Sarah Trottier receives Hélène Phoa Gender Studies Research Thesis Prize 2021
This year marks the second awarding of the Hélène Phoa Gender Studies Research Thesis Prize. In 2020, Anita Prša became the first ever recipient of the prize. This year, Sarah Trottier had the honour of receiving the prize for her thesis titled The Colonial Poetics of TikTok: Talking Dogs, Queer-Coded Cottages, and Getting to Know YourSelf through the Algorithm. The prize was awarded during the diploma Graduation Ceremony of the Research Master Gender Studies on November 4, 2021. The jury enjoyed reading all submitted theses, as they offer an exciting view of what constitutes Gender Studies for a new generation. Although the jury encountered a variety of topics and approaches all submitted work had one thing in common: all authors were committed to knowledge production that contributes to social justice and inclusive diversity.
The Hélène Phoa Gender Studies Research Thesis Prize
The Hélène Phoa Thesis Prize was established by the family of Hélène Phoa, who passed away far too young in 2019. She was a graduate of the Research Master Gender Studies at Utrecht University. Pauline Phoa, one of Hélène's sisters, explains how the prize came into existence: "After the unexpected loss of my sister Hélène we – my parents Khee Siang and Irina Phoa, and my elder sister Nicole and I – had to learn how to deal with our disbelief, extreme sadness, anger and frustration. However, we really wanted something positive to occupy our thoughts and to commemorate her life. That is how the idea of the Gender Studies thesis prize was born, since Hélène had loved the Research Master and had wanted to continue to fight for diversity and inclusivity in her professional life. Professor Berteke Waaldijk and the wonderful team at the Gender Studies Program and the Utrecht University Fund helped make this come true."
The prize is intended to support a graduate as they move from being a student in gender studies to the next phase of their life, where 'doing gender' may find a new form. The prize includes a thousand euros, the awarding of which is made possible in part by the Friends of Humanities Utrecht University fund. "With the help of generous donations made by family and friends, we established a fund that will allow for the thesis prize to be awarded for several years, and we look forward to continue to be involved in the wonderful Gender Studies Master’s Program in Hélène’s name," Pauline says.
The submissions beautifully displayed the richness of the Gender Studies field, and the discussions during the selection process were thought-provoking and inspiring. It was actually quite hard to decide on the winner and the runner’s up, which only shows how high the general level of the submissions was
Each year, one of the members of Hélène's family is a member of the jury. This year, Pauline occupied that position for the second time. "It was again a delight to be in the jury, this time with different people, some of whom have met my sister during her time as a student of the Gender Studies Research Master. The submissions beautifully displayed the richness of the Gender Studies field, and the discussions during the selection process were thought-provoking and inspiring. It was actually quite hard to decide on the winner and the runner’s up, which only shows how high the general level of the submissions was.” Two submitted theses received a ‘honourable mention’: Pinar Türer, Moving (through) Intimacy: A Reimagination of the Self in Relation and Adrianna Rosario, Revenge Feminism: Tracing Global Punitive Demands in Spanish Gender Violence Legislation. The jury for this edition consisted of Prof. dr. Rosemarie Buikema (chair), dr. Layal Ftouni, dr. Gianmaria Colpani, dr. Pauline Phoa, Anita Prša (former winner of the prize), Sophia Seawell (alumnae of the programme and representing the labour market of RMA Gender Studies students) and Mir Marinus (alumnae of the programme).
Interview with Sarah Trottier
Sarah Trottier is the second recipient of the Hélène Phoa Thesis Prize. She told us about her winning thesis and what receiving the prize means to her.
How does it feel to receive the Hélène Phoa Gender Studies Research Thesis Prize?
I am proud, honoured, and grateful to receive this prize, which comes at a significantly transitional point in my academic career. It has been an incredibly challenging year and a half for everyone, and like many of my peers, going through the process of writing a thesis and graduating during a global pandemic has brought unexpected difficulties, isolation, and amplified feelings of uncertainty for the future. While receiving the Hélène Phoa Gender Studies Research Thesis Prize makes me feel recognized and validated as a researcher, it also provides a sense of symbolic encouragement as I re-connect with the academic community at UU (and beyond) and continue moving forward with my current research in Gender Studies.
What was the topic of your thesis?
