Is Art Imitating Life?: Communicating Gender and Racial Identity in Imitation of Life

By Harris, Tina M.; Donmoyer, Deidra | Women's Studies in Communication, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview
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Is Art Imitating Life?: Communicating Gender and Racial Identity in Imitation of Life


Harris, Tina M., Donmoyer, Deidra, Women's Studies in Communication


This essay addresses the tension between standpoint theory and Black feminist thought by exploring the significance of a cultural artifact and the differences and similarities in its reception by racially diverse women (two African Americans and two European Americans). The cultural artifact chosen for critical interpretation is the film Imitation of Life (1959), which was promoted as a depiction of interracial friendship between an African American woman and a European American woman raising their teenage daughters together. The study concludes that the participants' employed multiple standpoints and lived experiences as they interpreted the significance of race, gender, and gendered racial stereotypes communicated by the film.

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Currently, there is limited research in the communication discipline examining the interaction of race and gender as they influence the reception and interpretation of mass media. While it is acknowledged that we are informed and defined by our standpoints (such as race, gender, class, and occupation) (Stanback, 1989; King, 1988), little research exists that explores the degree to which such standpoints and constructs influence the interpretations of cultural, especially film texts. In a society in which the production of such texts is a multi-billion dollar industry, research is warranted to explore this apparent relationship between standpoint and textual interpretations.

There is a long-standing debate centering around standpoint theory. Many feminists argue that a woman's gendered identity informs her socially constructed reality. No matter what roles a woman fulfills in her life, she is defined by her gender. There is much validity to this position; however, we must consider what happens to women who must deal with combinations of gender and racial identities on a daily basis. Are the experiences relative to racial identity going to be similar to those of women who are not challenged to think of their positions of privilege regarding race? Further, is shared gender identity enough to bridge this gap of difference? According to Black feminist thought (Collins, 1990), African American women are informed by their race, gender, and class standpoints. This multi-layered experience is not exclusive to African American women; however, little research has been conducted to explore the degree to which the content of a text and experience influence a woman's interpretation. If a woman is exposed to a media text, which standpoint(s) will she employ in order to interpret the messages being communicated? Is her interpretation more heavily influenced by her race? Is there an interaction between her race and gender? Or is she engaged in this interpretive process through her class related experiences? As these questions illustrate, there are multiple dimensions embedded within a person's standpoint. While a film text may be interpreted as speaking to a woman's experiences as a woman, a woman with the multiple identities of race, class, and gender may have several interpretations of the meaning contained within that text. From her gendered standpoint, she may appreciate how women are represented in a film. However, as a Latina, her racial/ethnic standpoint may offer another interpretation: the film may place great value on Whiteness and collectively devalue all women of color.

Careful, detailed research is needed in order to understand fully the components of "standpoints" and how they interact. Through such methodologies as in-depth interviews and focus groups, we can gain an increased knowledge and understanding of the multiple dimensions of a standpoint. The present study suggests that instead of choosing between identities, women are able to engage one or more identities as they negotiate through a film text embedded with multiple meanings. By acknowledging the experience of multiple standpoints, women are empowered in their positions as marginalized "others.

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