About Anna Palm: Anna Palm is a Writer, Journalist, and Communication Professional based in Michigan. Her master’s thesis, “Wondermen: Masculinities Portrayed in the Netflix Dramas Daredevil, The Punisher and Luke Cage,” examines gender representations in Marvel’s television universe. In addition to completing her master’s degree, Ms. Palm recently served a one-year term as a State Representative for the American Association of University Women (AAUW). She also has extensive experience as a News Reporter, having worked for The Morning Sun, Midland Daily News, and Central Michigan University’s CM Life.
Ms. Palm earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from Central Michigan University with a concentration in Creative Writing and minor in Journalism. In 2018, she graduated from the Master of Arts in Communication program at Oakland University, where she focused in Media Studies.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have a brief description of your educational and professional background?
[Anna Palm] I earned a Bachelor of Arts at Central Michigan University in 2015. My major was English with a concentration in creative writing and I also minored in journalism. Before I went to grad school, I worked as a reporter for a total of three years, mostly during my time as an undergrad. I worked for CMU’s college paper CM Life, which was actually my first job ever. In the fall of 2013, I was part of an internship project where I worked with three other journalism students and wrote a series of articles about organic farming in Michigan. Our instructor Tracy Anderson mentored us while we did research, interviewed people, traveled to some farms in the area and co-wrote the two-part main story. All our work was published in Midland Daily News in December 2013. We received an Award of Excellence as a group at a conference thrown by the Society of Journalists in April 2014. Shortly after graduation, I got a job as a reporter at The Morning Sun in Mount Pleasant, so I ended up moving back to the college town where I got my degree. I wrote articles daily, traveled around in Isabella County and made several connections, particularly with the superintendent and members of the school board, because my beat was education. Then I was laid off after two and a half months because the company that owns the Sun went through budget cuts. I couldn’t land another reporter job in the state, so I chose to go back to school and get my master’s in communication.
Before entering the master’s program in the fall of 2016, I didn’t have any communication experience, so I chose to make the most of my time in grad school. I worked as a graduate research assistant for one semester in the communication and journalism department, and earned two scholarships because of my academic achievements. I volunteered to help with the annual conference of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters (MASAL) and acted as the vice chair in the communication division. The chairperson of the communication and journalism department, Jeff Youngquist, was the MASAL chair and my supervisor. I read and edited submitted abstracts, helped plan the sessions and contacted universities all over Michigan. During the event, I mediated the discussions for half of the day. For the record, I have presented two papers at MASAL as well (in 2017 and 2018). At the moment, I don’t have a position in the communication field, but I’m looking and I’m working on getting my thesis published and writing a novel.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Why did you decide to pursue a master’s degree in communication, and why did you ultimately choose the Master of Arts in Communication program at Oakland University (OU)?
[Anna Palm] I considered a master’s degree in creative writing or journalism, but either would simply help me get a teaching job. I consider teaching sometimes, but it’s not my first choice. Communication, on the other hand, is more transferable and not that dissimilar from what I’ve previously studied. I’m hoping to find a writing, communication or management position at a company – preferably one focused on media or publishing. My concentration was in fact media studies, so I studied communication in television, social media and other mediums. I studied organizational communication as well, which I hope will carry some weight with employers. I chose OU’s communication program, because the courses they offer were appealing and it was local and affordable. Plus, when I first talked with the grad school director Rebekah Farrugia, I could see myself being part of the program. And I was right, every professor I’ve had made me feel welcome, excited to learn new things and determined to pursue my curiosities.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How is Oakland’s program structured, and what concepts did the program emphasize? What skills and strategies did you learn in your classes, and how did you apply them to course assignments?
[Anna Palm] Based on my experience, I would say that Oakland’s program is theory-focused and certainly excellent for anyone who wants to go for their Ph.D. afterwards. I enjoyed my courses, because all the professors were brilliant and enthusiastic, and the readings were really interesting. I was able to improve my writing and editing skills, my critical thinking and the way I structure arguments and solve problems. Before grad school, I thought I knew what a research paper was supposed to look like, but now I understand the layout much better. I learned how to properly perform research and find an angle or direction amongst the sea of information one can find out there. Nowadays, it can become overwhelming. I could also always ask any of the faculty for research suggestions or simply, “I don’t know what to write about” or “I have all these research ideas, but I got no idea which one is worth my time. What do you think?” My favorite part about the program is that it’s small. There were fewer than ten students in every course, so it was always engaging and most important of all, I bonded with my cohorts and we became close friends. We would often meet at the library or anywhere on campus with coffee nearby and then go through the readings, work on assignments and/or study for exams together.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please describe your experience completing your thesis? What was your primary research inquiry, and how did you decide upon it? Could you describe the process you undertook to research your topic and form your final conclusions? What advice do you have for students in terms of completing their thesis (i.e. determining a research topic of appropriate scope, conducting thorough research and analysis, and crafting a strong presentation, etc.)?
