The PhD Diaries: Identities in Transformation
One of my best friends brings up the HBO programme ‘Westworld’ and I launch in. He insists it's ‘empowering’ to women. The robot ladies, not even human, taking over the world.
“The show literally starts with a rape scene. That is the first scene.”
“It's fake feminism. It pretends to empower women while maintaining a misogynistic perspective.”
“All of the writers are men!”
This is the main way in which my research has changed me. I am insufferable. I’ve never not been like this at least a little, to be fair. I’ve always liked to talk about television and representation. Hence, the thesis on women and television in Ireland. But now equipped with the tools of theory and “expertise” I can quickly become the most annoying person in the room.
Someone suggests that the Real Housewives franchise is ‘trash’ designed to pit women against each other.
“Quality is an arbitrary and gendered concept”
Why am I like this?
At a certain level I think we all end up with our identities wrapped up in our research. If you’ve pursued something singularly for what most of us amounts to our entire lives it's going to become a part of you and in a lot of circumstances all of you.
You are what you research.
Or maybe you’re not. Maybe your research just reflects who you already were.
It’s perhaps the most central question about television: Does it drive change or reflect change?
There I go again.
Does our research reflect who we are or has it changed who we are?
Probably a little of both.
But that begs the harder question: Who are we when it's over? When I’m working in a bank or some government office in 10 years will I still feel the need to rant about the representation of women in the media? Like some washed up high school quarterback talking about when he won the big game?
“Well I published a monograph!”
“I’m a Doctor!”
“Could you look at this?”
“No not that kind of Doctor!”
Will there even be banks or a government or media?
The view from my television screen says maybe not. Who knows.
There’s a pandemic raging through the world and all of this seems just so, so futile. Maybe I should have become a medical doctor. Or a nurse, or a teacher, or anything useful.
Or maybe I should continue to buy into the idea that research in the humanities serves its own purpose. Something I’ve also ranted about to countless people.
“We put context on the world!”
“There’s no point in tech or science if you don’t know why you’re doing it!” I recently said to my grandfather.
But what good is a history of television when people are dying in droves around the world?
What’s even the point in a PhD if the world is ending?
The answer I keep coming back to is: Well some, I guess, maybe, if it's not ending.
Probably I guess.
In 20, 30, 50, years will we discuss the impact of Tiger King on those in lockdown? Will we parse through records from Netflix, if they keep them, to see what exactly people watched when there was nothing else to do?
I hope so. Firstly, because it will mean that we survived. That we did ok in the end. But also because I do believe that what we watch matters. That it changes our sense of self and can transform our identities in ways that we may never understand. But I still think it's important to try.
And I hope so, as well, because, let’s be real, it is so much fun. Who wouldn’t want to be the person to do the Tiger King thesis that will inevitably come to fruition sometime in the next 100 years? Who wouldn’t want to do their thesis on television?
Right now, me. But I hope that changes again as it has so many times over the course of this PhD.
And maybe the issue isn’t wanting to do it but rather the fact that I’ve allowed it to be a part of me. A huge chunk of who I am. Maybe, now, more than ever is the time to disentangle the two. To make a more clear distinction between who I am and what I do.
Maybe it’s time to ask, not, how has the research changed me? But rather, who am I without the research?
Morgan Wait is a third year PhD candidate at Trinity College Dublin. She is working on a thesis entitled 'An unspoken power': Women and Irish Television 1958-1973 which explores the multifaceted relationship between women and Irish television in the long 1960s. She holds a Cluff Memorial Studentship from Trinity College Dublin. She also holds an M.Phil in Modern Irish History (TCD) and a BA in History from Salisbury University. Morgan has finished Tiger King and has moved on to watching Schitt's Creek and The Last Dance as a means of getting through lockdown.