Meenakshi Gigi Durham

Spotlight_Gigi_DurhamGetting to know… Meenakshi Gigi Durham

Associate Dean for Outreach and Engagement, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communication and Department of Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies
University of Iowa
Personal website

What are you currently working on?
I’ve got a few things going on right now! I just signed a contract for a book about rape culture in the media; I plan to look at the contestations around sexual violence that mark contemporary media practices of production, text, and reception. I’m inspired by the rise of feminist activism in this area, especially the way the voices of young women and girls are contributing to the discourse and shifting our thinking about this problem.

On other fronts, I recently had an article published about representations of children’s embodied vulnerability in the media, examining photojournalism and memes of the famous photograph of the Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi’s drowning. I used the framework of a feminist ethics of care to examine the epistemic affordances of these mediations.

I’m also working on a paper about the British/Sri Lankan hip-hop artists MIA and the politics of production of her 2007 album Kala — I just presented this one at ICA in Prague.

What has been your most memorable project so far, and why?
I would have to say my life has been most affected by the publication of my book The Lolita Effect (Overlook, 2008), which was written for a general audience based on my research. The book seems to have resonated with a broad spectrum of readers, and I’ve been incredibly moved to get enthusiastic and heartfelt emails and letters from teenage girls, in particular, who told me they were emboldened and inspired after they’d read it. I’ve had amazing conversations with people from all walks of life and every part of the world based on the book, and I’m so grateful for those opportunities and shared experiences.

Which achievement are you most proud of, and why?
This is a hard one! Of course, I’m honored by the awards I’ve received for my scholarship and teaching; I’m proud of having mentored amazing students; I’m really proud of raising fabulous feminist daughters . . . But perhaps I am proudest of having contributed in a meaningful way to the active public discourses around stopping sexual violence, especially sexual violence against girls.

What is an important question from parents and practitioners that we as academics cannot provide a good answer to yet?
How influential are the media in children’s lives? The answer, of course, is “It depends …” In a sense, we have many good answers to that question, but not a single definitive one. That’s the reality of media scholarship!

What would be your work motto?
“Go for it!” In other words: Pursue whatever lights your fire, intrigues you, energizes you — follow your passions in your research and teaching, and wonderful things will happen!

Which of your publications is your favorite, and why?
I’m not sure I have a favorite, but the publication I’ve been thinking about lately is a relatively unknown think-piece I wrote a couple of years ago, in which I reflected on the idea of embodied vulnerability as a starting point for analyzing social injustice, inequity, resource differentiation, and media practices in relation to children and youth. In this piece, I engage in what Eve Sedgwick called a “reparative reading” of embodied vulnerability, trying to move away from equating vulnerability with some negative notion of victimhood to thinking of vulnerability as a catalyzing concept, a way to identify, confront, and challenge the structural factors that cause it, especially among children. This essay is galvanizing my thought processes these days.

If you had unlimited resources, what kind of project would you want to do and why?
I’d do a long-term ethnography with adolescent girls in precarious situations, learning about their lives and their hopes and their perspectives on this crazy world we live in. I may yet do this!

If you had to give one piece of advice to young CAM scholars, what would it be?
My advice draws on Gandhi’s famous maxim, “Be the change you want to see in the world” — and be fearless about it! Too many people will tell you what you “should” be working on or what the “right” sort of scholarship is about, or even what theories and methodologies you should be using. But don’t feel forced into following the beaten path. If you have interests and commitments that fuel your research ideas, pursue them. The best and most original scholarship comes from passionate engagements with the world.

On the other hand, I would also suggest that you find mentors and heed them. Good mentors won’t pour cold water on your inventive ideas, but they will steer you to success; they can keep you from going down rabbit holes that may divert you from achieving your goals. I think it’s important (and tricky) to find a balance between pursuing your goals and heeding good advice.

Who would you like to put in the spotlight next, and why?
I would like to nominate Cynthia Carter. My question for her is: You’ve studied gender and news extensively. Is there a current issue in the news that has caught your attention in terms of the way it has been reported? Why did this issue attract your attention, and what are your thoughts about its media representation?.

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