Young People, Intersectionality, and Marginalization
by Jacqueline Ryan Vickery
Sadly, there are always far too many timely examples to draw from when writing about the continued marginalization of girls’ and women’s voices and experiences. Most recently though, I was particularly upset when I heard that child actress, Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things), deactivated her Twitter account because of harassment. I was of course not surprised that it was yet another girl who had been the target of coordinated harassment—it almost always is—and I wasn’t necessarily shocked it was a child, but because she is a child my anger was intensified. Through a series of memes, Brown and her image became the punchline of a series of homophobic “jokes.” Far from being one of the more heinous examples of online harassment, this particular example nonetheless made me sad and upset for her. Despite the narratives that media purport about Brown being “all grown up,” she is—as former child actress Mara Wilson points out—still a 13-year old child. Celebrity or not, her name and image are not floating signifiers that can be juxtaposed onto homophobic images for the sake of ironic giggles.
From an intersectional approach to gender and feminism, we must always consider how oppression and marginalization intersect with different aspects of our identities (Crenshaw, 1989). Stephanie Madden and her co-authors write an excellent chapter about this in our book, which highlights the ways in which race and gender intersect to intensify the effects of marginalization, specifically the harassment of black women in what Moya Bailey (2013) refers to as “misogynoir.” In her chapter, Lucy Hackworth further illustrates the necessity of intersectionality and calls on (white) feminist to do a better job moving beyond a focus on “just gender” when writing about harassment and misogyny. While intersectional approaches have helped (white) feminists be more intentionally cognizant of ethnicity and sexuality, age often remains an overlooked category when we talk about oppression and marginalization. Yet I argue that it must also be at the forefront of any conversation about harassment.
In addition to being a feminist media scholar, I’m also a youth media scholar. I have spent more than a decade researching young people’s media practices, as well as the discourses we construct to make sense of the fluid category of “youth.” Language plays a significant role in shaping our understandings of youth – who they are and the values we ascribe to their practices. If you start paying attention, you’ll note that when young people harass one another it’s often referred to as “bullying,” yet when adults engage in similar behavior it is labeled as harassment (Vickery, 2017). Although the distinctions can be problematic for various reasons—for example, bullying evokes images of schoolyard aggression that is normalized or trivialized, whereas harassment has connections to legal categories and consequences—there are other limitations to the distinction.
What the trolls did with Brown’s image and name was frequently referred to as bullying—because it was happening to a child. However, what this language obfuscates is that it was adults who were being the bullies. Yet, we don’t typically refer to adults as bullies. It is significant then that in Brown’s speech at the MTV Awards, she not only discussed her experiences with harassment, but she also addressed her comments to both young people and adults. “Since I know there are many young people watching this—and even to the adults, too—they could probably use the reminder that I was taught: If you don’t have anything nice to say, just don’t say it. There should be no space in this world for bullying, and I’m not going to tolerate it, and neither should any of you.”
Bullying and harassment are both about power, and although a case could be made that celebrities are more empowered than everyday people, we cannot overlook the deeply entrenched power inequities between children and adults. Celebrity or not, young people are systematically and institutionally disempowered and disenfranchised.
We saw a similar power imbalance enacted against the survivor-activists of the Parkland school shooting. The students harnessed the affordances of Twitter and other digital platforms to organize international marches, change the narrative around gun violence, and demand the attention of media organizations and politicians. What is particularly significant is that media organizations invited them to the conversation and amplified their message—something that is all too rare in stories about youth, which often lack the voices of young people themselves. However, as the teens’ message gained momentum, they became targets of organized harassment and even death threats. The same media institutions that provided them a platform for their message also propagated rumors that vilified the teens, accused them of being “crisis actors,” and became platforms for trolls to organize attacks against them.
Here again, we see examples of the ways young people are targeted by adults and in this case, even by those working as part of the media industry. Both Brown and the Parkland survivor-activists require us to think about the ways in which harassment works to further disincentive young people’s participation in society, activism, and mediated spaces. Society has a long history of marginalizing, dismissing, or trivializing the ideas of young people simply based on age. Both traditional media and digital platforms have a responsibility to not only protect young people from harassment and abuse, but to facilitate spaces in which young people are empowered to participate safely in society.
Bailey, M. (2013). New terms of resistance: A response to Zenzele Isoke. Souls, 15(4), 341–343.
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. U. Chi. Legal F. 139.
Vickery, J.R. (2017). Worried About the Wrong Things: Youth, Risk, and Opportunity in the Digital World. The MIT Press.
Vickery, J.R. and Everbach, T. (2018). Mediating Misogyny: Gender, Technology, and Harassment. Palgrave MacMillan.
Jacqueline Ryan Vickery is Associate Professor in the Department of Media Arts at the University of North Texas, USA. She is the co-editor of Mediating Misogyny: Gender, Technology, and Harassment (Palgrave, 2018) and author of Worried about the Wrong Things: Youth, Risk, and Opportunity in the Digital World (2017). She conducts qualitative and feminist research on teens’ and women’s digital media practices, and teaches courses on digital media, media theory, digital activism, and youth media. Additionally, she is the founder and facilitator of a digital storytelling workshop for youth in foster care.