To What Extent Do Intersectional Accounts of Gender Continue to Have an Impact on Contemporary Society?

Trigger warning: Mentions racially and gender targeted murders (and names of victims), police brutality, transphobia, sexism, sexual abuse, mental health and death penalty.

Firstly, it is helpful to define what we mean by ‘intersectionality’. Kimberle Crenshaw coined this term in the 1980s. At the time, it was used to encapsulate the experiences of African-American women using a crossroad analogy, as not only did they experience the strains of patriarchy. They experienced multiple forms of oppression such as racism, colonialism and imperialism, which link together to make a double, triple or multiple layered blankets of oppression (Crenshaw, 1991). Today, this term has been used to examine a broader range of discriminations people may face, such as homophobia/transphobia, Islamophobia, ableism, classism and material deprivation. Therefore, in this essay, I will consider material and cultural accounts of gender such as intersections with class, disability, culture, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender expression to examine how these forms of oppression overlap and shape individuals’ experiences. To ground the argument, I will draw from contemporary and historical examples such as policing and healthcare, and contextual factors, empirical evidence and relevant theory such as feminism and queer theory. 

Now, let’s delve deeper into the origin of intersectionality and strive towards inclusive feminism in the 19th and 20th century before assessing its contemporary relevance and impact. Before Crenshaw, Black feminists, activists and abolitionists expressed the need for a more inclusive perspective within feminism, which was necessary because “white women focused on their oppression as women and ignored differences of race, sexual preference, class and age” (Lorde, 2007). In 1851 Black abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth confronted this issue during the first wave of feminism at a Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio. She expressed “Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?” (Eddo-Lodge, 2018). A century on in 1984 Black feminist Audre Lorde acknowledged the same issue with how white women in the feminist movement ignored their built in privilege of whiteness and defined ‘woman’ based on their own experiences alone. They viewed Women of Color as ‘other’ and therefore could not or did not try to relate to their experiences (Lorde, 2007). This showcased how Black women and Women of Color felt like outsiders within the Women’s Rights/feminist movements due to racism as well as within Black communities due to sexism, which is what led to the consideration of intersectional accounts of feminism. More recently, the term ‘misogynoir’ was coined by feminist activist Moya Bailey to define the place where anti-Black racism and sexism meet, which was described as “the particular brand of hatred directed at Black women in American and popular culture” (Saad, 2020). Although intersectionality started as a consideration of racism combined with sexism. Lorde acknowledged that we must recognise differences amongst women and devise ways to use these differences to enrich our visions and our joint struggles (Lorde, 2007), which includes aspects such as our class, sexuality, religion, [dis]ability and gender expression/identity as well.

Intersectional accounts of feminism are important because sexism and racism are still very much prevalent in UK society, despite policies such as Race Relations Acts 1965-1976, the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equality Act 2010, that aimed to prevent discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality within everyday life and the workplace (Legislation.Gov.UK, 2021). Even though, men from minoritised ethnic groups in the UK have to navigate through the strains of racism, for example, people from Black British, Afro-Caribbean, Asian/Asian British, Arab and mixed backgrounds. Women from the same backgrounds experience their own class of racialised misogyny. The hashtag #SayHerName was created in 2014 to highlight this and the number of Black women and girls that were murdered by law enforcement officers, including Natasha McKennaTanisha AndersonMichelle CusseauxAura Rosser and Maya Hall, to name a few (Khaleeli, 2016). Although in general, Black individuals are more likely to be stopped and searched, arrested and abused/murdered by the police due to racial profiling and institutional racism. For example, Black people were 9.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people in 2018-19 and more than any other race and ethnicity (GOV.UK, 2021). The stories of Black women and girls, including sexual abuse and murders, are often overlooked, unnoticed and untold, which is reinforced through lack of media coverage, education and justice around these cases. One case that did catch the media and the public’s attention was the death of Sandra Bland. The police officer pulled her over for not using her indicator. Then, soon after, slammed her head down on the pavement, without a justifiable reason. This was caught on camera, which explains the attention it accumulated. Three days later, she was found dead in a police cell (Khaleeli, 2016). This showcases an example of anti-Black patriarchal violence and dehumanisation against Black female bodies. Another example of misogynoir would be shown in the 2014 NHS report as Black British women are more prone to experience anxiety, depression, panic and OCD disorders than white women. Also, Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth in the UK and three times more in the US compared to their white counterparts (Saad, 2020). This disparity could be partly down to Black women being stereotyped as strong, sassy and aggressive and viewed as less worthy, which are harmful stereotypes translated to the medical field and explains why Black women are less likely to receive the care they need (Saad, 2020). Although, Black women and girls have not received as much media coverage as Black men and boys in recent Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations and debates around police brutality. Black men and boys are much more likely to be targeted by the police, be the victims of an excessive police force and receive harsher prison sentences than women. These occurrences could be due to values of chivalry built into our society and harmful stereotypes around Black men; for example, they are viewed as sexually deviant, violent, less intelligent, lazy and criminal (Saad, 2020). This stems from systemic racism grained into Western society and portrayals of Black men in the media such as the 1915 Birth of Nation, which was fabricated as a propaganda message to justify the violent treatment against Black men, which still lives on a century later in the collective white psyche (Saad, 2020). These stereotypes are shown in action in the 2014 University of Michigan Law School study that shows how Black offenders were 75% more likely to face a charge carrying a mandatory minimum sentence than a white offender who committed the same crime. Furthermore, Black men who commit the same crimes as white men receive prison sentences that are, on average, nearly 20% longer (US Sentencing Commission, 2017). Another example of the disparities between Black and white men regarding experiences with the police include when the rapper, activist and author Akala was pulled over by a male police officer that pointed out “cars like this are used by gang members” (Akala, 2019). Once the female officer realised Akala was ‘someone important’, the male officer’s attitude towards Akala changed completely, which shows how his class privileges came to the fore and trumped their racial assumptions (Akala, 2019). But, in most cases, class or status is not obvious through physical appearance, so Black people are judged by their race before anything else. Moreover, lower-class Black men are often the targets due to the assumption that they are associated with crime or gangs. In this circumstance, we see how class, gender and race intersect with one another to shape the experiences of Black men and women in society. 