[Anna Palm] Rebekah Farrugia informed me that I completed my thesis in an impressively short time, which was a year. Apparently, a thesis is traditionally completed in a year and a half or longer, which I didn’t know. I thought I “had to” finish in a year so I pressed the pedal to the metal. I would describe my experience in completing my thesis as fun, enlightening, exciting and also hyper-stressful; the latter definitely has something to do with the time crunch.
I chose to do research about the representation of masculinities in the superhero Netflix dramas Marvel’s Daredevil (the first two seasons), Marvel’s The Punisher (season one), Marvel’s Luke Cage (season one) and Marvel’s Iron Fist (season one). The last show ended up being dropped because I couldn’t make sense of the narrative. I got the idea after reading the introduction of Cable Guys: Television and Masculinities in the 21st Century by Amanda D. Lotz and after seeing Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2. I couldn’t stop thinking about Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord, and how he’s not the typical mucho-macho superhero, but rather more “feminine” in his behavior. For example, he expresses his emotions freely and shows the desire for a stable relationship with Gamora. In the past, those two things have been labeled “feminine” since the lonely hero has always been favored in American culture, because he (it’s usually a ‘he’) symbolizes individualism and independence. Being a long-time superhero fan, I had already noticed some changes in gender relations and gender representations in superhero movies and other shows like Daredevil. There’s also the fact that superheroes have become so popular in the past decade. Since they’ve become mainstream, their influence has grown, and more people are exposed to them, therefore, people are introduced to a mix of old and new ideas regarding gender roles, gender relations and what it means to be a hero, both for men and women.
My goal was to see how men and masculinities are portrayed on television and in the realm of superheroes and how it affects gender relations and the representations of women. For instance, what kind of masculinities are considered heroic/good/admirable? Which types of relationships between men are put in a positive light and which ones are mocked or deemed “wrong” or “gay”… in other words “undesirable”? Which roles do the women have in these male-centered dramas? While I asked myself these kinds of questions, I kept in mind that the three dramas don’t necessarily represent a sweeping cultural change. However, I believe that acknowledging any cultural changes and talking about them is vital to maintaining the changes. Introducing male heroes who show vulnerability, demonstrate the importance of relationships and treat women as equal partners is a change that must be encouraged, both in real life and in the way we tell stories.
In this study, I performed qualitative research by reading up on the inner workings of television, the development of online content providers like Netflix, the world of superheroes and comic books, adaptation studies and various feminist studies about gender and the media. For one, studying men on television is different than studying women, because it’s not about under-representation, but rather how men are presented. During my analysis, I observed the discourse, the serial structure of the narrative, the character developments and the meanings behind the characters’ motives and actions. I chose to study the material in an intersectional feminist perspective, because it was important for me to include not only the aspects of sex and gender, but also race, ethnicity, sexuality, class and so forth. I can without a doubt say that composing the literature review was the hardest part, because I had to explain how all this information helped me make sense of the Netflix dramas and I had to define the femininities and the masculinities that I saw.
To summarize my conclusions as best as I can, I found that Daredevil, The Punisher and Luke Cage use a serial and relation-driven narrative which has typically been used in female-centered dramas. Instead of an action-driven plot, the primary concern isn’t about “completing the mission and knocking down the bad guy,” but rather the hero figuring out who he is and where he fits in the world. The story is driven by its characters and by relationships and emotions. It also switches to the journey that the antagonist goes through, as well as a few other characters, like the ones who would have traditionally been defined as the sidekicks and/or love interests. Instead of existing for mere comic relief or as eye-candy, characters like Foggy Nelson and Karen Page in Daredevil get to be active participants in the story, with their own goals, trials and victories.