My thesis analyzed how seemingly innocuous social media trends may reproduce or reify colonial ideologies, narratives, and systems, focusing on phenomena which gained popularity on TikTok during the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis. The three trends which I incorporated as case studies — ‘Canine Augmented and Alternative Communication’ training videos, the ‘Cottagecore’ aesthetic, and user-produced meta-analyses of the app’s algorithmic sorting processes — were chosen to exemplify how social media users are influenced by themes of domestication, control, pastoral fantasy, and human categorization while engaging in the creation and dissemination of viral content. The central goal of this thesis was to examine ‘innocent’ online trends as poetic forces which shape our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, and which are greatly influenced by real-world systems and structures of inequality, power, and control.
I situated my research as an ‘auto-netnography,’ meaning that I based my research on my own experiences as a social media user. As TikTok relies on an algorithmic sorting process to feed users content based on their interaction with the app, it was important to clarify that this research process was absolutely located within my own TikTok ‘world’. This became a central aspect of my analysis. Because I have a somewhat murky relationship with my own identity, being ‘sorted’ by TikTok into different thematic categories and being fed content based on this sorting process was not only fascinating, but also provided the foundation to study the ways in which algorithmic processes hold bias based on real-world systems of human categorization. Alongside the analysis of specific viral trends, studying these algorithmic processes was crucial to unsettling the often-assumed objectivity or ambivalence of digital platform spaces.
While the thesis I produced was completely different from what I had imagined at the beginning of this process, I am incredibly proud of what I have accomplished and grateful for the catalyzing effect it has had on my own journey to understand myself better as a researcher and as a person.
What was the research and writing process like?
As I mentioned earlier, going through this process during the pandemic brought on a wide array of unexpected difficulties and roadblocks. I started working on my thesis in March of 2020 — originally proposing an entirely different topic — but found it impossible to continue on that trajectory due to the increasing mental health difficulties I faced as a result of the ongoing lockdowns and social isolation. While I have always struggled with my mental health, the coping mechanisms which I had built throughout the years to manage life as a neurodivergent and chronically ill person in a neurotypical and ableist society were no longer relevant or useful, as they mainly relied on being physically present at work, school, or social events with my community. So, after months of attempting to move forward with my thesis, I found myself totally ‘stuck’ and unable to carry out my research as planned.
Eventually, I came to realize that I was experiencing a complete burn-out resulting from my ongoing attempt to force myself to work ‘properly,’ in a way that I had learned one should produce serious academic scholarship. I came to understand that I needed to stop focusing on writing a thesis to meet expectations, and instead begin working on the thesis that I wanted to write, one inspired by topics I would have otherwise written off as being too silly or superficial. In retrospect, I see this shift as a sort of ‘unmasking’ — I had decades of internalized ableism to sort through and unpack, and needed to begin recognizing the atypical way my brain processes information not as an inherent weakness, but as a difference which can be embraced.
Following this change in approach, I embarked on a rather unusual research trajectory that centered somewhat uncommon and interdisciplinary methodologies and epistemological frameworks. I prioritized a sense of urgency and novelty through the study of a new and understudied social media app, and embraced the persistent feeling that it was essential to contextualize this research within the COVID-19 crisis. While the thesis I produced was completely different from what I had imagined at the beginning of this process, I am incredibly proud of what I have accomplished and grateful for the catalyzing effect it has had on my own journey to understand myself better as a researcher and as a person.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank my supervisor, Layal Ftouni, whose continued guidance, patience, and solidarity has helped to facilitate my development as a researcher throughout my time in the RMA Gender Studies programme. She gave me the motivation and encouragement to follow my gut, the space to step back and breathe, and the confidence to embrace uncertainty.
What does the future hold for you?
Following my graduation from the RMA Gender Studies program, I spent several months developing a PhD proposal inspired by the research I conducted for this thesis. This proposal was accepted over the summer, and I began working as a doctoral researcher in Gender Studies at UU in September of this year. My current research is titled "'Ludomemetics': Playful Memes and Powers of the ‘Real’ in Post-Postmodern Alterreality," and questions how power and play intersect in the production and circulation of digital memes. I am excited to be returning to work in Gender Studies at UU, and I am looking forward to continuing my research on social media phenomena and their sociocultural impact as a part of this inspiring and supportive academic community.