To look at class and gender more generally, working-class women, especially lower-class BIPOC and Asian women, are the most likely to experience the strains of capitalism and material deprivation compared to men. For example, the 2012 and 2013 British women’s groups such as the Fawcett Society and the Women’s Budget Group found that the government’s austerity measures hit women the hardest (Eddo-Lodge, 2018). This is reinforced through the pandemic, as working-class women were more likely to be furloughed or out of work. Due to the nature of their roles (semi-routine and face-to-face), it resulted in almost half of working-class women (43%) receiving no hours of work in April compared to just 20% of women in professional or managerial roles (university of Nottingham, 2020). Furthermore, in April 2020, 41% of working-class women felt distressed, which was the highest proportion across the classes (University of Nottingham, 2020). This could be due to financial struggles, being in lockdown with no work, long hours in crucial work and focusing on childcare/housework on top of this. Furthermore, the pandemic alienated the disabled community; for example, face masks make it impossible for deaf people to lip read and see facial expressions, and social distancing makes it difficult for disabled people who require personal assistants. The pandemic exacerbated inequalities across class, gender identity and disability groups, as working-class disabled women or gender non-conforming people experience a multi-layered blanket of oppression in a society where they threaten ‘norms’ and do not accommodate them in times of crisis. 

In contemporary society, we see more diversity and freedom of expression due to political and societal progression, as well as increased conflict due to our ability to acknowledge and ridicule these differences due to the digital revolution. This inequality is especially apparent within the LGBTQIA+ community, as heterosexuality and cisgenderism continue to be the norm. Hence, there is still an overlap of discriminations such as sexism, homophobia/biphobia and transphobia towards people who deviate from this norm. When feminists in the 1970s began to challenge male privilege encoded into conventional heterosexual relations, it laid the foundations for a radical critique of heterosexuality, which we later made explicit by Adrienne Rich (1980). She looked into compulsory heterosexuality, which is the idea that lesbians were confined and subordinated by heterosexuality because it was perpetuated as universal, natural and normal (Richardson et al., 2006). Furthermore, many queer and gender non-conforming people had to conform and hide their true identity due to a society that sees queer identities as deviant or gender as a binary socially constructed product of patriarchal societies (Richardson, et al., 2006). Despite the previously mentioned policies that aimed to minimise discrimination of sexuality, gender expression and identity. There is still significant overt and covert forms of homophobia, sexism and transphobia across the globe, which includes harmful stereotypes around lesbian women and gay men, slurs, a fetishization of bisexual, gender non-conforming and trans people, high rates of murders amongst BIPOC trans women, the death penalty in certain countries/cultures, exclusion of trans women in sports and exclusion of disabled trans people within the LGBTQIA+ community. An example of this would be how 350 transgender people who were murdered, suffocated or burned alive in 2020, most of which happened in South and Central America (Forbes, 2020). This shows how our location and culture come into play with our gender identity and expression because certain countries protect the rights and lives of LGBTQIA+ individuals, whereas others do not. Some countries that criminalise LGBTQIA+ people include Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Kenya (Human Dignity Trust, 2021). However, we see how our gender can intersect with our sexuality, gender expression, race and class. Many critical feminists feel as if the inclusion of trans and queer women within feminism has taken away the initial aims of the movement (Richardson et al., 2006). Furthermore, others, such as the right-wing website Breitbart London defined intersectionality as a debate strategy – to call your opponent racist or a capitalist when you lose an argument about feminism (Eddo-Lodge, 2018). However, this is overly simplistic and ignores the intricacies of how our identity shapes our experiences with the world. As one’s Blackness and queerness is as much a part of them as their womanhood, as they cannot be separated or one deemed more important than the other (Eddo-Lodge, 2018).

