Researching 1990s Feminism in the U.S.: What is Girl Power? An Interview with Hope Evans and Dr. Katherine Mooney
Hope Evans is a History major who graduated this spring. Her area of interest is American pop culture and politics, with specific emphasis on the 20th century. Dr. Katherine Mooney teaches 19th- and 20th-century U.S. history, specializing in politics, culture, and their frequent overlaps.
Why did you decide to do a Directed Individual Study (DIS)?
Hope Evans: Dr. Mooney had suggested doing an Honors in the Major project, but I was hesitant to pursue that at the same time as taking the senior seminar. So, Dr. Mooney told me about doing a DIS. It allowed me to do research on a topic that I liked and to work with her, but it was less of a time and work commitment. We settled on a DIS for one-credit hour.
Katherine Mooney: I have done a few DIS’ with students over the years. It gives an undergraduate the chance to research an area in which we might not be offering any courses or that is very specialized. A DIS is more flexible in that you can take it for four-, three-, two-, or one-credit hours and by default, it is only a one-semester commitment. It also allows you to be more creative with the end product; it doesn’t need to be a written thesis.
What topic are you working on?
HE: I decided to focus on ‘90s feminism, its representation in the media, how it was influenced by politics, and what message of empowerment it conveyed to young women during the decade. I am looking at how women were represented on TV, in movies, in songs, and how that reflected societal norms at the time. I was already interested in the 1990s, I like its aesthetic, and it was a major influence on me growing up.
The 1990s is often branded as the decade of women’s empowerment, girl power; but then when I researched the media representation of women, the roles created for women were often very far from empowered.
The idea of empowerment changed throughout the 90s. The early 90s were still engaged with the theme of women in the workplace and making room for us more generally, and on the fringe, with the rise of riot grrl. By the mid-90s, the focus of women’s empowerment had shifted to women taking back their sexuality. But then this was distorted by consumerism into convincing women that exploiting their own sexuality for the market, and for men, was empowering. “American Pie” (1999) or “Girls Gone Wild” (1997-2011) come to mind. What I found particularly troubling is that that this sexualized notion of empowerment was also sold to very young women.
KM: It seemed to me that you were working on the topic of women looking for sources of power and reclaiming their sexuality. Those themes were then appropriated by the market and sold back to women making female sexual autonomy look a lot like sexual enticement for men.
HE: I ended my project with Britney Spears, and the way she was presented in the media.
How did you go about doing research?
HE: Dr. Mooney and I met every week to discuss my project. I made what became a huge, color-coded list of popular cultural artifacts of the 90s. I organized the list both chronologically and thematically. This helped me work out how the narratives changed over time.
Most of my research was done online. Besides films and songs, I looked at magazine articles and interviews, the covers of magazines, and also at material generated by political events: the Anita Hill hearings, and of course, all the material surrounding Monica Lewinsky.
I used secondary sources to help me see longer-term trends and provide me with an overall background.
The research was the most fun part of my entire college career. I love watching movies but beyond that reading articles and books and listening to music. All were enjoyable, immersive, and helped me understand the decade better. I had not realized that research could be that much fun.
KM: We started by sorting out the primary sources, and once Hope had assembled those, we spent time reviewing what to include and what to leave out. I also made a few suggestions regarding secondary literature. For example, I recommended “90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality” by Allison Yarrow, to help frame her research. I held back from offering too much academic literature as I wanted Hope to immerse herself in the sources and come up with an independent argument.
What was your favorite primary source?
HE: The film “Cutting Edge” (1992). It has the same vibe as “Ten Things I Hate About You” (1999) with a bit of “Pride and Prejudice” (1995) thrown in. The main female character is unapologetically stubborn and determined and remains so throughout the film. Her male counterpart is the same, and it’s those exact attitudes that make the two fall in love despite initially hating each other. From enemies to lovers. She doesn't need to change to be loved, unlike most rom coms at the time.
How are you going to present your research?
HE: I have decided to make a three-part podcast. Each part will be 20 minutes long and cover a part of the 1990s. It is the first time that I have done a scripted podcast. I am still trying to work out what 20 minutes of written script looks like. I’ll do a first draft and a practice run, and that should tell me how I need to edit my material. I also need to be careful about the language I use. A podcast needs to be lively and not sound like an academic essay.
What challenges did you encounter in your research?
HE: It became really hard for me when I got to the later 1990s and had to critically analyze movies that I loved. It was very difficult to sit down and disregard my own emotions and to use the same analytical tools I had employed for other films. Time management wasn’t so much of an issue, as I wanted to do the research; how hard is it to watch another movie?
KM: I am usually very flexible about the timeframe for such projects. This is something that the student wants to do, has asked to do. If Hope did not have anything new to review one week, we just talked about the project in general.
HE: The writing part of the DIS required more discipline. Trying to organize my thoughts, so I could put them on paper, was a challenge.
Writer’s block was also an issue. Since I was writing papers for my other courses too, this appeared to be more of the same. But when I sat down and started drafting the podcasts, my mental block dissolved, and it became easier.
What sort of advice would you give other students?
HE: My advice to other History students is, if you want to see if research is your thing, and you don’t want to or can’t commit to an Honors in the Major project, then see if you can do a DIS. Doing the DIS in the last semester of my BA made me more confident in my History degree. I now know that I love research and became sure about the type of history I like. For me, that’s popular culture. The DIS was a totally rewarding experience.
If you have one-credit hour to spare, want to work on a specific topic, and hang out with a History professor, this is the perfect way of doing it.
On the other hand, I can also see that this would be a great thing to do before you start your senior seminar. You can work out what research is like, how best to do it, how to organize your work, and structure your writing – all in a low-stakes environment. Then when you tackle your senior seminar, you know much more clearly how to go about things.
What advice would you give to other faculty members?
KM: I am not good at giving advice. I am also much too likely to say “yes” to a student who asks me about working with them on a DIS or HITM project. I try to figure out if I am the best person to supervise the project the student is suggesting, and if it is a project that will be doable and enjoyable for the student. For me, this is just about the purest fun that I can have working with a student, as there is no pressure.
HIS 4906r. Directed Individual Study (1–4). May be repeated to a maximum of twelve semester hours. This course does not count as credit toward the History major or minor.