My research interrogates the cultural production of difference in popular media. The term “difference” refers to the minoritized people that comprise a constellation of intersectional identities in modern society. More specifically, I probe how particular subjectivities are written onto active female bodies in popular media such as action films or sports. My interdisciplinary research agenda considers media texts as cultural artifacts that operate through various discourses and recognizes that representations of women’s bodies—as they intersect with other identities—are always operating in a particular cultural context. For example, in popular U.S. media, technological innovation has facilitated new ways to consume diverse identities while neoliberal logics fuel the notion that difference is desirable because it is marketable. These are just a couple examples from my analysis of the contemporary cultural context that forms the backdrop of my body of work.
My book manuscript, Branded Difference: Promoting Female Athletes in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), examines the ways that the UFC produces representations of its female athletes throughout the mixed-martial arts (MMA) promotional organization’s media empire. Grounded in a feminist cultural studies methodology, I weave textual analysis of UFC media with interviews with UFC staff to understand how the organization integrates minoritized groups into its various media ventures. “Branded difference” is the term I employ to theorize the communication strategies media organizations such as the UFC utilize to integrate diverse representations into their brand. At face value, the UFC’s efforts to promote women is a promising tactic for increasing representations of women in sports; however, the book analyzes this phenomenon as a contextual cultural discourse rather than simply a “how-to” manual for diversifying onscreen images. The UFC’s attempt to entice new fan demographics to the sport through representations of diverse fighters is an economic strategy rather than merely a representational practice for the sake of equity. I argue that branded difference is an ambivalent cultural discourse that fluctuates between depicting identities as essentialized and presenting difference as a homogenous feature of all human beings. The UFC focuses on representing individualized identity categories, i.e. we are all different in some way, while masking the disparities that minoritized fighters face. Difference itself becomes flattened through market forces while producing a veneer of progress that obscures structural inequalities in neoliberal media culture.
The UFC’s communication strategies promise to facilitate a long-awaited level of visibility for female athletes since academic scholarship has been concerned with the underrepresentation of women in sports for decades. This book encourages readers to think beyond representation to consider what happens to difference when it becomes bottled as a desirable commodity. Understanding representation as contextual within industry change fosters an ambivalent reading of branded difference wherein seemingly “positive” or “progressive” representations have consequences necessitating critical reflection.
Articles and Conferences
My work on women in the UFC has been well-received in scholarly circles. I have published articles on women in the UFC in International Journal of Communication and New Formations: A Journal of Culture, Theory, and Politics and have a chapter in the edited collection New Sporting Femininities: Embodied Politics in Postfeminist Times. I have presented my work at National Communication Association, American Studies Association, Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and National Women's Studies Association conferences and secured a research grant from the Peter Clarke and Susan Evans Research Fund to conduct interviews with UFC staff and complete fieldwork at UFC events in Las Vegas and Rio de Janeiro.
Earlier works have examined representations of women’s bodies in the media through audience research and textual analysis respectively. I have published an audience reception piece in Continuum: A Journal of Media and Cultural Studies that interviews young women about their perceptions of white female physicality in action films. My book chapter in Feminist Erasures: Challenging Backlash Culture interrogates the intersecting post-feminist and post-race notions about the physical agency of the black female protagonist in ABC’s Scandal. These articles are concerned with how contemporary discourses of difference often maintain dominant ideologies of the body even as they partially contest others. These same research investments thread through my current research trajectory.
My next major project, Powerful Women in Popular Feminist Media, investigates how popular feminism constructs the feminine body in media culture. Powerful Women positions itself within feminist media studies’ commitment to examining women’s experiences via an intersectional lens. Through textual analysis of various genres of popular media, the project addresses the trope of the physically powerful white woman, such as Marvel’s new Wonder Woman film. Middle class white women, in particular, have long been characterized in the media as physically frail compared with black women or Latinas. I argue that the disproportionate representation of powerful white women in popular feminism maintains the hegemony of whiteness even as it revises representations of white women to include physical power. This project sheds light on the growing cultural discontent with the image of the thin white feminine body even as cultural discourses maintain the pre-eminence of whiteness through feminist rhetoric.
Collectively my research agenda surfaces changing perspectives on difference in 21st-century media by providing insight into the cultural context facilitating particular discourses. Scholarship on women’s active bodies often critique their persistent sexualization in the media but pay little heed to other representational practices thriving in media culture. My research examines the celebration of women’s physical power while still advancing intersectional feminist questions about the production of these types of images: who is empowered and who is excluded, by whom, for whom, and for what purpose?