My research interests lie at the intersection of American legal studies, the study of gender and gender-based violence, and political science's exploration of discourse. In several of my current projects, I use political science approaches to examine legal, political, and media discourses related to violence against women. In particular, my dissertation examines how the American judiciary frames violence against women. Currently, we don't know how and where these discourses vary, and as such, this project addresses a significant gap in the legal studies literature by furthering our understanding of judicial discourse in this politically salient area of the law and legal reform. It also contributes importantly to our understanding of how judges, as elite political actors, use frames, how frame-usage affects their implementation of policy and the law, and of how those working towards achieving greater justice in the court system can effectively work to reduce biased or problematic judicial discourses. I also examine this nexus – between the way political actors speak about gender based violence – in several current projects which focus upon the media discourse surrounding the Ray Rice case. This 3-part series of papers explores how this discourse evolved over the life of the case, how reporter gender played a role in shaping these patterns of media discourse, and how we can see intermedia agenda-setting between sports media and more traditional forms of media in studying this case. I plan future research that further investigates the confluence of political speech and gendered issues by extending the project begun by my dissertation to look at how this discourse has evolved over time, and to examine how in other institutional settings – such as Congress – these discursive patterns have evolved to shape the legislation on this issue.
Dissertation: "Sexual Assault Jurisprudence: Rape Myth Usage in State Appellate Courts"
Committee: Douglas Reed (Chair), Michele Swers, and Jonathan Ladd.
While decades have passed since 1994’s Violence Against Women Act, do we still see American judges employing inaccurate, though widely held, myths about rape? In recent years sexual assault has become an increasingly contested social and political issue, yet both inside and outside academia this question remains unsettled. This dissertation resolves this issue by undertaking a critical analysis of judicial opinions discussing violence against women in the American states. It explores the demographic, institutional, and political correlates of this discourse, and uses the results of these examinations to explore how rape myth use by judges can be reduced.
Working paper: "Mediating the Red Zone: Tracing Sports Media’s Coverage of the Ray Rice Case and the Continued Influence of Traditional Media" (with Megan Ruxton and Shirley Adelstein). Presented at the Midwest Political Science Association Annual Conference, April 2015.
As a highly visible and political issue, violence against women has received extensive media attention. With NFL player Ray Rice’s 2014 domestic violence case the sports media has emerged as a new player covering this issue, and this paper is a case study of the sports media’s treatment of this high profile event. As the most powerful sports media institutions have a vast and loyal audience in a fracturing media landscape, are trusted opinion leaders, and have framed this incident and the policy issue of domestic violence for many Americans who otherwise may have been disengaged with it, the coverage of the Rice saga is salient for scholars seeking to understand how powerful elites frame issues of gender, violence, and race, and the media’s political impact. By analyzing online and broadcast coverage we trace sports media’s handling of this case, and explore the causal mechanisms behind the shifts in framing that occurred at several critical junctures from February to October 2014. We test the assertion that these shifts closely follow the coverage this case received in more traditional media outlets, and argue that this reflects sports media’s increasing influence and highlights traditional media’s continued agenda-setting power.
Working paper: "Framing Sexual Violence: Frames Used in Senate Discourse on Sexual Violence Against Women, and the Curious Absence of a Human Rights Discourse." Paper Presented at Midwest Political Science Association Annual Conference, April 2012, Chicago, IL.
This paper explores the nature of rape discourse in the United States and advances a theory that American discourse on rape has become bifurcated: political and legal discussions about rape that occurs abroad frame the issue as one of human rights, but when discussing rape within the borders of the United States, the human rights framing largely disappears. The continuing impact of problematic and gendered cultural mythologies about rape (Comack 1999, Crocker 2005, Ehrlich 2007, Kibble 2008) undermines feminist statutory reforms (Smart 1989, Ehrlich 2001) and impacts women's rights to safety and to move about the community (Coates 1997), however, in the United States, discussion of rape as an issue of women’s human rights has been curiously lacking. This omission is glaring in light of the international community’s increasing deployment of the discourse of human rights in discussions concerning rape (Buss 2009), a framing which can be found in American political, legal, and academic arguments about many rapes that occur abroad. Thus, this paper argues that international law and advocacy has bled into American rape discourses in a limited way: overseas rapes are treated as human rights issues, but not ones that happen in the U.S.
Ongoing: "'Seductive Sideline Reporter[s]': The Impact of Gender upon Sports and Traditional Media Coverage of Violence Against Women" (with Megan Ruxton and Shirley Adelstein)
Recent high-profile domestic violence cases have led to renewed scrutiny of how the media, including sports organizations, respond to the highly politicized issue of violence against women (VAW). In an increasingly fractured media landscape, sports media has become a trusted opinion leader for its vast, loyal audience; thus, how it frames VAW is critical. This paper uses coverage of the Ray Rice domestic violence story as a case study on gendered media framing of VAW. Previous research suggests female sports reporters' coverage of women and gender issues is less biased and more comprehensive, but women in this male-dominated arena also face pressure to conform to masculine cultural norms. We hypothesize: a) female reporters are more likely than male reporters to frame the story as a cultural or institutional issue than as an individual one; b) female reporters drive such a shift in framing over time; and c) female reporters in traditional media settings are more likely to do so than their sports counterparts. Confirmation of our hypotheses reflects how sports media’s hypermasculine culture constrains those who work within it and yet how reporters can still use their position to challenge hegemonic and gendered discourses.
Ongoing: "Are "Smarter Sentencing Acts," Smarter for Women? The Gendered Impact of Gender-Neutral Sentencing Legislation."
This project explores gender neutrality, the Smarter Sentencing Act, and how the legal system is likely to implement this type of legislation. Herein, I evaluate and critique the legal implications of the gender-neutral language contained in federal bills such as the Smarter Sentencing Act. Bills including and similar to the 2015 Smarter Sentencing Act have been proposed in several Congresses, and have been lauded by reformers for their potential to increase judicial discretion, and to positively impact the lives of incarcerated nonviolent drug offenders who might be released under these new sentencing guidelines. Ultimately, if passed, it appears that judges would be empowered to release nonviolent drug offenders. However, would all those sentenced under these new guidelines benefit equally from this new regime? The extant research has shown that the outcome of gender-neutral sentencing schemes have, in the past, had distinctly gendered effects. In particular, they have disadvantaged women, as judges have been able to punish them for failing to live up to gender normative standards (particularly related to maternity), and as other gender biases have influenced judicial and prosecutorial decisions. This project examines this type of proposed legislation and explores the argument that while there may be benefits to the Smarter Sentencing Act, if it were to be adopted as proposed, these problematic gendered effects are likely to reoccur.