Many of the foundational ideas of critical race theory trace back to feminist organizing, particularly from women of color feminism, as well as from Black Power movements of the civil rights area. CRT, as it is often called, grew out of a movement in the mid-1970s among American lawyers, legal scholars, and activists who were concerned that the important structural advances of the civil rights era had ground to a halt.1 This brief discussion makes some key connections between CRT and feminist media studies in the United States. It is not possible in this space to cite the many media scholars whose work can be linked to critical race theory. I provide just a few examples of recent feminist work that arguably employs CRT approaches. While feminist ideas were a catalyst in the genesis of CRT in the 1970s and 1980s, feminist media studies can benefit in the twenty-first century from scholars advancing the critiques and methods that have become part of CRT.
Critical race theory fashioned many of its central tenets from the convictions of radical women of color feminist movements that have also informed feminist media studies. Among them is an insistence on the everyday nature of racism in the United States and its obscuration through the ongoing embeddedness of white supremacy and color-blind racism in institutions at all levels of society. Other ideas critical race theorists borrow from feminism include the anti-essentialist notion that all people have multiple overlapping identities that are complex and contradictory, and that people of color have unique voices and competencies to speak to oppression. CRT scholars and activists have adopted narrative methods that harken from feminist movements in order to raise those voices.2
Although generally considered neither feminist media studies nor CRT scholars, two prominent figures to influence both disciplines are Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks, beginning in the 1970s. Both have been foundational in the struggle for antiracist, antisexist transformations broadly, with emphasis on the genres of film, television, and music.3 Their vast legacy continues to resonate in feminist media research. While CRT has put down deep roots in a variety of disciplines, Collins's theorizing of intersectionality has greatly influenced researchers concerned with dominant representations in mainstream media, and the structural power that corporate forces wield to circumscribe discourses of race, gender, and sexuality. This important contribution is among many feminist influences that helped shape CRT.
The term “intersectionality,” coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, has roots dating back decades before she named it as a tenet of CRT.4 As Collins writes, Black feminism, as well as social movements spearheaded by Chicana/Latina women, indigenous women, and Asian women, have since at least the 1960s led social justice efforts to dismantle the array of social inequalities that women of color face. Before the term “intersectionality” gave a name to this social justice project, women of color “were at the forefront of raising claims about the interconnectedness of race, class, gender, and sexuality in their everyday lived experience.”5 Collins cites the Combahee River Collective, for example, as a group that insisted as early as 1982 that gender-only and race-only frameworks were insufficient for understanding the interwoven structural injustices that Black women face.6
In the years since, media scholars have continued to deploy intersectional approaches to explain how public figures navigate their minoritized identities through the media, as CRT took up with regard to other institutions. For example, extensive research examines controlling images of African American and Latina femininity in film and television. Ralina Joseph has influenced my work with her nuanced examinations of how Tyra Banks negotiated media surveillance of the size of her body, and of media criticism of Michelle Obama as she appeared to step outside of accepted norms of American exceptionalism.7 Andreana Clay has analyzed Meshell Ndegeocello's work in hip-hop as a contradictory discourse on Black feminism.8 These are but two examples of the prolific implementation and expansion of intersectional critique in media studies.
Collins's formulation of the “matrix of domination” created a visual image of the nature of privilege and of the structural and individual stake in maintaining that privilege. Her work has challenged both CRT and feminist media scholars to consider their role in the maintenance of that domination, saying that our social world “contains few pure victims or oppressors.”9 She advanced the concept of “controlling images” to help explain the impact of stereotypical representations of Black women, including such pervasive tropes in corporate American media production as the mammy and the jezebel—the desexualized and hypersexualized Black woman.10 Such media images hold real consequences on the ground in institutional norms and practices, and in the legal realm where CRT took root.
In terms of CRT and feminist media criticism, hooks's work consistently reveals the exploitative power of for-profit media situated within a white supremacist patriarchal culture, and links it to structural oppression. For decades, she has read culture with an eye to the racial stereotypes that underpin the industrial machinery of Hollywood. She maintains a healthy skepticism for the increased representation of people of color in film and television. One of hooks's many important influences in feminist media studies and CRT scholarship has been her consistent use of the term “white supremacy” to analyze how mainstream cultural production exploits and oppresses people of color. Yet, as with many feminist scholars, she maintains a cultural studies–oriented insistence on the personal pleasure and agency derived from popular media culture.
A new generation of media scholars has taken inspiration from hooks in asserting the voices of people of color, as CRT does, as a counter to hegemonic outsider narratives. Aisha Durham invokes the everyday experiences of women in her “homeplace,” including her own experience as part of the hip-hop generation.11 Andreana Clay's anthropological study of activist youth groups takes up hip-hop culture's important place in giving voice to youth perspectives on contemporary social life.12 These and other works demonstrate the power of critical research to highlight the perspectives of people who are often overshadowed in corporate media representations, and they demonstrate the importance of personal narrative that became a tenet of CRT.
Critical race theory, as an offshoot of feminist theorizing, provides a basis for media studies to challenge binaries going forward. We see this in the work of Kara Keeling, who argues that the figure of the Black femme can expand our imagining of the Black image.13 Keeling situates the Black femme as a primary figure for challenging prescribed notions of race, gender, and sexuality. Her simultaneous visibility and invisibility and her contradictions trouble dominant beliefs about Blackness, sexuality, and gender. Keeling's upending of controlling gender and sexuality binaries is a welcome intervention that can advance both feminist media research and CRT. We need more such scholarship that seeks to break down the hegemony of gender, race, and sexuality binaries at an institutional level, which remains a central concern of both critical race theory and feminist media theory. This work is vital in moments of political backlash from which CRT sprang, including in the current post-Obama moment.