Carnegie Mellon University
rrowley_phd_eng_2024.pdf (1.95 MB)

Laughing With the Medusas: Feminist Politics in the Age of Media Transformation

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posted on 2024-06-28, 15:44 authored by Robyn RowleyRobyn Rowley

In her 1976 essay "The Laugh of the Medusa," Hélène Cixous urges women to claim power by telling their own stories and letting laughter "exude from all our mouths." This dissertation explores how the field of comedy has served as a space for women to enact Cixous's vision of a "laughing Medusa"-- one who subverts patriarchal norms through the liberating force of feminist laughter. The analysis presented in my dissertation traces twin histories: the representation of feminist politics in popular media from the 1970s to the present, and the transformation of media forms and audience engagement during the transition from analog to digital cultures.

Focusing on discrete media forms, I contextualize the political, economic, and cultural forces that have shaped women’s contributions to cultural production and analyze narratives of women's reproductive health, embodied precarity, and sexual agency. Viewing meditated live performances, sitcoms, and social media text and images as "technologies of gender," I attend to dynamics of performance and spectatorship where feminist politics unfold with joyous, mirthful affectivity. Using methods of intersectional feminist analysis, I analyze what this affectivity means for feminist discourse more broadly, and evaluate the ways that affective politics can sustain audiences and individuals, as well as cohere counter-publics. This dissertation contributes to scholarship in feminist media studies as well as adjacent fields of affect and performance, arguing that feminists and affect theorists alike must recognize the full range of affects and emotions in our analysis of how the political is embedded in popular media. Ultimately, this dissertation celebrates the power of feminist laughter to subvert patriarchal norms, as envisioned by Cixous, and demonstrates how women have leveraged the liberating potential of comedy to reclaim their narratives and assert agency in the face of systemic oppression.




Degree Type

  • Dissertation


  • English

Degree Name

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Richard Purcell

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