In conclusion, despite arguments against the need for a intersectional perspective within feminism. Intersectional accounts of gender continue to have an impact on contemporary society. Although white middle-class heterosexual women can also suffer under the strains of patriarchy. It is important to consider how multiple parts of our identity intersect to shape our experiences within society and how those parts can create a multi-layered blanket of oppression in some cases. Furthermore, it important to apply the notions of intersectionality to men and non-binary/transgender people because men’s identities are diverse and multifaceted (sexuality, religion, culture and race). These characteristics all come together and impact their experiences and treatment as men in similar ways to women. For example, hegemonic ideologies around being ‘manly’ and ‘tough’ can put a strain on men’s mental health and body image. 


Akala (2019) Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. Great Britain: Two Roads, pp. 170-177.

Crenshaw, K. (1991) ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’, Stanford Law Review, 43(6) pp. 1241-1299.

Eddo-Lodge, R. (2018) Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, pp. 156-187.

Equality Act 2010, c. 1. Available at: (Accessed: 18 May 2021).

Equal Pay Act 1970, c. 41. Available at: (Accessed 18 May 2021).

GOV.UK (2021) Ethnicity Facts and Figures: Stop and Search. Available at: (Accessed: 20 May 2021).

Khaleeli, H. (2016) ‘#SayHerName: Why Kimberlé Crenshaw is Fighting for Forgotten Women’, The Guardian, 30 May. Available at: (Accessed: 20 May 2021).

Lorde, A. (2007) Sister Outsider. Rev. edn. New York: Ten Speed Press, pp. 114-122.

Race Relations Act 1968, c. 71. Available at: (Accessed: 18 May 2021).

Richardson, D., McLaughlin, J., and Casey, M. (eds.) (2006) Intersections Between Feminist and Queer Theory. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 7-23.

Saad, L. (2020) Me and White Supremacy. Great Britain: Sourcebooks, pp. 86-95.

Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (Repealed), c. 65. Available at: (Accessed: 18 May 2021).

The Dignity Trust (2021) Available at: (Accessed: 20 May 2021).

United States Sentencing Commission (2017) Demographic Differences in Sentencing: An Update to the 2012 Booker Report, Washington DC, pp. 2-17. Available at: (Accessed: 19 May 2021).

University of Nottingham (2020) Available at: (Accessed: 21 May 2021).

Wareham, J. (2020) ‘Murdered, Suffocated And Burned Alive: 350 Transgender People Killed In 2020’, Forbes, 11 November. Available at: (Accessed: 20 May 2021).

How Resistance to Power is Effective at Bringing About Social Change

In this essay, I will explore the extent to which resistance to power effectively brings about social change. To do this, I will focus on two case studies, including the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and counterculture in 1960s-1970s America. I will also provide links to relevant theory and social, political and cultural contexts to assess how successful these events brought about short and long term social change. Firstly, however, it is helpful to define what we mean by ‘power’ and ‘resistance’. According to Scott, “to have power is to have an enduring capacity or disposition to do something regardless of whether this capacity is being exercised” (Scott, 2002). This conceptualisation implies that a group, organisation or individual possesses power if subalterns comply with their wishes without the need for intervention or punishment. More generally, power is an actor’s ability to produce successful performances, as long as there is an intention to do so (Wrong, 1979 cited in Scott, 2002) showing up in overt and covert ways. Furthermore, “as soon as there is a power relation, there is the possibility of resistance” (Foucault, 1994 cited in Heller, 1996). Resistance is the idea of opposing or undermining forms of power and domination, which can fabricate in many ways, such as protests, illegal acts and applying pressure to institutions. I have chosen these case studies because they showcase different forms of power, social movement, authority and resistance. For example, power from the bottom (masses), violent resistance to sovereign power and power shown through compliance to oppressive laws and societal norms, which I will explore further throughout this critical essay.

