Each year the Women’s and Gender Studies Department awards prizes for the best undergraduate and graduate essays on women written at the University of Michigan. The prizes honor the memory of Dorothy Gies McGuigan, a distinguished alumna of the University of Michigan who taught in the School of Business Administration and the Residential College.  Essays are evaluated by an interdisciplinary committee for their contribution to our understanding of some aspect of women's lives or roles, as well as for their originality and clarity of presentation.

Undergraduate McGuigan Prize

Taylor Rovin

A Problematizing of the Rhetoric Surrounding Cultural Appropriation

With anomymous submissions from all three University of Michigan campuses, the competition during this years McGuigan essay contest was especially fierce. This year’s undergraduate McGuigan essay award goes to Taylor Rovin, a University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Women’s and Gender Studies major and Law, Justice, and Social change minor. Rovin’s excellent essay, “A Problematizing of the Rhetoric Surrounding Cultural Appropriation,” investigates contemporary discussions about racialized, gendered bodies—specifically black women’s bodies. Debates around cultural appropriation and cultural authenticity fall short of capturing the racist, degrading nature of some fashion choices.

More specifically, there is a significant difference between white women’s donning of native headdress, or styling their hair into cornrows, an afro, or dreadlocks, on one hand, and getting butt implants and volumizing one’s lips, on the other. All these practices of course reference the black woman’s body, and the practitioners are largely dragged for “cultural appropriation.” The first set of fashion practices—exemplified by Gwen Stefani, Madonna, Miley Cyrus, and Taylor Swift—are rightly categorized as cultural appropriation, in that they ignore the historical and cultural relevance of such practices for black women. The latter, however, should be more precisely seen as racial beauty essentialization. This term, which Rovin coins, captures the idea that “certain races have ownership of particular physical beauty features and that another race cannot possess them” (Rovin 3). To say that Kim Kardashian’s having (or enhancing) a “thicc” butt is a cultural appropriation of black women’s bodies “essentializes racial difference, obscures genuine cultural appropriation of black beauty standards, and ignores black women who may not have these specific features.” We must, Rovin urges, both challenge racial beauty essentialization and expose White Beauty Privilege, which she describes as the unearned advantages white women have when donning historically denigrated fashion choices.

Rovin’s essay, which emerged out of Professor Ava Purkiss’s course, “Race and Beauty in American Culture,” is well-researched, well-written, and timely. It boldly identifies an impasse in contemporary cultural critique and theorizes new ways to think about the gendered racialization of black women’s body across time, from early colonial subjugation through the “Black is Beautiful” movement to #blackgirlmagic.

Graduate McGuigan Prize

Sara B. Chadwick

Strategizing to Make Pornography Worthwhile: A Qualitative Exploration of Women’s Agentic Engagement with Sexual Media

Psychology and Women’s and Gender Studies doctoral candidate Sara B. Chadwick’s essay provides an innovative and insightful approach to understanding women’s sexual agency as it pertains to pornography. Shifting the focus away from pornographic content per se, this study explores how women actually use pornographic materials, often devising strategies to avoid or mitigate the potential effects of negative content and likewise to enhance positive experiences. Through practices including content alteration, prescreening materials, and variation in media used (written v. visual materials), women are shown to be active, engaged, creative, and often deeply critical consumers of pornography, which they understand to be both “risky” and a potential source of pleasure-enhancement.  The study also explores how such “riskiness”is conceived: e.g., from misogynistic images and unrealistic body types to representations of sex and intimacy that are perceived as “inauthentic.” The study confirms but also complicates and elaborates a critical claim about the gender-politics of pornography: while women can be off-put by pornographic content and thus avoid such materials altogether, they can also choose to negotiate the risks and, in the process, become actively engaged consumers and “editors” of pornographic materials.

Colleen Towler

Understanding the circumstances of youth navigating non-traditional sexuality and gender expression in rural areas of Northern Thailand

 “If age is only a number, then gender is only a word.” MSW & LGBTQ certificate student Colleen Towler’s essay is a report on an exciting and promising project that uses Photovoice approaches to elicit perspectives on living forms of queer life, expressed from non-Western perspectives, and articulated through arts-based methods. The project makes original interventions into the study of LGBTQ+ lives by decentering Western expectations of Thailand as a "Gay Paradise" and centering Thai youth. The focus of the project is on the youth’s own voices and articulations, offering them tools to present themselves as experts on their sense of family embedment, scales of inclusion and exclusion, self-worth and community cohesion. Photovoice becomes a crucible of complexity, slowing down traditional interview methods to find deeper nuance in the youth’s self-expression. One student ruminates on their place in the world: "Sometimes even though there are lots of people around me, I feel completely lonely. It is like I have no one." This study shows contemporary engaged gender studies at work to shift perceptions and reality, and empowers youth to set their own agenda for their futures.