NCA in NOLA: A tale of Frenchman Street and Feminism

November 22, 2011
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This years National Communication Association came with a side of jazz and jambalaya. Held in New Orleans, two hotels on canal street were overtaken with communication scholars from all over the country. While better known amongst rhetoric and communication science scholars, NCA has a lot to offer media scholars. With a wide variety of tracks, conference goers can explore any topic from a wider variety of methodological angles then we might otherwise be inclined to in our day to day research. With well known media scholars like Bonnie Dow, Andrea Press, Sharon Ross, Larry Gross and Isabel Molina-Guzman making appearances in the last two years, there are also some high profile draws for media scholars.

The National Communication Association had such a tremendous number of interesting panels over the conferences five days that it would be impossible to truly capture anything like an accurate image of the event in a few hundred words. Instead, I want to provide a glimpse of one small segment of the conference, a sampling of feminist and girlhood panels. Several of the panels were organized by Sarah Projansky and brought some new faces to NCA for the first time. The first panel I attended from this grouping was entitled, Girls’ Voices in and Through Media and looked at particular feminist issues in girl studies. Sharon Ross presented a paper entitled “OMG, LOL: Urban Teen’s Thoughts on Media” that provided some fascinating early data about how different demographic groupings of teens, particularly divided by race and class, conceptualized and consumed media. Not only did Ross observe important differences in what these different groups of teens watched but she also found some key differences in the way these teens claimed to use or understand the media they watched. Jessalynn Keller presented her project “Talking Back to Seventeen: Girls’ Media Activism, Feminism, and the Blogosphere” exploring how a particular girl blogger entered into a complicated discourse with Seventeen magazine and its messages through “The Seventeen Magazine Project”  and what this case study may say about the potential for feminist girl activism on the web. UW-Madison’s very own Nora Seitz also presented on this panel, performing a fascinating analysis of the ABC Family program Huge and how the series’ representation of overweight teens deviated from the Alloy brand in core ways that reflected its specific authorship and industrial contexts. Sarah Projansky finished the panel with a particularly deep analysis of the media coverage of Venus Williams in her late teen years and the unspoken racism that emerged surrounding discussion of the beads that she kept in her hair and the differing approaches to this style taken by the news and tennis officials at different points in her career.

Later in the day, I attended a workshop titled “The Politics of Doing Feminist Girls’ Media Studies” featuring a variety of scholars in differing phases of their careers. Beretta Smith Shomade from Tulane University explored in depth the role of the teacher/activist/scholar in incorporating community activism and involvement in their scholarship and provided a particularly powerful example from her own work with students and media literacy education projects. More experienced scholars on the panel explored in depth the complex relationship between scholarship, activism and pleasure that often circulates around the media. Ruth Nicole Brown discussed an activist centered project on Soul Hot that explored how the Soul Hot phenomenon allowed the voices of black girlhood to be audible and to counter narratives that were “about us but never by us.” Angharad N. Valdivia, also an intersectional scholar, emphasized the ways in which we have to think about girls as not only consumers of media but as producers of media and culture. She explains the importance of being immersed in these kinds of media, of, as a parent, consuming media with kids. Valdivia argued that it is important to explore how, sometimes problematic, mainstream media may open up a space for certain kinds of subjectivities and recognition for young people. Younger scholars, like Lindsay H. Garrison and Jessalynn Keller discussed the challenges that they encountered with trying to find materials associated with girl’s media in traditional archives because of the ways in which girls work and girls media has historically been undervalued, as well as the challenges they encountered with reconciling feminist politics with the methodologies that they used in their interviews.

A more historical perspective on feminism could be seen in the panel: “Feminist Generations and Finding a Voice: Exploring Different Generations of Feminism’s Voices”. Cindy Koenig Richards began the panel by looking at the Washington Women’s Cookbook that was produced by Washington Women’s Suffrage Movement to expand its reach and its descendent Pots and Politics. She explained that while some dismissed these publications as too conservative and domestic that they also provided opportunities for women to be published for the first time and helped these women develop a public presence. Julia Wood provided a concise overview of the second wave and the departure that the third wave takes from it, in her view, surrounding issues of difference. She expressed concern about the need to assure that the third wave finds a way to engage more effectively in making their voices heard in key venues while addressing structural issue. Bonnie Dow brought up similar questions in her work, while discussing how postfeminism has to be reconceptualized in relationship to a particular life stage. She discussed her own experience with postfeminism through the prism of Sarah Palin, who is from the same generation. She argues that postfeminism has to be thought of as an authentic subject position in order to interrogate the new momism that she argues is having something of a backlash effect as part of this postfeminist position. Finally Natalie N Fixmer-Oraiz provided a fascinating case study of the third wave organization the Reproductive Justice Network which she argues eschews models of the wave that emphasized difference rather than those that emphasizes continuity. She explains how the Reproductive Justice Network privileges youth, intersectionality, and engages with young motherhood and queer and trans women.

The final panel that I attended along these lines was my own: The Girl and the Franchise. Morgan Blue began the panel with her paper “‘At least I know how to be a girl!’: Postfeminist ‘Girlification’ on Disney Channel” which explores how the a kind of sexualized young feminine girlfriend is privileged for both young girls and adult women. She argues that this dispersed cultural phenomenon is a “sensibility” and infantilizes women of all ages and illustrated this phenomenon with case studies from Hannah Montana and Wizards of Waverly Place. Derek Johnson explored the complexities of gender and fandom by looking at the case of a little girl Katie who was teased for being a fan of Star Wars in his paper “The Force is with you, Katie’: Media Franchising and the Confinement of Girls Through Multiplied Production”. He explained the activist response to the event and the media phenomenon that followed in support of Katie that attempted to frame Star Wars as “for girls” too. He explains the complex rhetoric of this response that both frames Star Wars as inclusive while also carving out individual iterations of the franchise that are clearly gendered  and funnel fans into ghettoized niches. The panel also included Taylor Nygaard’s paper “From Clothes to New Media: Alloy Inc. and the Colonization of Contemporary Girl Culture” which detailed the growing role the Alloy company has in various forms of teen media in particular television and forays into web series. She explored how the imperatives of Alloy, which run on particularly consumption oriented commercial lines,  inflect the massive amount of content that Alloy distributes for teens today. What about my paper? That is for another post.

As I hope the reader can see, a tremendous amount of different approaches to girlhood, feminism ad media are available in only a few brief panels. Yet the panels I detailed here represent only a small snapshot of the tremendous work done at the conference. What was your NCA experience? Let us know in the comments section so we can paint a bigger picture.


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