In the following section, I will explore the extent to which the Stonewall Riots effectively brought about social change. America’s laws had always punished gay men and women due to Puritan heritage that oppressed same-sex relations (Carter, 2005). However, during the post-war era, gay men and women found themselves in a worse legal position since the Republic’s birth. They were used as scapegoats for hysteria around communism, conformity and child molestation. As a result, new crimes were invented, such as loitering in public toilets, wearing inappropriate clothing for your sex, selling alcohol in gay bars and increased penalties around sodomy (Carter, 2005). Bars and restaurants in Greenwich Village, the seafront and the West side of Central Park were spots where LGBTQ+ individuals would go for casual sex, to express themselves, socialise and gain a sense of community. Once this became common knowledge, gay men were intentionally sought out by police officers, which included routine bar raids and closures, homophobic slurs, ostracism, harassment, physical force, entrapment and arrests (Carter, 2005). These instances highlight the overlap between sovereign and disciplinary power. Foucault defines sovereign power as the ability to stop or limit one’s behaviours, such as through the use of violence, law and regulation (1979, cited in Lilja, 2014), which is reinforced through our example as there were restrictive laws around ‘homosexual’ acts, fear of punishment if one did not adhere to these laws and police force. Furthermore, disciplinary power can train and control individuals through institutions and scientific discourses while simultaneously punishing (1979, cited in Lilja, 2014). This is shown through consistent surveillance (hidden cameras and undercover police officers), self-regulation and psychological reinforcement that homosexuality was a mental illness, criminal and sinful. This encapsulates the power the police and state held because it deterred LGBTQ+ individuals from acting upon their desires due to the fear of being beaten, arrested and humiliated. Despite these power relations, the Mafia boss, ‘Fat Tony’ opened a gay bar named The Stonewall Inn on March 18th 1967 (Carter, 2005). To operate under restrictive laws, Fat Tony fronted as a private/bottle club that did not serve alcohol (but in reality, they served anyone the doormen admitted and made a profit through watered-down drinks and overpriced tickets). Furthermore, to limit the chance of police raids and entrapment, there were secure windows, steel doors and strict bouncers. Due to police corruption, the Mafia paid police officers to turn a blind eye to broken laws. In return, the police gave the Mafia notice before raids, so incriminating evidence could be hidden (Carter, 2005). However, on June 28th 1969, officers raided The Stonewall Inn at peak times and planned to confiscate alcohol, money and trash the bar, as they were tired of the Mafia re-opening shortly after raids (Carter, 2005). There was immediate verbal resistance when officers asked Stonewall customers to get their ID out. Usually, LBGTQ+ individuals would comply and sit quietly. However, this time they were acting up: “get your hands off me” and “don’t touch me” (Carter, 2005), as lesbians were inappropriately frisked, and transgender women were targeted and ‘checked’ in the toilets. Those who had identification were allowed to leave but decided to gather outside to wait for friends instead. The crowd grew fast due to curiosity and anxiety, and patrons began shouting and throwing coins when officers handled transgender women with unnecessary force (Carter, 2005).

According to eyewitness accounts, everything was reasonably peaceful until a lesbian came out kicking, cursing and screaming. This instance acted as the catalyst for the riots as someone shouted, “why don’t you guys do something?” (Carter, 2005, p. 151), which resulted in officers barricading themselves inside The Stonewall Inn after rioters started throwing rubbish, cans, glass, fire and bricks to attack them (Carter, 2005). This reinforces how illegal and violent acts are often the only way to undermine and challenge sovereign power because it controls the agency of subalterns otherwise. So, resistance becomes a matter of breaking such commands or repressions, for example, rebellions, disobedience, political revolutions and overthrowing oppressive governments and regimes (Foucault 1979, in Lilja, 2014). Although not as common, we see some resistance to disciplinary power within the Stonewall Riots, including passive and hidden forms of resistance, such as sarcasm, cursing, chanting, refusal to follow orders and foot-dragging (Scott, 1989, cited in Lilja, 2014). For example, some onlookers deliberately blocked the street so police officers and cars could not enter (Carter, 2005), which offered others more space and opportunity to confront and attack the officers. Although, similar movements at the time, i.e., the Civil Rights Movement, took on a non-violent approach to resisting sovereign power, such as protests and boycotts. The Stonewall Riots were effective as they expressed a collective resistance to oppressive regimes and built up fury from subordination. They were also necessary to show the police that the LGBTQ+ community would no longer act as passive bystanders, which they did by showcasing a united front and a sense of “Gay Power” (Carter, 2005) by claiming Christopher Street as their own and not backing down.

Even though the LGBTQ+ community were demonised in the media for orchestrating the riots and it was not the only event that led to the Gay Rights Movement. The Stonewall Uprising sparked social change and was a galvanising force for political activism. It introduced organisations such as the Gay Liberation Front and Human Rights Campaign and magazines such as ‘GAY’ (History, 2021). These magazines and their affiliated political groupings began to pursue a policy of raising consciousness and ultimately driving for equality, lack of legal harassment and greater tolerance and respect from the American public (History Extra, 2021). This shows how the Stonewall Riots gave other LGBTQ+ individuals the courage to stand up for their political rights and resist overt and covert forms of homophobic oppression and bureaucratic authority, as there was power in numbers. On the first anniversary of the riots, we saw America’s first gay pride parade as thousands of people marched the streets of Manhattan (History, 2021).

