Winter 2019

Alternate reality

Photography by LISA MILLER

Laurie Ouellette will never forget the moment her research became front-page news. About a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, she got a call from the New York Times seeking her expertise on the similarities between reality TV shows (such as Trump’s “The Apprentice”) and the way the White House currently operates.

“That’s when it became clear to me that reality television isn’t insignificant,” says Ouellette, who has spent her career viewing popular culture through an academic lens. “It’s one part of a general cultural shift that’s blurring the boundaries between real life and mediated life.”

Ouellette, chair of cultural studies and comparative literature in the U’s College of Liberal Arts, received a 2018 Scholar of the College award. The financial support has taken her to film and television archives in Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere to gain a deeper historical perspective on some of the topics she studies.

But the award means far more than just funding, she says. It’s a public acknowledgment that her research matters. 

“Things that appear trivial at first glance, like a reality TV show, might actually be circulating certain norms or prejudices or values,” she says. “If we can think critically about the cultural and media environment that we’re immersed in, that’s an important step toward being engaged citizens.”