Barbies, bumper stickers, immigration, infotainment, mental illness, discrimination and sports-hero worship: These are just a few of the cultural phenomena that American-studies majors are tackling for their thesis projects this spring.
All offer in-depth glimpses of American life. But two are especially near to the researchers' hearts, because they spring from personal experiences.
"Hot mom" alert!
Alexis Kuzma '13 offers a feminist critique of the "hot mom" trend—the commerce and practice of encouraging middle-aged American moms to be active, fit and trim.
"I am questioning whether this trend is empowering for women, in that they can broaden their identities and claim their sexualities—since, historically, motherhood and sexuality have been seen as mutually exclusive—or whether it merely reinforces patriarchy by adding 'must be beautiful' to the already long list of things women need to do to have worth in America," she explains.
Kuzma says that while she has long been aware of the pressures placed on young, single women to meet societal beauty standards, she didn't think much about the messaging aimed at mothers until her sophomore year, when her own mother lost 75 pounds.
Researching a paper about midlife female bodybuilders, Kuzma became increasingly aware of the underlying pressures mothers face.
"I found that there are a plethora of advice books for women on mothering, and not just on breastfeeding, but on how to 'get your body back,' 'rock a minivan' and have play dates with mom-tinis," Kuzma says. "I wondered: Where are the men's parenting books? Why aren't there baby-changing stations in all men's rooms? Why should women feel pressured to 'get their body back' in weeks' time when they just spent nine months creating a new life?"
Patriotic fervor: a personal view
Marcy Isaacson '13 is a native New Yorker who celebrated her 10th birthday on Sept. 11, 2001. Her father worked in the World Financial Center, across the street from the World Trade Center, and her neighborhood lost many fire-department volunteers to the rescue effort.
"This was a very significant event for me personally, as well as an event that changed America and the world on many levels," she says. "It got me aware of, and interested in, domestic issues at an early age."
Soon after the attacks, a family friend gave Isaacson's mother an American flag, and in the months that followed, the 10-year-old Issacson noticed many more flags dotting her neighborhood.
"People who never really thought they were patriotic or had never used the flag before—even people who didn't agree with President Bush's foreign policy—used flags after 9/11 to show patriotism and support for the country," she recalls. "And when I went on vacation with my family, I saw that this wasn't just in New York. It was all over the country."
At Dickinson, Isaacson wrote several research papers about the 9/11 attack. She was reminded of her particular interest in American flags while studying in Bologna, Italy, last year.
"Every time I went home for breaks, I noticed how many flags there were in New York, but when I got to Italy, there were hardly any flags on display at all," she says. "I realized that the flag mania I'd seen in New York and across the United States is really an American phenomenon. That fascinated me."
In her thesis, she zeroes in on the increased displays of the American flag in post-9/11 America and the sweeping cultural changes they signify. "Patriotism became multifaceted after 9/11, because Sept. 11 altered our country's history," she explains. "America was vulerable, and that has had a huge effect."
Bringing it home
With their thesis deadlines looming, Kuzma and Isaacson are fully immersed in their work. They admit that the 35-page minimum requirement is daunting, since that's about 15 pages more than the longest paper they've ever turned in.
"It's an intense experience," says Kuzma. "And it teaches you self-discipline, because you have to do most of the work outside of class."
But with guidance from their professor, the seniors meet regularly with classmates to discuss progress, offer suggestions and co-edit each other's work. That support system, in and out of the classroom, has made a world of difference, Isaacson says.
"It's good to get feedback from people who have had different experiences," she explains. "And because not everyone is familiar with your topic, you have to learn to present complex ideas in a simplified way. It’s really hard work, but it’s such a good experience."
Read more about more recent student research:
Biology Research Symposium