backlash · media

When pop culture research is unpopular

I really enjoyed reading Aimée Morrison’s Wednesday post on the importance of participating in public discussions of our work. I think many of us shy away from this kind of engagement because our graduate programmes do not offer much in the way of media training, and so the world of the mainstream media (despite being a regular object of study for some of us) also remains an intimidating place.

When I decided to join the Hook and Eye team, I knew that the first blog post I wanted to write would be about my own (failed) attempt to disseminate my research in the mainstream media. While at congress in Waterloo this past spring, a paper that I presented at the Canadian Women’s Studies Association discussing gender inequality in the Canadian comedy industry was picked up by the National Post to be featured as part of their “Oh the Humanities” series. I was genuinely excited about this opportunity, and really enjoyed speaking to the reporter about my work. The day that the story was published, my excitement very quickly turned to dread and trauma as violently negative reactions to my scholarship began filling the comments sections of the article. Not only had the story been generally poorly received, but actual female stand-up comedians – the subjects of my research – were chiming in to angrily explain how completely, utterly offensive were all of my claims. It was a moment of extreme academic vulnerability, in which I had to reckon with the terrifying possibility that I had gotten it all wrong.

Through much reflection, and a major appeal for support from my academic network, I came to the decision that I had not been wrong. The claims that I made about the gendered nature of humour, specifically the way that we are socialized to experience humour as gendered, and the long term effects that this has on the numbers and types of female comedians currently working in the industry were well reasoned, supported with field observations, and align with similar research findings about humour and gender in other disciplines and contexts.

What I had gotten wrong, was my articulation of this research in a non-academic context. It is difficult to explain theories of social construction, and having not done it justice, the potential for massive misinterpretation of my work as being a reinforcement of gender division (rather than a critique of it) was fully realized. My research was taken up as part of the problem, not as part of the solution. My work was hated by the very research subjects that I cared about, and whose continued success I wanted to ensure by better understanding the conditions of the reception of their humour.

I wanted to write about this experience because it reinforced for me one of the most important aspects of feminist scholarship: sometimes our research has to be unpopular. As a popular culture scholar, I had become accustomed to advice from my peers which claimed that mine was a fortunate area of study because it has a mass audience. I would be more likely to get media attention and, since everyone is familiar with my subject, the “public” would be more likely to take an interest in it. This gave me a false sense of security. I somehow believed that my research would be easily explained, that my critiques of the inequalities that I had observed would be accepted, and that my research would be considered valuable. I was not expecting such a wholesale rejection.

As feminist scholars, however, we should all be accustomed to our research findings being, at times, resisted and rejected. This is a consequence of doing political work, but it is absolutely no reason to stop pushing for its dissemination. At a time when academics are increasingly being pressured to create industry partnerships in order to bolster the practical applications of their scholarship, it is difficult to maintain an unpopular research agenda. As feminist scholars, we need to continue to make bold claims, to ask difficult questions, and to be willing to face criticisms on the road to realizing the social change that we are all pushing for.

Although I consider my first foray into the role of “expert” to have been an unmitigated failure, I absolutely agree with Aimée, we need more female scholars offering their expertise in the media. This isn’t always easy, but it is definitely always worthwhile.

One thought on “When pop culture research is unpopular

  1. Danielle! Holy Hannah, what a trial by fire! I would be crushed to have this experience, and I'm so impressed that you've managed to be so sanguine about it, and even to learn from the experience. My own media experiences have all been very positive — of course, I ought to have considered the controversies that sometimes erupt, and how we might handle them, or understand them.

    Your take on what happened is really sophisticated, I think. I want to think about this some more … you're right though that one of the most important skills for doing media is to translate academic subtleties to broad-stroke soundbites. It *is* possible to make a cogent and brief social-constructivist argument, but it's really hard.



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