The dramas introduce an approach to gender that allows male characters to show feminist masculinities, which are male identifications that begin to move away from misogyny and patriarchal norms and beliefs. In some cases, there are the postmillennial masculinities where men display behavior that contains a myriad of male and female attributes. They appear to have a non-binary attitude towards gender; after all, gender is fluent and like one’s identity, it changes now and then. The characters that demonstrate feminist or postmillennial masculinities are often portrayed as the good guys. Furthermore, feminist and postmillennial masculinities allow for a shift in the relationships between men where they can express themselves more openly (i.e. saying that they love each other) without the fear of being shamed or labeled as “unmanly.”
Unfortunately, I found that relations between men and women as well as the representations of women have barely shifted. In the world of superheroes alone, women are more empowered and written as real people. However, powerful women have existed on television for a long time, in fact, since the 1990s when Buffy the Vampire Slayer was released, and they have been in high demand ever since. As much as I love many of the women in these dramas, the realization that not much has changed in that area was fairly disappointing. The omitted thing that stood out the most was the lack of female friendships in the dramas. All the women were resilient, intelligent and strong, but unlike their male counterparts, they were alone. They didn’t have another woman to count on.
Throughout the research and writing process, I was allowed to work independently and do pretty much what I wanted with my research. My mentor Kathleen Battles helped me immensely by encouraging me, asking tough questions, suggesting books and articles, reading many terrible drafts and pointing out things I missed sometimes. It really helped that she also loved the work I was doing and she wanted me to succeed. She refused to schedule a date for the defense until the thesis was pristine and beautiful so that I wouldn’t have to make thousands of edits afterwards. When I had to defend my thesis, it felt like I was showing people the most important project of my life. There were two other faculty members on the committee. I went over my main points and showed them three clips (one from each show) and I answered a few questions, having to literally defend some statements I made in the thesis. Then I was asked to leave the room for a few minutes while they discussed my fate. In those few minutes, I realized how nervous I was. I knew the amount of work I had put in, though, and my mentor had assured me earlier that at worst, I would have to make a few minor edits, which isn’t unusual. It was such a relief when Professor Battles said, “You pass!” and they all clapped. And then I did only have to make a few edits before I turned it in.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What key takeaways, experiences, or connections from OU’s Master of Arts in Communication program have you found to be the most helpful for you in your career path?
[Anna Palm] I feel that the program has made me a good listener, a better writer, a more critical thinker, a stronger team player and a more confident leader. Most important of all, I believe it has given me a better idea of what to do with my skills, even though there is no clear career path for someone with a communications degree. A career counselor told me once, “The great thing is that you have a lot of options. The bad thing is that you have a lot of options.” However, as stated earlier, I know what I’m looking for in a job and I feel that everything I’ve learned in grad school is applicable in the work force as well.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice would you give students just starting Oakland University’s MA in Communication program? More broadly, what advice would you give students who are either considering or starting a master’s in communication program, whether it be at OU or another university?
[Anna Palm] Find out what the grad program offers and whether it’s more focused on theory or hands-on. It depends on what you’re looking for. Meet some of the faculty members and ask them questions; not just to learn more about the program but also to see if you can picture yourself in that department for the next two to six years. (If you choose to go to grad school part-time, it can take up to six years). This might sound cheesy, but if you don’t get a good vibe from the school or the people teaching there, it might not be the right place for you. Going to grad school is a job in itself and you’re going to spend a lot of time with your cohorts and your professors. You’re going to be dependent on them to a degree, so you want to feel comfortable with them and trust them. As for the strictly academic side of things, take study breaks. Getting through the reading material is one of the hardest things to do, so take breaks, make notes, write questions in the margins and talk about the material with your professors and cohorts. It’s important to be an active reader, because the classes themselves are discussion-based and the professors expect their students to speak up. When it comes to writing papers, start brain-storming ahead of time and don’t be afraid to share your ideas with others, especially your professors.
My most important advice is: make some friends. Grad school isn’t an environment where the lone gunslinger succeeds against all odds, but a place where a person can thrive when they rely on their cohorts, which I learned quickly. I consider myself fortunate that OU has that small but stable structure that allowed me to form strong connections in the classroom. It’s completely different from my experience as an undergrad, where most people disappear in the crowd and maybe don’t know anyone when they walk at the graduation ceremony. One of the students, Rita Hourani-Ndovie, started at the same time as me and we took all the same classes together, which wasn’t planned. The only difference between us is that I wrote a thesis and she took the exams as her exit strategy. It was really thrilling to graduate alongside her and my other friends and enjoy that victorious day together.
Thank you, Ms. Palm, for your excellent insights on Oakland University’s Master of Arts in Communication program!