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Alumni Interviews Winter 2021

Guggenheim Fellow Pamela Wojcik on New Meanings of Mobility and Placelessness During COVID-19

By Amy Skjerseth / CMS PhD Candidate

In 2020, Pamela Robertson Wojcik (Ph.D. 1993) not only has received a Guggenheim Fellowship along with the University of Notre Dame Sheedy Excellence in Teaching Award—she also has published her book Gidget: Origins of a Teen Girl Transmedia Franchise and is releasing a co-edited collection in March 2021. “It’s a lot of Pam in the last few months,” she laughs. As a 2020-2021 Guggenheim Fellow, she joins Chicagoans Patrick Jagoda (Professor of English and Cinema & Media Studies, University of Chicago) and Jeffrey Sconce (Associate Professor of Screen Cultures, Northwestern University). Wojcik, who is Past-President of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies and a dedicated teacher, took me back to her doctoral studies in English at UChicago—before CMS was a department. 

Wojcik initially focused on John Keats and William Hazlitt for her undergraduate thesis, but she switched to film noir after taking her first film course during her junior year abroad in London. When she applied to UChicago, Gerald Mast was the only film scholar in the English department. Since Mast was on sick leave when Wojcik arrived, she took courses with Corey Creekmur on narrative theory and film spectatorship. “Corey was my formative influence during coursework,” Wojcik reflects. “By the end of that first year, I’d swung over to film. I had two papers to write, one about Alexander Pope, and I realized I was more excited to write the other on Preston Sturges.” By the time Miriam Hansen came to UChicago, Wojcik had selected her dissertation topic on “Guilty Pleasures: Camp and the Female Spectator,” which also was supervised by Creekmur and Chaucer scholar Jay Schleusener. While Wojcik wrote her dissertation, Hansen hired Jim Lastra and also turned CMS into a committee. Meanwhile, the Mass Culture Workshop and Wojcik’s coursework in the English department led her to draw together film and cultural history, gender, and critical race studies in her research and teaching. “Besides this sense of interdisciplinarity from UChicago, I’ve also tried to maintain the rigor that Miriam demanded in her analysis and questions—and her deep sense that cinema matters. Those tenets are really important to me, as I’m often swimming in the detritus of film culture.” 

Fondly remembering Hansen’s teaching supervision, Wojcik tells me about the Sheedy Excellence in Teaching Award she received in November. Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters presents the award to one faculty member each year to recognize innovative teaching methods in a broad array of courses, as well as outstanding research. “Teaching is so interesting because you pick up most of it on the streets,” she says. “But I use my UChicago Little Red Schoolhouse training all the time, in both my teaching and writing.” And in the film theory class she’s teaching this semester, her grad students have the choice to design a syllabus instead of writing a paper so that she can provide feedback on their self-designed course. 

Her former graduate student Angel Daniel Metos, who did a certificate in gender studies, collaborated with Wojcik and Paula J. Massood on the edited collection Media Crossroads: Intersections of Space and Identity in Screen Cultures. “Angel and I had talked about doing a collection on queer spaces and that merged with a project Paula and I were doing on gender and space to become a book thinking about intersectionality and space,” she explains. The collection spans media from film and TV to video games and digital media—including an essay on bathroom selfies by CMS alum Nicole Morse (Ph.D. 2018). Media Crossroads reflects the prominent spatial turn in cinema and media studies, following work by the SCMS Urbanism/Geography/Architecture Scholarly Interest Group and the online journal Mediapolis. Wojcik and Massood also are co-editing an upcoming issue in Feminist Media Histories on precarious mobility. As Wojcik writes the issue’s introduction during the pandemic, she is struck that “movement now has become deadly, as has immobility, if you are trapped in a nursing home or a prison. And the number of people who are unemployed or food insecure has expanded dramatically. I’m also grappling with the phrase ‘shelter in place’—how else could you shelter but in place?”  

Notions of space and precarity will also feature in the book project she is writing while on her Guggenheim Fellowship, Unhomed: Mobility and Placelessness in American Cinema. Wojcik analyzes various film cycles in order to consider modes of mobility and placelessness at different historical moments. She examines late 1920s and early 1930s tramp films; World War II-era films about soldiers who are displaced or returning home; late ‘60s and early ‘70s hitchhiker films and film noir, and late ‘80s and early ‘90s films about the homeless. She has already written a section of the book about contemporary precarity and hypermobility—where someone must move constantly but never goes anywhere due to a lack of social mobility. Unhomed also extends research from her book Fantasies of Neglect: Imagining the Urban Child in American Film and Fiction(Rutgers UP 2016), which focuses on children’s mobility. 

Moving from childhood to adolescence, Wojcik has just published Gidget: Origins of a Teen Girl Transmedia Franchise. She was inspired by an SCMS panel she attended on teen film that was organized by Yannis Tzioumakis. “When Yannis said that each panelist was writing a book for the Cinema and Youth Cultures book series he co-edits at Routledge, I thought I had to do Gidget. There is a trifecta of texts that were important to me as a youth: the Harriet the Spy book, the movie Funny Girl, and the movie Gidget. I’d written about the first two, so it was time for the third.” Wojcik initially focused on the 1959 feature film but found that it derived from a 1957 novel (about a real woman) then spun off into three feature films, several novels and novelizations, two TV shows in the ‘60s and ‘80s, three movies-of-the-week in the ‘70s, and comic books and board games. “It’s a teen girl franchise that starts in the ‘50s, right as the category of the teenage girl is solidifying, but before teen film and YA lit and TV have. Gidget is on the cusp of all these things. For example, it was one of the first ABC movies-of-the-week.” How did Gidget come to define the cultural milieu? As a surfer, she was a countercultural figure who inspired real women to break into mainstream surfing. Gidget also matures throughout the franchise, in a departure from other teen girl franchises: the ‘80s TV show focuses on her work/life balance concerns as she raises a niece and deals with a husband who feels disempowered. As a result, the franchise offers both nostalgia and entry points for new viewers.  

Besides the transmedia nature of the franchise itself, Wojcik also analyzes the media produced in the different eras of novels, TV shows, and movies. “Instead of explaining each text as a linear trajectory to the next one,” Wojcik says, “I frame each as intertextual, not only with other Gidget texts but also with the other things circulating around them.” For the 1959 film, she examines Sandra Dee’s star text and Barbie’s contemporaneous debut. And the 1963 film Gidget Goes to Rome reflects the circulation of La Dolce Vita and runway production going on at the time in Italy. “The project is trying to think about adaptations, cycles, and reboots: how each relates to one another and what each form does. It’s a very little but very dense book.” 

During the pandemic, Wojcik has found solace on the elliptical watching seasons of ER. “It’s become a comforting space, but I’m weaning myself off. I’m enjoying seeing where and how the pandemic is getting rolled into these things, such as the fifth season of This is Us, which deals with Covid-19 and protests against racial injustice. That’s going to be an amazing artifact. And 50 years later, some graduate student may write a dissertation about how Covid affected going to the cinema. People could be asking, ‘What is cinema?’” 

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