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Pairing Academics with Passion

June 9, 2016

The Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies (GWSS) has created a culture of interdisciplinary critical thinking that encourages students to engage in their communities and bring their ideas into action. Olivia Riley, an undergraduate minoring in GWSS, has fully immersed herself in this culture. A self-described “fan girl” with a critical eye, Riley brought her passion for studying gender and performativity into her final project for GWSS 1004: Screening Sex. Much to her excitement, her video project titled “Queerbaiting” won the department’s Helen Hawthorne Hartung award.

The term “queerbaiting” is unknown by most people, but its presence in dominant media is rampant, according to Riley. “Queerbaiting in television and movies is the purposeful practice of creators of inserting queer content into a show to draw in queer viewership with no intention of acknowledging this subtext,” she explains. This concept is shown in a variety of popular media, which Riley demonstrates using examples from her favorite—albeit problematic—show “Supernatural.” Castiel and Dean, two prominent characters in the series, have been portrayed by script writers as romantically involved and have sparked interest and hope in the queer fan community. However, scriptwriters snatch away this hope by inserting homophobic jokes and offer no promises of a defined romantic relationship—likely in order to appeal to more conservative audiences.

After presenting her project to her class, Riley received several positive reviews. “I was approached by many of my classmates who told me, ‘I’ve seen this, I’ve felt this!’ but they never knew there was a word for it,” she says. “And until I joined fan communities online, I had never known the word for it either.” Riley describes her passion for fan community involvement as what lead her to studying dominant media. She was able to bridge this interest with her major in mass communication and, eventually, through her undergraduate research project. Because of her heavy involvement online and in formal research, approaching her video project was just an extension of doing what she loves.

When she won the Hartung award, Riley felt a sense of validation that confirmed that her passion was worthwhile and meaningful to others. Riley’s advice to other undergraduates who want to engage in hands-on projects within GWSS is to “find something that you care about and do it, even if it seems silly.” She finds great value in engaging in what she loves. Riley states, “When you love it, you have the double advantage of first being motivated to really put time and energy into it, and secondly, it is something you are already familiar with—it’s almost second nature. I’m a part of the community that I’m studying, which some might say affects objectivity, but it also provides me with a valuable inside intuition.” Riley is carrying forward her passion to her next research project about gender performance on the internet and is excited to continue to interact with and guide others in her community.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.