I had never conducted an interview before in my life. But for ShoutOut!, I decided that I wanted to showcase local feminist and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) professor Dr. Sharon Mazzarella, who has been teaching for 13 years at James Madison University. In this interview, we discuss her research in young girlhood, her experiences as a both a communications and WGSS professor, and what feminism means to her.
thefeministsunflower: Just briefly, would you mind introducing yourself to our audience who may not have had you as a professor before?
Dr. Mazz: Sure. I am Dr. Sharon Mazzarella, a lot of my students call me Dr. Mazz because the last name is so long. This is the 13th year I have been at JMU. I teach in communications, mostly in the cultural comm concentration, and I also teach the core research methods class. Those are my primary teaching responsibilities. My area of research is young people and pop culture, focusing mostly on girls.
thefeministsunflower: That actually leads into my next question. So you have done a lot of research on young girlhood. Would you mind defining that for us and explaining what drove you to do this research?
Dr. Mazz: Yeah, so I focus on girls and girlhoods. It is really important to pluralize that because the cultural discourse tends to think of “the girl” as one thing and forgets to incorporate the concept of intersectionality and that idea that there are different girlhood experiences. Different types of girls have very different lived experiences and/or are represented very differently in the media. I started out as a very traditional children and media researcher, those kind of people who study the effects of media on kids. When I was in grad school, I realized very quickly that those weren’t the questions I wanted to answer. I was more interested in issues of representation and how young people were constructed in the media by typically adult journalists, producers, directors, writers, etc. Because I also had a concurrent interest in gender and gender issues, I began to focus on girls, having been one myself and been intrigued by mediated representations of girls and girlhoods. Did I answer? I think I did.
thefeministsunflower: Yes, yes you did. So in 2019, you won Provost’s Award for Excellence in Research and Scholarship. What was that experience like for you and what research were you doing at the time?
Dr. Mazz: So I was totally shocked. I knew I had been nominated, I knew that the department nominated me. But the reality with those kinds of awards is that they typically go to people who do more “social sciencey” research or hard science research. People who do, you know, survey research, experiments, or do biology or physics or that kind of thing. So being someone who does scholarship in a more humanistic field, with a kind of critical cultural analysis, and especially someone who focuses on girls, I really didn’t expect to get it. When they told me I had received it, I was totally shocked, really excited, and very flattered. It was a very exciting experience, and I got to give the keynote speech at a campus-wide research celebration – a big thing up in Festival where they give all the research awards to faculty and students. I was able to give that speech on the book that literally was published the week before. I have to do a shameless plug for my book. Girls, Moral Panic, and News Media: Troublesome Bodies is a series of case studies on news representations of different types of girls or different aspects of girls’ lives. So for example, one of the chapters is on how early puberty in girls is covered by the news media. Another one was on Emma Gonzalez. Emma actually goes by X now. Not only their pronouns have changed since I wrote the piece, and I know you remember that from when we talked about it in class. Within the past handful of months, they have, for very specific reasons, chosen to go by the name X in part because of the “girling” that they were experiencing in the media coverage. Really fascinating decision where they are taking control of the discourse on their identity by changing their name.
thefeministsunflower: That is a nice segue into my next question. So you’ve taught two SCOM and pop culture courses, as I have taken both of them, and I loved both of them. I plug them to everyone I meet because I loved the classes so much. This year you started teaching WGSS 200, which is a women’s, gender, and sexuality studies course. How is this different than your SCOM courses that you have already been teaching?