Above and Opposite: The First Gay Pride March, Sixth Avenue, New York City (Evans, 1970, cited in Duberman, 2019)
“At a time when the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual still listed homosexuality as a mental disorder, the march was a rare opportunity for gay people to publicly express the love and strength of their community. As they walked north, the crowd chanted: “Say it loud, gay is proud.(Evans, 1970)

After the first parade, progress sped up. In the decade that followed, the federal exclusions on gays and lesbians were lifted, the medical profession reversed its belief that LGBTQ+ individuals needed psychiatric treatment, the government struck down many anti-sodomy laws, and homosexuality was made legal. The legal progress was matched by a change in cultural attitudes, as 3/4 of Americans accept gay relations (BBC News, 2019). This shows the significance of the Stonewall Uprising, as it lives on as a part of LGBTQ+ history and culture within contemporary society due to how ‘pride month’ is celebrated every June worldwide. Even though resistance and political activism before the riots are overlooked. They set the trajectory for the riots and greater change after that, such as the legislation of same-sex marriage in 2015 (BBC News, 2019).

The following section will discuss how effective the American counterculture (from 1964-1972) brought about social change. The Hippie subculture followed in the footsteps of an earlier countercultural rebellious group in the 1950s named the Beat Generation. The political environment of 1960 America informed and inspired the hippie rebellion, including the civil rights movement, America sending troops to Vietnam, the anti-nuclear movement and Cold War tensions (Issitt, 2009). These issues founded the values and aims of the subculture, such as pacifism, ecological consciousness, women’s, LGBTQ+ and Black rights, Eastern religion and hedonistic living (Issitt, 2009). However, many Hippies were involved in political and global activism, such as the International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF) and Youth International Party (or Yippies). They participated in the civil rights and anti-war movements (Issitt, 2009). At the core of Hippie philosophy was the rejection of American norms and materialism and the promotion of ‘love’ and nonviolence. For example, “hippies envisioned a world freed from the pursuit of wealth, where communities would provide for one another in the spirit of love and harmonious coexistence” (Issitt, 2009). Their aims were not to specifically create social change. The Hippie subculture was a place for identity formation, community and enjoying the pleasures in life such as music festivals (Woodstock and Summer of Love) and spiritual enlightenment. Hippies showed resistance to traditional and conservative norms and capitalism simply through their lifestyle, including sexual positivity and exploration, psychedelic drugs and rock music, colourful clothing, emphasis on pleasurable living and freedom, as long as it did not hurt anyone else (Issitt, 2009). We can link these actions to disciplinary power because the power structure Hippies were resisting is more subtle. Individuals were monitored and controlled through the law, regulation and surveillance and expected to conform to cultural and societal norms (Foucault 1979, cited in Lilja, 2014). Some everyday forms of activism that Hippies did to undermine disciplinary power and capitalism was passivity, theft, rejection of norms as the ‘absolute’ truth, homelessness or frugal living as a choice, illegal activities such as drug-taking. Others chose to entirely ‘drop out’ of society; “those in good conscience should ‘‘drop out’’ of society, adopting a lifestyle of complete abstinence from the conventions of the mainstream, including politics” (Issitt, 2009). This ideology can be linked to Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic, as the Hippie’s rejection of religion and self-indulgence undermines capitalism as a whole because it freed them from hierarchical social structures and low wellbeing due to decreased social life (Weber, 1930).

“Hundreds of hippies gather in the San Francisco Presidio for an anti-war demonstration” (Altman, 2007, cited in Issitt, 2009)

Some more overt acts of resistance for politically active members included protests, public demonstrations and boycotts. The Hippie subculture ended in the mid-to-late 1970s. Janis Joplin’s’, Jimi Hendrix’s, and Jim Morrison’s death by overdose contributed to the shifting views around drug use and the remaining Hippies reverted to urban areas from NY, LA and San Francisco (Issitt, 2009). However, the main reason the rebellion dissolved was because the subculture and symbols of the subculture e.g., peace sign and fashion became a commodity when it was absorbed by mainstream society, which ultimately rendered the function of the subculture obsolete (Issitt, 2009). Although the movement was short-lived, its effect was profound, yet not realised immediately. By the 21st century, many ideas that Hippies thought of as ‘revolutionary’ were common sense for a generation fuelled by Hippie’s accomplishments. Gradually, trickling through generations and pervasively chipping away at the status quo (Issitt, 2009). Perhaps the most notable way the subculture impacted society was how their hunger for anything ‘un-American’ and interest in foreign culture contributed to a blending of cultures and driving force behind the evolution of a global society and multiculturalism. Therefore, Hippies must be acknowledged as agents of globalisation for spreading psychedelic rock and fashion across the globe (Issitt, 2009).

