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Rhetorical Studies: From Pop Culture to Research Analysis

Jul 14, 2017


SURF student Brianne HabitWhen she first learned about all that Randolph-Macon College offers, one of the things that stood out to Brianne Habit '19 was the Schapiro Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program. The opportunity to conduct 10 weeks of full-time, original research, under the mentorship of a faculty mentor, intrigued Habit, who chose R-MC in part because of the SURF program.

This summer, the communication studies and political science major is excited to be a SURF participant as she delves into an unusual research topic: Disney princesses.

The title of Habit's project is "Dream Big, Princess": A Rhetorical Analysis of Disney's Princess Identity and Ideology—a takeoff on the Disney Princess advertising campaign slogan.

Research + Analysis
"Within the last few years, Disney created a new marketing campaign, 'Dream Big, Princess,'" she explains. "I am researching the ideology of the Disney princess, through the verbal and visual rhetoric of 11 Disney princesses from the campaign. My guiding research question is: What type of princess and role model is being presented through Disney's films, website, and related web content?"

Habit, under the guidance of Communication Studies Professor Ruth Beerman, is analyzing themes such as gender, sexuality, morality, and beauty within the films and the Disney Princess website. Habit's research is an extension of a paper she wrote in Beerman's Visual Rhetoric class earlier this year.

"People typically view popular culture, particularly films, as mere entertainment," explains Beerman. "However, Brianne's project challenges that assumption and contributes to the field of rhetorical studies, which analyzes meanings of verbal and visual messages. Her analysis of the 11 Disney Princess films and Disney’s associated website argues that these films prioritize romantic love over friendships, the women's own sense of adventure, or independence. Viewers of these films and online content become exposed to these ideas of women privileging love above all else, contributing to a particular understanding of gender, which can be constraining or limiting."

During her data collection, Habit takes notes on the visual aspects of each movie, the arguments expressed in its songs, and the dialogue itself. She also creates detailed charts so that she can compare the movies, and she reads literature written on similar topics to help gain an understanding of what other scholars have discovered.

Habit and Beerman meet several times a week to discuss the research.

"We discuss different theories and methods more in-depth and troubleshoot any challenges," says Beerman. "Via email we focus more on notes about data and the writing in progress. At the conclusion of SURF, I will help Brianne put together her paper for conference submission, likely to the Eastern Communication Association’s annual conference."

"Professor Beerman is incredible," says Habit. "I got to know her well through her work as assistant coach of the Franklin Debating Society, which I've been a member of for several years. She has spent long hours helping me organize and understand my project and has truly helped me develop a passion for communication studies, and for the research process."

Paying it Forward
"I feel very fortunate to have had wonderful mentors with my master’s and doctoral advisors, and they inspired me in my research and pedagogy," says Beerman. "SURF is one way that I can pay it forward, through the lessons I’ve learned as a student. As Brianne's mentor, I see how she's grown as a student, as a researcher, and as a young scholar. Her passion for analyzing popular culture inspires me to be the best educator I can be."

A Sense of Community
Habit is a member of the Honors program, Delta Zeta, Order of Omega Greek Honor Society, Pi Sigma Alpha Political Science Honor Society, the Leadership Fellows; and Delta Sigma Rho Forensics Honor Society. She also serves as a captain during orientation; works in the Office of Student Life; and is a tutor in the Communication Center. Her dream is to attend law school.

"The best part of being a Yellow Jacket is walking down the street and having everyone say 'hi' to you," she says. "The sense of community on this campus is incredible. It's my favorite part of life at Randolph-Macon."

The SURF Program
The Schapiro Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program was introduced in 1995 as an endowment to support scholarly undergraduate research by R-MC students in all disciplines. The initial gift for the program was made by Benjamin Schapiro '64 and his wife Peggy.

The Schapiros' generosity provides students with the opportunity to conduct original research under the guidance of a faculty member. The SURF program demands that students experience a professional research environment. Students submit a research proposal for funding to faculty reviewers, emulating a competitive external review process. If funded, the student receives a modest summer stipend, and it is understood that the research should result in presentation of the findings at professional meetings and submission for publication where appropriate.

The college also provides free housing so students can engage in a number of activities as a community. Among these activities are seminar presentations by faculty members and visiting scholars. Results of the research are presented at the annual SURF Symposium and on Research Day in the spring in a celebration of the summer's activities.

The SURF program is co-directed by Art History Professor Evie Terrono and Serge Schreiner, the Dudley P. and Patricia C. Jackson Professor of Chemistry.