Exploring Representations of Super Women in Popular Culture: Shaping Critical Discussions with Female College Students with Learning Exceptionalities

By Taber, Nancy; Woloshyn, Vera et al. | Adult Learning, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Exploring Representations of Super Women in Popular Culture: Shaping Critical Discussions with Female College Students with Learning Exceptionalities


Taber, Nancy, Woloshyn, Vera, Munn, Caitlin, Lane, Laura, Adult Learning


Abstract: In this article, we discuss how our analysis of several popular culture artifacts featuring super women characters (superheroes and supernatural) provided the foundation for a media discussion group for female college students with learning exceptionalities. We explore the use of popular culture in discussion groups as well as discuss the research context and discourse analysis method related to selected popular culture artifacts. We then relate the participants' responses to the artifacts, emphasizing tensions and resistances associated with each. We review how our initial focus began with an emphasis on gender and gradually evolved to address ability. We reflect on possibilities, limitations, and challenges related to the facilitation of this and other media groups, offering practical recommendations for adult educators.

Keywords: ability, college students, gender, learning exceptionalities, popular culture

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This article describes our experiences facilitating a small media discussion group for first-year female college students with learning exceptionalities,

intended to assist them in exploring themselves as gendered individuals through the critique of popular culture artifacts featuring super women characters (superheroes and supernatural). First, we examine popular culture, the gendered nature of superheroes/the supernatural in media, and female students with learning exceptionalities. Second, we discuss our case study methodology using feminist discourse analysis. Third, we focus on our artifact analyses and participants' corresponding responses, emphasizing tensions and resistances associated with each. Finally, we reflect on possibilities, limitations, and challenges associated with media discussion groups, offering practical recommendations for adult educators.

Popular Culture, Gender, and Media Discussion Groups

Popular culture (including films, television, video games, and print-based texts) can be a useful lens to explore and critique connections between marginalization in media, society, and everyday life. Although there are instances of complex representations (Taber, 2013), much of popular culture continues to represent women and men in stereotypical ways that privilege notions of hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity (Connell, 2012) over other forms of masculinity and femininity. For instance, men are often represented as strong, tough, and able protectors. Although sometimes represented as strong, women, in turn, are most often associated with emotionality, vulnerability, and feminine beauty ideals (Hodkinson, 2011; hooks, 1996/2009). Similarly, persons with exceptionalities are typically associated with notions of tragedy, victimhood, curiosity, pity, and dependency (Mendes & Silva 2013; Taber & Woloshyn, 2011).

Superheroes in popular culture are themselves gendered with a "hyper-masculine character presentation of male characters and a hyper-fetishized and hyper-sexualized presentation of female characters" (Avery-Natale, 2013, p. 72). Although female superheroes are strong and capable, they are also historically portrayed as nurturing (D'Amore, 2012). In superhero and supernatural stories, males typically protect females (Stabile, 2009) with women heroes more likely to be put "on trial" in ways that "sanction their power" (O'Reilly, 2005, p. 280).

Identifying and critiquing marginalizing representations is one way in which popular culture is increasingly becoming a valued pedagogical tool for adult educators (Jarvis & Burr, 2011; Tisdell, 2008; Wright & Sandlin, 2009). Discussion groups offer supportive environments where individuals can express themselves without judgment and promote agency, thus holding particular potential for marginalized individuals who might otherwise remain silent (Bagnoli & Clark, 2010; Taber, Woloshyn, & Lane, 2013).

Female College Students With Learning Exceptionalities

Many students experience difficulties transitioning from secondary to postsecondary settings, with the transition especially challenging for those with learning exceptionalities. …

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