In recent years, intersectionality has gained significant prominence in media representation discussions. Films and television series have become crucial platforms for exploring the complex interplay of various identities, such as race, class, and gender. One such thought-provoking film is The Strays, released on Netflix in February of this year. This article delves into the movie's portrayal of intersectionality and analyses how it deftly handles the intricate dynamics of identity and representation. Despite progress towards diversity on screen, media plays a role in perpetuating stereotypes. According to Stuart Hall, media representation can stand in for something. Media representations are not fixed or stable but are subject to change and contestation. They are about more than just what is shown or said but also about what is not shown or told. Silences, omissions, and absences can be as significant as explicit messages and reflect power asymmetries and cultural biases. While intersectionality was rooted in American black feminist activism, it also resonates in the UK.
The Strays invites audiences to embark on a compelling journey that shines a spotlight on the intersections of race, class, and gender. Set in the United Kingdom, the film draws upon the historical backdrop of colonialism, immigration, and societal hierarchies to unravel the complexities of identity. Through the narrative, it becomes evident that individuals' struggles are not confined to a single aspect of their identity but are shaped by the intricate interconnections between various social constructs.
The history of race in the UK dates back to the Roman occupation and has been shaped by a long and complex history of colonialism and immigration. The UK media has often been criticised for portraying racial minorities, mainly Black and Asian individuals. One notable example is the Windrush scandal, which saw thousands of Caribbean immigrants wrongly deported or detained by the UK government. The scandal was widely covered in the media and led to calls for greater attention to be paid to issues of race and racism in the UK.
Its class structure has long defined the UK, with deep divisions between the working and middle and upper classes. The UK media has historically been dominated by middle and upper-class voices, with working-class perspectives often marginalised. However, this has begun to change in recent years, with greater recognition of the importance of working-class voices and experiences. The Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, which claimed the lives of 72 people in a working-class area of London, highlighted the importance of listening to the perspectives of those often ignored by the mainstream media.
The history of gender in the UK has been marked by a long struggle for women's rights, including the right to vote and equal pay. The UK media has often been criticised for its representation of women, particularly in objectification and stereotyping. The #MeToo movement, which originated in the US but significantly impacted the UK, brought sexual harassment and assault to the forefront of public discussion, leading to greater awareness and accountability for these issues.
The film analysis tool mise-en-scene vividly captures the nuanced dimensions of the characters' identities in The Strays. The film masterfully creates visual cues that resonate with the audience through lighting, set design, framing, and costume choices. For instance, the contrasting depictions of Cheryl and Neve, played by the same character but in different socio-economic contexts, provide a striking portrayal of how race and class intersect. Cheryl, an impoverished biracial woman, is presented in a cluttered and dimly lit environment, effectively conveying her marginalised social status. On the other hand, Neve, residing in an affluent white suburban area, exudes an air of sophistication and opulence, highlighted by bright lighting that accentuates her privilege. This juxtaposition underscores the inextricable link between socioeconomic status, race, and gender identity.
The Strays fearlessly tackles the theme of anti-blackness and its intersection with racial identity. The character of Neve grapples with her discomfort regarding black stereotypes, often resorting to straightened wigs to distance herself from her natural hair. This portrayal resonates deeply with the experiences of individuals who face societal pressures to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards. By shining a light on these struggles, the film encourages viewers to reflect on the enduring impact of racial discrimination and the quest for authentic self-acceptance.
Additionally, the film highlights the issue of racial profiling and how it is used to blame and scapegoat black people for societal problems. When Neve's son is found with drugs, she immediately blames the black janitor, emphasising her anti-blackness. Neve's immediate reaction to blame the black janitor highlights the racial bias in society, where black people are often assumed to be the source of problems or criminal activity. This scene underscores the intersection of class and race and how Neve and Cheryl are treated differently based on their perceived race despite being the same person.
Overall, the film highlights the struggle of biracial individuals to reconcile their identities and how anti-blackness can play a role in this struggle. Neve's experience showcases the societal pressure to dissociate oneself from anything associated with blackness and how this pressure can lead to self-hate and internalised racism. The film emphasises the importance of understanding the intersectionality of race, class, and gender to comprehend the experiences of individuals like Neve or Cheryl fully.