Dr. Mazz: It’s really different. So you took the pop culture and diversity class, as well as the youth culture class. I had also previously, not for about 3 years now, taught the gender comm class, SCOM 348. I taught that a couple of semesters, and I also taught a special topics class once on, I can’t remember the exact title, girls’ studies, girls’ popular culture, and media. It was an honors class, so it was a seminar available to honor’s students only. They all very much had a communication or media or pop culture focus. So the big difference I am finding with the WGSS 200 class is my tendency is to focus things on communication, media, and pop culture. But now I have to instead incorporate a whole range of issues related to gender and sexuality – history, politics, sociology, all those kinds of things – law and ethics. So it’s a broader knowledge-base class in part because it’s an intro class, so I have to cover a range of things, whereas I am used to teaching the kinds of classes where you can delve into something more in-depth. I am used to teaching more 300-level classes. That’s the big difference, but I’m loving it.
thefeministsunflower: Yeah, you almost have to glaze over everything and you don’t have time to get to every little thing because there’s so much going on within that course. You can’t pick into it like we did with our past classes. You don’t have the time because you have to cover all of that in 16 weeks.
Dr. Mazz: Right, and think about when you took SCOM 280. We have to cover survey methods, experiments, interviews, etc. It’s the same kind of thing. Then you get into that higher-level class where you can focus. It was just a transition for me to go to a topical class where I couldn’t get in deep, where I’m really doing what we call a survey of a lot of different topics.
thefeministsunflower: So my last question is really loaded. What does the word “feminist” mean to you?
Dr. Mazz: It’s a fabulous question. That’s what we are actually talking about right now in the WGSS class, and sometimes I’ll talk about that and call it “the F word.” When I was teaching gender communication, I would say things like “Today we are gonna talk about the F word” and everyone was confused, so I said “You know, feminist” and everyone gets the laugh. But one of the ways I talk about it is the fact that it is such a culturally loaded word. The book that we are using in the WGSS class calls it “a victim of battered word syndrome.” The word has become so battered, so negative in the culture that nobody wants to claim that identity. So for example, I’ll have students in my classes all the time raise their hand and say “I’m not a feminist but…” and then say something very feminist. Nobody wants to claim that label because that culture tells us that feminists are all ugly, man-hating, hairy, lesbian, etc. Right? That kind of thing, and then that link to “feminazi” the Rush Limbaugh quote: “oh we’re nasty women.” So people don’t want to claim that identity. I digress. So what it means to me is that it has really evolved over the years. Being a baby boomer in the era I came up through women’s and gender studies, or what they called women’s studies when I took them in college in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and even into grad school. The focus was on gender, specifically women, not even girls. The area of girls’ studies that I’m into came much later. A lot of the reason why that developed is because girls were ignored by women’s studies scholars. But the focus was on women, and the reality was that the focus was on white middle-class women and the issues that faced white middle-class women, So being a feminist. Yes it means supporting gender equality and rights for women, but it also has to mean, like I said before with girls, that not all women’s lived experiences are the same. The issues facing women – it’s not one universal woman. Intersectionality has to be a part of it. I know you know what intersectionality is and that idea that those of us with the privilege that comes from being white, especially white, heterosexual, cisgendered, and abled, right? We need to understand that our issues are not the issues of more marginalized women and we need to use that privilege to be allies. We need to sometimes, actually a lot of the time, step aside and let those women speak and control the discourse. We can’t speak for them – we can’t whitesplain. We also need to be cognizant of trans women. One of the big criticisms of the 2017 Women’s March was that it didn’t recognize trans women as “women.” That’s another group of women that need to be part of the discourse. Am I answering your question, what it means to be a feminist?
thefeministsunflower: Yes, yes.
Dr. Mazz: I’m working through these things and it’s really been, like I said, a generational change for me. People and feminists in your generation grew up in very different times. It’s like “yeah, of course we need to do that!” But when you’ve grown up and everything you’ve learned about feminism is so focused on you know the body. “Hands off my body” and sexuality and equal pay and stuff. The reality is that even though I make less than men as a white woman, I make more than Black women. White and black women make a lot more than Latinas. Feminism needs to be more than focused on just gender. Take those “gender blinders” off.
thefeministsunflower: You nailed it. Thank you so much, I appreciate it.
Dr. Mazz: I mean, I’m not saying that because it’s the “party line” you’re supposed to say now. But I mean that’s what it is. That’s what it has to be. And you’re very welcome!