Feminist media studies symposium:
an introduction

by Julia Lesage

On February 10-11, 2017, a gathering of scholars and students celebrated the work of Kathleen Karlyn, professor of film and television studies at the University of Oregon, and in particular her groundbreaking concept  of the Unruly Woman as a literary trope that figures large in film and television comedy. In this issue of Jump Cut, we are publishing a number of the papers given at this event.

Senior scholar Linda Mizejewski gave an overview of the shift from feminist film studies to feminist media studies, which has placed an equal emphasis on television and figures in popular culture as on film, and she places Karlyn as a key figure in this transition. Russell Meeuf uses the example of Melissa McCarthy to examine the use of corpulent femininity in comedy today, and taking up another trope, Rachel Weir finds examples of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in cinema and also films that challenge that myth. Looking back in film history, Claire Graman traces feminine unruliness back to the screwball comedy and even silent film.

As Karlyn defines this trope of feminine unruliness, it has the following traits:

Perhaps one of Karlyn’s most direct heirs in developing insights about today’s unruly women, and also a participant at the symposium, is Anne Helen Petersen. Petersen, in her 2017 book, The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman (Penguin Random House), writes about the “too ...” — the excess that causes some female cultural icons be judged negatively: she's too strong, too fat, too gross, too slutty, too old, too pregnant, too shrill, too queer, too loud, or too naked.

And finally, Karlyn herself has written a new essay for this grouping of essays, a discussion of Wonder Woman, the figure and the film, and Hillary Clinton. As Karlyn points out, social perceptions of female unruliness focus on a cluster of attributes that can both celebrate and demonize female power. In this case, both the success of the Wonder Woman film and Hilary Clinton’s loss at the polls came as a surprise, and Karlyn traces out relations between both of these cultural figures and her responses to both.