How intersectionality is deployed in "12 years a slave"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

31 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 Intersectionality
2.1 Constituent Parts of Intersectionality
2.1.1 A Definition - Inter-sectional-ity
2.1.2 Historical Background of Intersectionality
2.1 . 3 Class, Race, Ethnicity and Gender

3 12 years a slave
3.1 Historical background of 12 years a slave
3.1 . 1 The American Pre - Civil War

4 12 years a slave – The Narrative of Solomon Northup

4.1 Deploying intersectionality
4.1.1 Mistress Epps – the green-eyed monster
4.1.2 Patsey – the helpless bondwoman
4.1 . 3 From white to black; from men to women and back - Bringing it together

5 12 years a slave – The Film
5.1 Film style
5.2 Music and Sound
5.3 Camera Work
5.3 . 1 The whipping 22
5.4 Editing
5.5 Art Direction

6 Conclusion: From Truthful Novel to Emotional Film

7 Works cited

1 Introduction

Slavery pertains to the woeful history of America as a calculated and colossal example of man’s inhumanity to man. It is a grievous monument, full of hatred and brutality, about which stories emerged early. The slave history of America has pro- duced many and various narratives. One of such stories was that of Solomon North- up who lived as a freeman in upstate New York and awoke to find himself in chains as a slave after he was drugged. He endured a slave-life in disparate Louisiana plan- tations until he was finally discovered by family and friends and found his way back into freedom. With the assistance of David Wilson, he published the book 12 Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washing- ton city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louis i a n a in 1853 . In the 19th century, the book was a bestseller, but fell into obscuri-ty until the 1960’s. This was the time, when black legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw came up with the theory of intersectionality, and serves as the essence of this academic paper. In 2013, British filmmaker Steve McQueen has produced the film adap- tion of the slave narrative memoir 12 years a slave.

In this academic work, I will examine two different responses to the issue of rep- resenting the brutal world of human beings bought, sold and used up like property in literature and film. I will analyze the novel 12 years a slave and the film adaption of the same name in terms of Kimberlé Crenshaws theory of intersectionality and its constituents such as race, gender, ethnicity, and class which are defining dimensions of inequality in this context. The primary aim is to examine how various axes of the term construct one another and how inequalities are articulated and connected with differences between human beings. This will be done by illustrating the multidimen- sional character of the various axis of the intersectional perspective. “Through an awareness of intersectionality, we can better acknowledge and ground the differ- ences among us” (Crenshaw).

In the second chapter I will commence with an overview on the term of intersec- tionality itself and the history of the emergence, followed by a definition of its components.

In the third chapter, concerned with the history, I will provide a short general in- troduction to 12 years a slave and its environment, in particular the pre-civil war and the history of slavery.

Subsequently, I will analyze how the approach of intersectionality in the narrative 12 years a slave is implemented and becomes apparent through the two female characters Patsey and Mary Epps, who will be introduced in separate chapters. I will particularly focus on their treatment and how the context of slavery in the 19th century is employing the concept of intersectionality.

In the last part of my analysis, concerned with the film, I will illustrate how con- trastive these two works are in their approaches to the delicate topic and I will pro- vide a general introduction to the emotional approach the film bases itself on. After- wards, I will analyze how this approach is implemented, and becomes apparent in terms of narration, camera work, composition, editing, music and sound, as well as art direction and film style. I will particularly focus on how the cinematic realization and its resulting effects differ from the approaches in Northup’s memoir.

In the overall conclusion to this thesis, I will finally summarize my main argu- ments to illustrate the passage from truthful novel to emotional film.

2 Intersectionality

In the last three decades the term that started it all with feminist thoughts and its development, had been placed in a dock: Gender, seen as a social category on a single-axis, consisting of “female / women” and “male / men” began to lose its topical- ity when theorizing and struggling complex forms of social injustices. The construc- tion of gender as a social category was more or less refused by feminists of color be- cause they questioned the belonging of the term ‘gender’ with respect to women of color and the tendency of feminism to treat race and gender as reciprocal exclusive categories of analysis and experience. This two-edged criticism gave rise to ‘intersec- tionality’, as a fresh and new way of approaching multiple levels of subordination ex- perienced by marginal groups of women, who apparently stood outside the idea of the primal image of women imagined by formerly feminists (white, efficient bodies, heterosexual and from the middle-class).

