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Watching What We Watch


While the majority of Hamilton seniors stress their way through each day, balancing four upper-level courses, theses, extracurricular commitments, and, of course, the ever-impending job search, Sabrina Yurkofsky ’15 watches TV on the co-op porch.

Instead of Anglo-American Modernism, she is taking Modern Family. Rather than Literary or Game Theory, Yurkofsky is studying The Big Bang Theory. This seeming recreation is in fact research for her thought-provoking and culturally relevant senior fellowship. It’s titled “Beyond Bechdel: Evaluating Sexism in Television Programming and its Effects on Viewers” (referring to the “Bechdel Test,” which asks if a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than men).

A psychology-communication double major, Yurkofsky is studying sexism in television programming and its potential effects on viewers’ gender perspectives. “I’d like to conduct a content analysis of TV programming,” Yurkofsky said, “specifically, situational comedies.” A comedian herself, and editor of the College’s satirical newspaper The Duel Observer, Yurkofsky is focusing her study on sitcoms which ran on major networks in the 2013-2014 season. In total, she will study 24 shows, including comedy favorites like NBC’s Parks and Recreation and FOX’s New Girl.

“We’re trying to construct a scale which objectively analyzes gender representations,” Yurkofsky explained. To accomplish this, she is using a coding sheet (based off previous scales) for telling behaviors and rating personality traits of the shows’ characters. “Everything is building upon previous research.” Right now, Yurkofsky is in the “content analysis” stage of the study, researching a random selection of three episodes from each show, which are supposed to be representative of the programs and their ideas on gender.

Students apply for the senior fellowship program at the end of their junior year, submitting a formal, 10-15 page (usually interdisciplinary) project proposal, securing at least one faculty advisor, and, in Yurkofsky’s case, conducting two to three months of research. After completing these application requirements, candidates must defend their proposal in front of the senior fellowship committee, and wait weeks into the summer to receive the verdict. Unlike most senior thesis projects, the senior fellowship is one of students’ only (if not the only) academic commitment for the year.

Once all research is compiled, Yurkofsky and her faculty advisors Professor of Psychology Jennifer Borton, Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication Megan Dowd, and hired student “coders” from the psychology department, will analyze the findings using both correlational and experimental methods. The correlational study attempts to prove whether or not there exists a relationship between the shows and the audience’s perspectives on gender roles. The experimental study attempts to find a causal relationship: do TV shows actually induce certain gender representations?

These studies derive from both the cultivation theory (communication), which proposes that “our perceptions of social reality are based upon what is viewed on television,” and the social-cognitive theory (psychology), which suggests “our attitudes and behaviors are shaped by viewing others and by observing the rewards or punishments others receive for their behaviors.”

Another interesting aspect of Yurkofsky’s project is that the correlational study will be done online through Amazon Mechanical Turk (mturk.com). Using funds provided by the senior fellowship committee, she will pay each survey participant 30¢. “We live in an isolated community,” Yurkofsky opined. “It could be someone from the general public participating or even someone here at Hamilton; we don’t know.”  The experimental study will be limited to the Hill however, conducted via SONA, Hamilton’s psychology web resource.

Yurkofsky, a self-proclaimed feminist, is interested in the study’s broader implications as well. “Certain things mandated by development executives garner gravitas for audiences,” she explained, referring, for example, to the recent limits on smoking on TV. “Why can’t similar things be given the same credence?” Yurkofsky hopes the future of public broadcasting brings more diverse voices, calling the multitude of white male actors on TV “astounding.” This is especially concerning today, when the amount and availability of TV programs is so high, thanks especially to online providers like Netflix, Amazon, and HBO GO.

Yurkofsky clarified that although more content may mean more voices, the easier-than-ever accessibility of TV allows viewers to stay within their comfort zone, remaining within a narrow scope of mainstream TV. “You as a person grow with characters on their emotional journey,” she claimed. It is important then to make sure you are growing with the right (non-sexist) sort of characters.

Yurkofsky’s senior fellowship is one to which many can relate. “It’s hard to watch TV and not see certain patterns,” she asserted. We are all TV watchers to some degree; now it is time we look deeper. She’ll present her findings in an hour-long public lecture in April, as well as give an oral defense.

Already a recipient of several awards like the 2014 IRTS Foundation Summer Fellowship—which she described as “the biggest statistical win of my life”—Yurkofsky has interned at numerous film studios and production companies, including the highly-acclaimed and prolific The Weinstein Company. She plans to go into TV development post-graduation. Until then, she will happily watch sitcoms on the co-op porch.

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