In conclusion, through the exploration into the Stonewall Riots and American counterculture, it is evident that resistance to different forms of power, such as disciplinary and sovereign, has been effective in creating long term social change. This can be achieved through overt, illegal and violent means such as riots, theft and drug-taking, or can be done more passively and unintentionally, such as refusing to follow orders, ‘dropping out’ from society or refusing to conform to cultural norms. In both cases, we see a sense of power generated from the large scale social movements, as there is strength in numbers. This can contribute to meaningful social and political change, such as removing discriminatory laws, which showcases the power of activism and transformative social movements. However, even though the Stonewall Riots and Hippie subculture sparked the future trajectory of LGBTQ+ social movements and shaped the ideas and values of the next generation. It is essential to consider that social change occurs down to an accumulation of efforts to resist power structures and not solely one instance.


Altman, R. (2007) cited in Issitt, M. (2009) Hippies: A Guide to an American Counterculture. California: Greenwood Press, p. 49.

Carter, D. (2005) Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York: St Martin’s Griffin, pp. 16-181.

Evans, M. (1970) The First New York Pride March cited in Duberman, M. (2019) Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising That Changed America. United States: Plume. Rev. Edn. p. 204.

Evans, M. (1970) The First New York Pride March. Available at: (Accessed: 28 May 2021).

Geoghegan, T. (2019) ‘Stonewall: A Riot That Changed Millions of Lives’, BBC News. Available at: (Accessed: 29 May 2021).

Heller, J. (1996) ‘Power, Subjectification and Resistance in Foucault’, Substance, 25(79), pp. 78-110.

History (2021) Available at: (Accessed: 28 May 2021).

History Extra (2021) Available at: (Accessed: 28 May 2021).

Issitt, M. (2009) Hippies: A Guide to an American Counterculture. California: Greenwood Press, pp. 1-62.

Lija, M., and Vinthagen, S. (2014) ‘Sovereign Power, Disciplinary Power and Biopower: Resisting What Power with What Resistance?’ Journal of Political Power, 7(1), pp. 107-116.

Scott, J. (2002) Power. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp. 9-13.

Weber, M. (1930) The Protestant Ethic and Spirt and Capitalism. New York: Scribner, pp. 35-40.

Critical Review of: ‘On Popular Music’ by Theodor W. Adorno (1941)

This essay will be an evaluation of Adorno’s article ‘On Popular Music’, in which he critically analyses the culture industry and highlights the differences between ‘popular music’ and ‘serious music’, as his speciality was music composition and culture consumption. Adorno was one of the key philosophers in The Frankfurt School of thought that was founded in 1923, Germany, at the Institute for Social Research (IEP, 2020) But since then, critical theory has spread worldwide and been highly influential on contemporary sociological literature and debate, such as Frank Furedi and David Held. The school included other critical theorists such as Horkheimer, Benjamin, Marcuse, and Habermas, and as a whole, they took inspiration from philosophers before them such as Nietzsche, Hegel, and Marx. So, their main concerns centred around modern capitalism, politics, and mass culture – and Nazism (IEP, 2020). Most of The Frankfurt School were exiled from Germany due to their Jewish descent in 1934. So, Adorno moved to England, and then after, continued his research in America, until he returned to Frankfurt when the war was over (IEP, 2020).

To briefly summarise the article, Adorno argues how popular music has become ‘standardised’ due to the rise in consumerism e.g., successful hits are imitated and reproduced so companies continue to make a profit. As listeners, he believed we are unaware of this process of standardisation and have a false sense of ‘free choice’, which is known as ‘pseudo individualism’. As media companies only promote and distribute content that they know consumers ‘want’. Overall, the standardisation of music and entertainment and these feelings of pseudo individualism, mean that little attention and effort is required during our leisure time. Therefore, the culture industry ensures we ‘keep inline’ and continue working in our mechanised job, as well as distracting us from our unhappiness or thinking critically about the world we live in. Throughout this critical review, we will delve deep into these concepts to gain a true understanding of his argument. Additionally, we will assess the strengths and weaknesses to his argument, its disciplinary impact, contemporary relevance, as well as linking to contextual factors and key sociologists to support these claims. 

