- "Against a Sharp White Background":Toward Race-Based Intersectional Research in Youth Media Studies
Acentury and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation, systemic racism continues to infect the United States of America and disrupt the project of democracy. While the effects of this malignancy are perhaps most visible in African Americans' unequal treatment in the criminal justice system, race-based inequity, oppression, and disenfranchisement appear throughout US society, including within academia and media culture. It is because of this pernicious problem that I advocate more attention to race and the greater adoption of the intersectional approach within youth media studies.
White youth are not the only young people to appear in media, nor are they the only young people to consume and produce media. Yet analyses of them dominate youth media studies to a degree far greater than their demographic numbers would suggest. Why this has happened has everything to do with the racial politics that inform our field and academia, politics that keep the majority of youth media scholars focused on the normative individuals at the center of the frame. To overcome this dynamic, white scholars need to pay more attention to the margins, where most people of color in media culture have long been relegated. Moreover, white scholars need to attend to white supremacy and other systems of normativity that govern youth media texts, as well as their production and reception, not to mention our own critical vision. The intersectional approach first conceptualized by feminists of color in the 1970s is essential to these endeavors.
The concept of intersectionality posits that human identities are multiple, overlapping, and interconnected.1 Therefore, the experiences resulting from these social formations are complexly interwoven and impossible to study autonomously. Many people conflate intersectional analysis with attention to race and, more specifically, racial minorities. Yet all people have intersectional identities. The ultimate goal of such work is to understand how our intersected identities have an impact [End Page 119] on our relations to power so that effective strategies for eliminating oppression and maximizing equality are developed and enacted. With regard to youth media studies, this means careful consideration of the interlocking identities of media characters, producers, and consumers so as to create more respectful and democratic media for, about, and by young people. In an effort to encourage youth media scholars to understand race-based intersectional analyses as both critically and culturally imperative, I explore this approach here via reference to some of my recent research.
In April 1964, The Patty Duke Show (ABC, 1963–1966), a popular teen-girl sitcom broadcast by ABC, included its first black character. The episode was "Leave It to Patty," and in it a heterosexual middle-class black girl appears as part of an audience for a high school rock concert (Figure 1).2 I have watched this episode many times, and it was only recently that I noticed the black girl in this scene, which is somewhat odd given that The Patty Duke Show's primary and secondary characters are all white. Why did I overlook her previously? Surely, my missing her had something to do the way in which the text positions the viewer's gaze. Like most TV sitcoms of that era, The Patty Duke Show was directed in such a way as to place the most important characters and actions in the center of the frame. Patty Duke is the star of the series, and the two characters she plays in it—"identical" cousins Patty and Cathy—are narratively and formally constructed as the series' central focus. Indeed, the writer, director, camera crew, and actors all worked together to ensure that viewers are looking primarily at these two characters. In contrast, the black girl in this episode appears in a nonspeaking extra role during only a few very short sequences that together add up to less than a minute.
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Nonetheless, this explanation does not fully account for why I overlooked this black girl. My missing her is also profoundly related to my identity as a white person...