According to Stuart Hall's concept of media representation, it is essential to consider what is not shown or said. In the case of Cheryl or Neve's ex-husband, the filmmakers intentionally omitted him from the story because he was described as a stereotypical abuser. This decision emphasised Cheryl or Neve's identity as a biracial woman. It is worth noting that having a biracial identity is a unique experience that can vary based on people's individual experiences and the environment in which they grew up, as well as the shade of their skin and the races from which they are mixed.
Like the concept of intersectionality, individuals cannot be reduced to just one identity marker alone; the interplay of multiple identity markers shapes them. Non-visible identity markers, such as religion or sexuality, also play a crucial role in shaping an individual's identity. Therefore, it is essential to consider both what is shown and what is not shown in media representations to fully understand individuals and their experiences. The decision to omit certain information from media representations can highlight particular aspects of an individual's identity and may have important implications for how others perceive that person.
Examining the last plot theme through an intersectional lens highlights how Neve's actions are influenced by her race, class, and gender. As a biracial woman, Neve's identity is complex, and her actions reflect this. Neve's initial abandonment of her two black children can be seen as influenced by her desire to distance herself from the negative stereotypes associated with being black, particularly those surrounding broken homes and irresponsible parenting. However, her subsequent abandonment of her two mixed children reflects the expectations placed on women as caregivers and mothers. Neve challenges these gendered expectations by leaving her children and reinforces her agency.
Furthermore, the children in the film play a significant role in challenging and reinforcing stereotypes. Through their interactions and relationships with each other and their mothers, they highlight the complexity of identity and the limitations of singular identity markers. They also challenge the stereotypes of black families as broken and dysfunctional and the stereotype of biracial individuals as “confused” or “straddling two worlds”. This film suggests that media representation of people should consider the complexity of identity and the intersectionality of race, class, and gender. The film challenges stereotypical representations of black families, individuals, and biracial individuals by presenting complex and nuanced portrayals. In line with Stuart Hall's notion of media representation, it is also important to consider what is not shown or said. The film deliberately leaves out Neve or Cheryl's ex-husband, described as a stereotypical abuser, emphasizing the importance of intersectionality and non-visible identity markers in shaping individuals' experiences and identities.
The Intersectional Ripple Effect:
One of the film's remarkable achievements is illustrating the cyclical nature of identity struggles, particularly for those with intersecting identities. The journey of Cheryl, as she transitions from poverty to affluence, raises thought-provoking questions about authenticity and the challenges of maintaining one's identity in varying social contexts. As she enters Neve's privileged world, Cheryl grapples with the pressures of conforming to the expectations of her new environment while preserving her sense of self. This exploration of the intersection between class, race, and gender sheds light on the unique experiences of individuals with intersecting identities, emphasising the need to address and understand the multifaceted layers of identity for a comprehensive understanding of human experiences.
Empowering Media for Inclusive Narratives:
As discerning media consumers, it is crucial to recognise the impact of films like The Strays in shaping our perceptions and challenging prevailing stereotypes. By providing a platform to explore intersectionality, the film disrupts the traditional narrative structures that tend to homogenise and marginalise specific identities. The Strays catalyses conversations surrounding the need for more inclusive and representative storytelling, fostering a society that values and celebrates the diversity of human experiences.
The Strays is a powerful cinematic exploration of intersectionality, dismantling societal constructs and challenging viewers to examine the complexities of identity and representation critically. Through its nuanced portrayal of race, class, and gender intersections, the film encourages a deeper understanding of the multifaceted layers that shape human experiences. By engaging with and analysing films like The Strays, we take a significant step towards creating a more inclusive and accurate media landscape that celebrates the diversity of identities and fosters equality for all. As we continue to advocate for representation and authentic storytelling, we pave the way for a future where intersectionality is embraced and marginalised voices are amplified, leading to a more prosperous and inclusive society.
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