To start with, Adorno gives us an introduction into ‘The Two Spheres of Music’, where he assesses the key differences between ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ music. Adorno’s main argument is centred around the idea of standardisation, as he believed this was the main feature of popular music. He thought the structure (the chorus consists of 32 bars, the song lasts around 3 minutes and the lyrics are repetitive) as well as themes and characters – nursery rhymes, home, and love were standardised (Adorno, 1941). Adorno seems well versed in music composition and uses jargon to reflect this knowledge e.g., octave and scherzo (p. 304). This gives his article a sense of validity and credibility because complex vocabulary is usually associated with higher intelligence. However, these lexical choices may have been a barrier for working-class at the time, as the higher class were more likely to receive a formal education, and therefore be able to understand the complexity of the article. Even working-class people reading this today may struggle to understand if they lack the cultural capital (knowledge) due to their ascribed status (Bourdieu, 1981). This highlights the contradictory nature to his argument, which is shown through the quote “primitive musical language sets barriers to whatever does not conform to them” (p. 307). Furthermore, the use of the adjective ‘serious’ to describe one sphere of music showcases a sense of superiority. It’s likely that he labels classical music as ‘serious’ because it was the norm during his young life. The feeling of superiority is highlighted when he suggests that classical music has more ‘meaning’, is ‘absolute’ and requires more attention span than popular music (p. 310). This is merely a reflection of his personal opinion and likely due to a positive association with childhood memories – he thinks so highly of classical ‘serious’ music because it reflects a ‘better time’ before his exile and the horrific treatment of Jewish people in Germany. Hence, why he struggles to accept the inevitable musical shift taking place and how his argument around the classification of music holds little objective value. 

To address another weakness, I found his tone quite patronising – “most listeners of popular music do not understand music as a language in itself” (p. 310). Adorno fails to acknowledge the creativity and agency of individuals and how they can actively participate in and consume culture. For example, people are often aware of standardisation and can choose to boycott certain aspects of the culture industry or use it as a way to spread political messages instead. This has been done recently in songs such as ‘Black’ by Dave, ‘This is America’ by Childish Gambino and ‘Lockdown’ by Anderson Park, which shows how contemporary music artists are taking advantage of the rise in technology and consumerism to draw attention to topics such as police brutality, racism, and other current affairs. This is reflected through the philosophy of Pluralism, as Pluralists believe consumers “are free to select, reject and re-interpret a wide range of media content, and they increasingly take advantage of new technologies and new media to produce their own content” (Thompson, 2019). However, Adorno would suggest that even when the production of music is individualistic, the promotion and distribution of popular music is industrial (pp. 306-307). Therefore, even if artists write meaningful lyrics, the consumers are unable to pay attention because popular music has a primary function of reproducing the consumers working capacity (p. 310). This draws inspiration from Marx’s work as he believed that “the bourgeoise cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production” (Jones, 2002), which shows that through technological advancements and mass media, the bourgeoisie have found new ways to control the proletariat, instead of relying on the division of labour in industrial work like they used to. So, ultimately consumers are unable to devote their full attention to the lyrics due to the capitalist function of mass culture.

Furthermore, Adorno is overly critical of jazz throughout his article – “the most drastic example of standardisation of presumably individualised feature is to be found in the so-called [jazz] improvisations” (p. 308). He believed these improvisations created a sense of pseudo individualism because fans felt flattered due to the exciting stimuli, even though the improvisations were also “confined in the walls of the harmonic and metric scheme” (p. 308), which created a paradox or “backwardness” to the mass production of music. This shows how the “illusion of choice” was imperative to ensure standardisation was not questioned. Adorno fails to acknowledge the positive impact of popular music during the 1940s, such as increased social solidarity and self-expression. For example, jazz originated in the New Orleans in the early 1900s and was used to express pain, injustice, and adversity – the positive beats and jazz improvisations reflected freedom and hope that African American’s had little of during a time of segregation, hate crime and lynching. Furthermore, jazz music was considered “America’s classical music” (National Museum of American History, 2020), which highlights the societal differences between Germany and America at the time that Adorno disregards. However, Adorno’s ideas around pseudo individualism and standardisation were well ahead of the time and still possess contemporary relevance. Or even more so, due to technological advancements and a further rise in consumerism. For example, ‘pop’ songs are all around 3 minutes long, have similar themes such as ‘love’ or ‘heartache’ and follow a repetitive structure with similar beats – consider ‘Sweet Melody’ by Little Mix. And most people believe they have a choice over the culture they are consuming.

