Washington’s character interact with a close friend or family member so “his very existence” in the narrative “depends on white affirmation”.

Capitalism and Motivated Representation

The marketing teams behind all these posters made conscious decisions regarding the representation of the actors. In the more contemporary examples, they decided to demote John Boyega and Chiwetel Ejiofor. There is no doubt Ejiofor is the star of the film, but the Italian agency used Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender to grab the attention of the audience. Not only was Boyega repositioned to appear smaller in the Star Wars poster for the Chinese market, but he was also completely cut from a perfume advert which he developed and directed.

Investors will only finance a film if they believe it will be a commercial success and offer a solid return on their money. So Hollywood scripts are redrafted and reworked by a team of writers. Directors shoot each scene over and over again until they get the right take. Sequences are spliced together in the editing room and then screened to test audiences to make sure the narrative has the greatest impact. Put simply, everyone involved in the filmmaking process is motivated to represent people and places in ways that will appeal to the public’s imagination.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that mainstream cinema reinforces the ideology of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. For hooks, this motivated representation is epitomised by the deliberate casting of a dark-skinned male to play the thief in “Smoke” (1985):

The racial identity of the character was never mentioned in the original story so hooks believed the filmmakers were consciously perpetuating racist stereotypes and exploiting the audience’s fear of the “Other”.

There really is a conscious manipulation of representations and it’s not about magical thinking, it’s not about like pure imagination, creativity, it’s about people consciously knowing what kinds of images will produce a certain kind of impact.

bell hooks

The vision of the artist will always be limited because media texts cost money to produce and they have to be sold to mainstream audiences. Perhaps, we will only get a greater diversity of voices on the silver screen when the means of production are more accessible. This focus on economic change is a key aspect of the socialist feminist agenda which you can read more about in our introduction to Liesbet van Zoonen’s summary of feminist discourse.

Oppositional gaze

Cinema has the amazing power to seduce and enchant audiences. However, it also has the ability to socially condition us to accept certain stereotypes. Think about how “glamour” and “beauty” were “encoded as white” in classical Hollywood narratives with icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Bridget Bardot who, it is important to note, both dyed their hair blonde to achieve their success. There is no doubt popular culture has continued to reaffirm this narrow view of beauty.

Changing how we see images is clearly one way to change the world.

bell hooks

Since the media perpetuates the existing ruling ideology of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, black female spectators need to develop a more critical engagement with films in order to resist identifying with the male gaze and white womanhood. This is the oppositional gaze.

bell hooks argued mainstream films were such an effective mechanism of control that even people of colour were dissatisfied when they saw more challenging and diverse representations on the big screen. Therefore, we all need to be “enlightened witnesses” and critically assess the representation of people and places in the media.

hooks, bell (1996): “Reel to Real: Race, class and sex at the movies”.

bell hooks Fan Page

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!