Black legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in her instructive 1989 essay namely Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: a Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics as a critical response to white feminists silence on African American women’s oppression, the anti-racist movement and also for disregarding the needs of women on behalf of racial unity. Accordingly, she was concerned with the lack of appropriate support for women of color under the US judicial system. She argues that there is very hardly a correlation between anti-sexist politics and anti-racist approaches and that they rarely correspond to each other, negatively implicating the understanding of black women as subjects for feminist interference.

Crenshaw’s most mentioned piece of work concerns primarily around women of color in the United States of America and evolved as a beneficial analytical method in feminist law. There are many other feminist scholars who found resonance in their own research that is concerned with different social contexts overall. However, what can be adopted and learned from Crenshaw’s insight is that multiple axes of oppres- sion exist, which are affecting and interacting with each other in considerable ways. The notion of the concept intersectionality is not an abstract or a complex one, but a genuine description of many-sided oppressions which are experienced. For clarifying the concept, Crenshaw used a comparison which is referring to a traffic intersection:

Consider an analogy for 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 happened in an intersec- tion, it can be caused by cars travelling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in the 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.4 (Crenshaw, 1989: 149).

What Crenshaw demonstrated is that projects, which are aiming at remedying the subordination of racial or gender through a single axis, end up as universally male or universally white. The insights of women of color, and other critical views about the limits of equality, brought a critical race theory and added these understandings to the principles of discrimination. In the United States but also in Europe, the term in- tersectionality has become a widespread and celebrated concept in gender and fem- inist studies, and finally also in the social sciences.

2.1 Constituent Parts of Intersectionality

2.1.1 A Definition - Inter-sectional-ity

Inter – is a prefix, occurring in loanwords from Latin, where it meant “among”, “be- tween”, “in the midst of”, “mutually”, “reciprocally”, “altogether” and “during”; used in the formation of compound words.

Sectional(-ity) – is an adjective, and defines the composing of several independent sections; (- ity) is the prefix.

As a noun, it suggests the point of contact made between categories, ele- ments and lines. Intersectionality is a framework, consisting of the interconnected na- ture of social categorizations like class, gender, ability, ethnicity and race as they are applied to a given individual group, considered as creating systems of disadvantage or discrimination which are interdependent and overlapping. As a result, we can bet- ter acknowledge the differences among us through an awareness of the term inter- sectionality.

As an analytical tool, the main focus lies on the subjects that assume the posi- tions of such intersections. The aim is to further feminist’s agenda to not merely a fo- cus on gender as the origin of female oppression, but to expand their energies for studying other dimensions of power, such as the social categorizations as mentioned above. Since multiple notions of intersectionality exist, its expansive character is re- flected.

As a field of research, it is the study of overlapping or, in this case, intersecting social identities and also related systems of discrimination, domination and oppres- sion. It is a theory that suggests but also seeks to examine how various cultural, so- cial and biological categories such as class, ability, gender, race, religion, age, na- tionality and other axes of identity interact on these multiple axes and simultaneous levels.

As a theory, the proposal is to think that each trait or element of an individual person is inseparable linked with all other elements in order to understand one’s identity in full. This can be used to get an understanding of how systematic injustice and social inequality appear on the multidimensional levels. All different concepts of oppression within society do not act independently of each other. It has always been this way, even though the term intersectionality came to the forefront of sociological circles in the late 1960’s.

2.1.2 Historical Background: Intersectionality

The concept of intersectionality is understood to come to the foreground of so- ciological circles at the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s in connection with the multiracial feminist movement. Radical feminism that had evolved in the late 1960s, known as “re-visionist feminist theory”, was criticized and the term intersectionality came as a part of that critique. This theory questioned the notion that gender was the main factor determining the fate of women. This investigation showed a historical ex- clusion of women of color from the feminist movement and the knowledge that they have long been excluded from the civil rights movement.