Expanding on earlier, we come to Adorno’s final argument around leisure time. He argued that popular music maintains its hold on the masses through distraction and inattention – “listeners are distracted from the demands of reality by entertainment which does not demand attention either” (p. 310). He believed that people use their leisure time as an escape from mundane work and due to fear and anxiety over low income, unemployment, and war (p. 310), which was justifiable with the political and economic climate at the time. So, people indulged in “non-productive” leisure time due to the boredom of work and societal strains, which leaves them with no energy to consciously engage their minds or think critically of the world they live in. All of this is possible because features of music and TV are already “pre-digested”, so little effort and attention are required to follow along (p. 310). This shows how the culture industry upholds capitalism by ensuring workers continue to get up and go to work every morning without question. Adorno’s argument around leisure time is significant and relevant to today’s society because people indulge in non-productive activities even more than they used to – the rise in technology and modern-day strains such as mental health, education, flexible work contracts, in-work poverty, and more recently, COVID, has led most people to become obsessed with their gadgets and social media, as a way to escape these issues and relax after work. Few people choose productive activities such as reading or learning a new language in their leisure time because they are too physically and mentally drained from the demands of modern capitalism. Adorno believed that this is only possible because “mass consciousness can be moulded by the operative agencies only because the masses ‘want this stuff’” (p. 310). This links to the ‘Drip-Drip Effect’, as the more time people spend watching TV, the more likely they are to internalise character portrayals and perceive the world in accordance with this internalisation (Preiss et al., 2011) e.g., the idea to carry on working, which reflects the passiveness of consumers. So, we continue to indulge in these materialistic items due to the powerful influence of the media. Media companies create advertisements targeted to our innate human desires e.g., human beings are social creatures who yearn for intimacy and affection (Edgley, 2020), so they often include ads that show friends having fun alongside the product they are trying to tell. The exploitation of our unhappiness and insecurities leads us to buy more ‘stuff’ we do not need, as we think it will give us happiness and success, which is known as ‘false needs’. This links to William Davies book ‘The Happiness Industry’, as he explains how happiness has become a commodity – “the market must be designed as a space in which desires can be pursued but never fully satisfied, or else the hunger for consumption will dwindle” (Davies, 2015). His argument seems more developed than Adorno’s because he draws on the work from many other critical theorists and Marxists before him, unlike Adorno. Also, the use of statistical economic data and links to neuroscience throughout his book make it appear much more reliable and credible, as Adorno’s work was subjective and contained no evidence. But it does highlight the lasting impact that Adorno, and The Frankfurt school in general, have had on contemporary sociological debate – because since then, many critical theories such as critical race theory, queer theory, cultural theory and previously mentioned media focused theories, have developed around The Frankfurt School’s ideas. A direct reference to Adorno’s work was made in David Held’s ‘Introduction to Critical Theory’, as he gives an in-depth history into The Frankfurt School, explains their key ideas, and offers some critiques of critical theory. For example, he believed an “excessive amount of time was spent studying superstructural phenomena’ – aesthetics and culture – thus further detracting from serious engagement with the key determinants of social life” (Held, 1991), which shows Adorno may have been more focused on criticising the culture industry instead of researching how to solve the issues he presents. 

Overall, Adorno expanded on theorists before him such as Hegel and Marx and produced a well-structured and coherent argument that was useful in explaining the negative effects of consumer culture and the standardisation of music on the public. It was a unique observation at the time, as few people owned a TV and radio. His ideas around the standardisation of music, the illusion of choice and skewed function of leisure time are still widely applicable and relevant to today’s society, due to increased consumerism, technology, and modern-day strains. We also see how his work has sparked further sociological debate and influenced the introduction of modern critical theorists who criticise our media and government, such as David Held and William Davies. On the other hand, there were some significant weaknesses and absences to Adorno’s argument. For example, his argument was repetitive, it lacked evidence and objectivity, included personal biases and complex vocabulary choices that acted as a barrier to the working class at the time. He also failed to acknowledge how consumers actively play a part in consuming culture and constructing their agency and finally, he was overly critical of popular music without mentioning any solutions to these issues. Despite these weaknesses, the disciplinary impact alone makes the argument significant – as Adorno raised questions and concerns that other critical theorists could later expand on. And The Frankfurt School as a collective, have inspired others to think critically about how economic, politic, and cultural systems shape who we are.


Adorno, T.W. (1941) ‘On Popular Music’, Studies in Philosophy and Social Sciences, pp. 301- 313.

Bourdieu, P. (1986) The Forms of Capital in Richardson, J., Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education Westport, CT: Greenwood, pp 241-58.

Davies, W. (2015) The Happiness Industry. 1st edn. Verso, p. 58.

Edgley, R., 2020. The Art Of Resilience. 1st ed. London: Harper Collins, pp.215-216.

Held, D. (1991) Introduction to Critical Theory. 1st edn. Polity Press, pp. 356-357.

Jones, G. (2002) The Communist Manifesto. 44th edn. London: Penguin Classics, p. 222.

Preiss, R. et al. (2011) Mass Media Effects Research: Advances Through Meta-Analysis. New York: Routledge, p. 200.

The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory (2020). Available at: (Accessed: 8 November 2020).

Theodor Adorno (2020). Available at: (Accessed: 8 November 2020).

Thompson, K. (2019) The Pluralist View of the MediaRevise Sociology. Available at: (Accessed: 8 November 2020).

What is Jazz? (2020). Available at: (Accessed: 8 November 2020).