Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Conversations with Scholars of American Popular Culture: Leah Perry

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Conversations with Scholars of American Popular Culture: Leah Perry

Article excerpt

Leah Perry is an Associate Professor of Cultural Studies at SUNY Empire State College. Her work examines gender and sexuality, American Studies, immigration, race and ethnicity, as well as media and popular culture. Dr. Perry holds a Ph.D. from George Mason University.

We discussed her first book The Cultural Politics of U.S. Immigration: Gender, Race, and Media (New York University Press, 2016).


What inspired you to go into this field?

I was drawn to American Studies because I wanted to understand and combat the core of racism, patriarchy, homophobia, xenophobia - the violences of inequality that are endemic to American culture and history. American Studies is especially well-situated to provide that challenge given its interdisciplinarity nature (oppression does not occur in neat academic divisions nor should our study of it). I was also interested in the field’s analysis and situation of popular culture within larger social, historical, and economic contexts, as well as the political commitment to social justice and often activism; what I consider to be the strongest work in the field is both rigorous and useful “on the ground,” in the real world, to real people.

This white queer woman was also galvanized by the intersectional work of women of color feminists, and consequently I bring an insistently intersectional feminist lens to my study of American culture. The scholarship of bell hooks, which I first encountered as a freshman in college, was especially influential. Her work first taught me that “universal” feminism is inevitably white, and as such reiterates and bolsters white supremacy and renders invisible the ways that racism and sexism fuel and support one another. Her work allowed me to understand how race and other aspects of social identity are fundamentally intertwined with gender and that popular culture and media are part of the systemic violence waged against women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, and others with minority identities. hooks also showed me a sphere in which that violence can be challenged. In short, hooks first opened my eyes to the fact that intersectionality is a lived truth, that intersectional feminism is a practice, and that representation matters. From that initial transformative encounter with black feminist thought, I was later drawn to the foundational works of women of color feminists such as Angela Davis, Kimberle Crenshaw, Audre Lorde, and Gloria Anzaldua, to their intersectional study of American culture, and to their political commitment to social justice.

What inspired you to write this book?

I wanted to understand the contradictions surrounding immigration in the United States, and especially the “nation of immigrants” narrative that has so much ideological power despite the simultaneous prevalence of xenophobia: Where did it come from? What kind of political work does the narrative accomplish? Why? Who benefits from it? Who is harmed? How and why has it changed over time? Why was it so prevalent in American culture in the 1980s, in the Reagan era?

My interest was personal as well as political, of course. As a child, I was steeped in the 1980s version of “nation of immigrants” rhetoric. My father is the first-born American son to Italian and Portuguese immigrants, and my maternal great-grandparents emigrated from Italy in the early twentieth century. According to family lore, they all worked assiduously, in the midst of discrimination toward Eastern and Southern European immigrants, to provide the next generation with a better life. The “nation of immigrants” storyline was also prevalent in the popular culture that I consumed growing up. It surfaced in popular sitcoms and films that romanticized white ethnic European immigration such as Perfect Strangers, Golden Girls, and Who’s the Boss? That 1980s “nation of immigrants” narrative, which rebranded white supremacy and sexism in the wake of the civil rights and “second-wave” feminist movements, idealizes ostensibly self-sufficient white ethnic immigrant heteropatriarchal families, families much like my own. …

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