Cover Story | Education

Laura Mattoon D’Amore Explores Feminism in Today’s Media

"I have always been interested in the ways that girls and women are represented in the media and popular culture, and in thinking through the ways that artifacts are products of their historical moment."

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What does the word feminism evoke in this day and age? Images of burning bras may have represented the ‘70s, but today it is more nuanced. Laura Mattoon D’Amore is an American Studies scholar, and her research focuses on the cultural history of the United States, feminism and feminist history, and representations of gender in media and popular culture.

Her current research project, Vigilante Feminism, looks at the ways violence and sexual assault are handled in contemporary, fairy tale revisions in film and young adult literature. She is studying the ways that many of the stories empower girls and young women by giving them the chance to be physically powerful against their attackers.

“Sometimes, [the revisions] can be versions of very similar stories, and historically, many of these stories have served to devalue and disempower girls and women, denying them the opportunity to save themselves or making them damsels in distress,” Laura explains. “However, I have noted a trend in recent fairy tale revisions, in which historically exploited female characters are
being rewritten as vigilantes who fight back against violent oppression. These are girls who kick butt, who learn to fight back and who do not wait for rescue.”

This is all well and good, but it is disturbing that young women have to fight back in the first place. Although these fairy tales are being revised, the larger story being told is one where young women are being threatened with violence in some way, shape or form. This being said, the girls and young women develop and use tactics of violence to protect themselves, and to keep other girls and women from being harmed. The driving factor in their physically powerful and empowering actions is that they fight back. Laura calls this vigilante feminism, because it stems from a style of feminist empowerment that reclaims the value of girls and women.

“One of the best aspects of my research is its relevance to the lives of my students,” Laura says. “I am deeply invested in learning about the ways that young folks experience feminism, and to understanding their influence on the current feminist climate.” And there is indeed a shift in the way the capabilities of girls and women are represented. Where once they were imagined as victims of sexual assault, kidnapping or murder, they are now being rewritten as survivors and saviors. Laura explains that “this is directly connected to a contemporary feminist sensibility, especially amongst young women, who want fight back against oppression, and be the agents of their own stories.”