Media critic: UMass Amherst scholar and literary analyst takes on pop culture
If you were to meet TreaAndrea Russworm at a party and ask her what she does for a living, she might give you her short, straightforward answer: she’s an associate professor in the UMass Amherst English Department. If she has more time—and, she adds, if she’s feeling more playful—she might give you a glimpse of what she describes with a laugh as her “superhero alter ego”: as a scholar who applies the tools of literary analysis to such diverse and unexpected topics as the films of Sidney Poitier, dystopian video games, comic books, and Tyler Perry’s wildly popular “Madea” character.
Russworm teaches classes on topics such as “Studies in New Media and Textuality” and “Dystopian Games, Comics and Media.” Outside the classroom, she’s a successful writer and editor; in the past year, two books she authored or edited have been published, with one more coming out in June and another in development. Russworm’s first book, Blackness Is Burning: Civil Rights, Popular Culture, and the Problem of Recognition (Wayne State University Press, 2016), which grew out of her dissertation, looks at how popular culture during and after the civil rights era attempted—and often failed—to humanize African-American characters.
Russworm also coedited and contributed to From Madea to Media Mogul: Theorizing Tyler Perry (University Press of Mississippi, 2016), a critical analysis of the actor, producer, and director perhaps best known for his “Madea” series, in which he plays the title character, a volatile, sometimes violent but also loving matriarch. While Perry’s TV shows and movies are often criticized as “low-brow” melodramas filled with stereotypes, they nonetheless have achieved blockbuster commercial success and have made him one of the most influential African-Americans in the entertainment industry.
This summer, another book, Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games, which Russworm also coedited and contributed to, will be published by Indiana University Press. And she’s currently at work on a book about race and technology.
What drew Russworm to apply her rigorous academic training in English—including a BA from Brown University and a PhD from the University of Chicago—to popular culture? “I’ve always been a little bit of a renegade,” she explains. At Brown, while she took the required classes—Chaucer, Beowulf—she also did independent studies looking at the sort of popular fiction she had devoured as a kid, by authors like Danielle Steel and V.C. Andrews. “Growing up, I loved that stuff, but I never thought about any of it in a critical way. And I wondered as an undergraduate: can you do that? What can we say about these texts? That was always intriguing to me,” she says.
“The questions I ask about media are always humanities centered,” Russworm continues. “The theoretical, the probable, the possible—the playful. That’s where my English Department roots really show in my research. For me it felt very natural to write about different forms of popular culture, because those are all texts to me.” And while, at first blush, there might not be a lot in common between, say, The Canterbury Tales and Boo! A Madea Halloween, Russworm argues that literary analysis can, and should, be applied to both canonical and unorthodox topics.
“Even though they’re very different types of subjects, the skill set is the same. How do you read, how do you understand, the kinds of questions stay the same for me, no matter what kind of cultural product I’m writing about,” she says.
At the vanguard of the relatively new but rapidly evolving discipline of gaming studies, her interest reaches back to her grad school days, when she played video games to relax but also wondered about ways to apply critical analysis to the medium. In Gaming Representation, she considers some of the same questions she did in Blackness is Burning, about empathy and the recognition of the humanity of black characters, but in the context of video games such as The Walking Dead.
Russworm’s contributions to Gaming Representation aim to broaden the field of game studies beyond the technological issues that have dominated the discipline, by applying the lens of psychoanalytical and postmodern theory to the world of video games. “Until recently, questions about identity and race and sexuality and gender were really marginal in game studies,” Russworm says. “It took a long time to centralize questions about race in cinema studies. It doesn’t have to take that long in new areas of study like gaming. We can build these questions into how we write about and teach these subjects.”
Russworm incorporates that perspective in the classroom, where she asks her students to apply their humanities training not just to the literary canon, but also to newer, less conventional subjects. “It’s a cliché: pop culture is serious business,” she says. “But there are important questions about how popular culture and technology shapes us, how the ways we engage with culture has changed. And we need people who have the analytical skills to apply some of the same sorts of questions we have always asked to these new ways we spend our time. ”