Through an introduction of the intersectional theory, women of color were sup- ported to make claims that they do belong in both of these political spheres. Moving in these spheres, women of color were against the idea that women can be seen as a homogeneous category who share equal life experiences. The movement stemmed from the insight that white middle-class women do not function as the one and only representation of the feminist movement. Consequently, white middle-class women were recognized to have experienced different forms of oppression than those of black, poor, or disabled women. Henceforward, feminists sought to grasp the ways in which class, race and gender are combined to “determine the female destiny” (Hooks, 10).

Every women’s movement in America from its earliest origin to the present day has been built on racist foundation – a fact which in no way invalidates feminism as a political ideology. The racial apartheid social structure that characterized 19th and early 20th century American life was mirrored in the women’s rights movement. The first white women’s rights advocates were never seeking social equality for all women; they were seeking social equality for white women (bell hooks, 391)

The term intersectionality can also be linked historical and theoretical to the concept of ‘simultaneity’. During the 1970s members of the ‘Combahee River Collec- tive’, a group of black lesbian feminists in Boston, Massachusetts brought up the sub- ject. They were early articulators of multiple oppressions experienced by women of color and these were the core shaped by simultaneous influences of class, sexuality, gender and race. The name of the Collective was taken from the guerilla action led by Harriet Tubman in 1863, in the Port Royal of South Carolina. More than 750 slaves were freed through this action, which is the only military campaign in the US history planned and led by women (Bridge, 210). The Women of the Collective, thus pushed forward the understanding of African American’s experiences that challenged analyzes, resulting from black but also from male-centered social movements and furthermore; those from mainstream white, middle-class and heterosexual feminists.

Fast forward to 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw described through the concept of in- tersectuality the ways in which the institutions of oppression and discrimination are interconnected and cannot be analyzed separately from one another. As for her theo- ry, it can be said, in other words, that certain groups of women have to deal with mul- ti-layered facets in their lives: If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression” (Bridge, 215).

2.1.3 Class, Race, Gender

Since the social, cultural and biological categories are defining a person, it is important to understand what is meant by the terms of their constituents. All times, the human existence is determined by a multicultural society; groups and individuals who identify themselves and live within the context of their race, class, gender, and ethnicity. To get a deeper understanding of the following film-and book-analyzes in terms of intersectionality, these terms deserve more detail consideration. Race

Race is a socially defined reality and not a biological one (DNA evidence from Human Genome Project). Categories of race are the base for assigning social re- sources and different distributions of power, prestige and privilege. There exists a so called ‘racial formation’ which describes the phenomena of a continually creation and formation of racial categories, for instance African American, Hispanic or Asian Amer- ican. Race is also used to socially identify groups based on physical distinctions. Ethnicity determines distinctive national origin, culture and religion. Further, racial- ethnic groups are socially subordinated and still remain culturally distinct within the United States. Class

A status hierarchy in which groups and individuals are classified on the basis of prestige and esteem obtained primarily through economic success and the collec- tion of wealth. Social classes can also refer to any special level in such a hierarchy. Many societies are recognized through four common social classes which are (1) up- per class (2) Middle class (3) Working class and (4) Lower class. Several different dimensions of social class exist, including income, wealth, power, education, occupa- tion, race and ethnicity. A cultural explanation of class would be that each class is viewed as having a distinctive culture but some societies are still based on the struc- ture of social class where everything they can and will do in their life, is dictated by the class they are born into. Gender

Like race and class, gender is a basic ordering principle of society. The basis for treating women and men differently are social as well as cultural definitions of femi- ninity and masculinity, like dividing labor, allocation of social rewards or assigning roles. The system of gender, is denying both, women and men, a full range of social and human possibilities. Gender exceeds class and racial divisions. In comparison, the term ‘sex’ denotes biologically determined, and therefore the unchangeable dif- ference between men and women.


Excerpt out of 31 pages


How intersectionality is deployed in "12 years a slave"
University of Tubingen
Marriage, Sex, Adultery: Gender relations in the 19th Century
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
slavery, slave, 12 years a slave, black, gender, intersectionality, intersectual, approach, inhumanity, solomon northup, narrative
Quote paper
Janine Bergmeir (Author), 2016, How intersectionality is deployed in "12 years a slave", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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