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Reflecting On My Dissertation 3 Years On

I got a first on my dissertation. I don't brag often but I genuinely believe that this project was (and until my poetry collection is published, still is) the hardest I've even worked on a single text and I'm still pleased with that work. This isn't going to be a reflection on how my work was actually terrible and how I regret everything, but more of what the process was like and how I benefited from it.  

I studied English Literature and Film but my dissertation had to be on a film topic, because that was the priority of my degree. Beyond this, I had the complete freedom to write whatever I wanted. So I picked something specific and close to my heart: I wrote about the representation of angry women in the thriller genre.

I chose to write about angry women because, at the time at least, I was one. I really struggled to get excited about things that I didn't have a personal connection with, so when I picked this topic, it was because I had personal stakes in trying to decode how and why anger was represented in such a negative way on-screen.

I picked the three films, Hard Candy (2005), Gone Girl (2014) and The Handmaiden (2016), because those films all had characters I greatly related to. They had a quiet anger that bubbled beneath the surface and hid behind smiles and make-up. They had an anger that ticked like a time-bomb waiting for the right moment to exact some kind of convoluted revenge, the type that's only put together in the midst of a seething rage. The type that makes very little sense and probably wouldn't work in real life but feels good to watch being acted out. Anger is often coded as unnatural hence why it's often materialised through extreme violence and sadism. I wanted to explore how the roles of victim and perpetrator are blurred to the point of absurdity, especially in Gone Girl and how the role of misogyny is a tool used to exploit the men in these films so they get their comeuppance. At this point, I want to assure the reader that I don't believe in retributive justice or vigilantism but I think they are interesting ideas to explore in terms of the extent they provide a respite from patriarchy. 

I managed to come up with the best title in the world and no one can convince me otherwise:

'Was I born a cute, vindictive, little bitch or...did society make me that way?': An Exploration of the Angry and Sadistic Woman in the Modern Thriller?

In fact, my titling for all my sections was one of the best parts of the project because I used actual quotes from the films and they all fit perfectly with what I wanted to argue in them.

The way I went about writing this was that I didn't. At least not at first. I spent most of my time researching, agonising over the correct quotes to evidence the points that I might not even end up making. Academia mostly just feels like reading 5 books on a subject to get a line in your essay. It wasn't an easy experience even finding research. My university library had a minuscule section on Korean film history and one of the films I was planning on writing about, The Handmaiden, is set in Korea, specifically in the 1930s. It was so hard to find work on the film itself because of how recently it came out (bear in mind I started researching this in 2018 and the film only came out in 2016). I was baffled at how little resources I had to study Asian cinema. I ended up going to all kinds of places to try and find anything. Google books was my favourite website. I had a specific ways of bypassing paywalls, because, even with my library access, I still struggled to find a ton of work. There is a maybe the perfect quote out there that would have tied all my writing together and I never got the chance to read it.

My research lived in around 10 different word documents. I had a word document for each of my chapters, including my introduction and conclusion, as well as full documents of my own notes on each of the films. I kept all these separate and only compiled my chapters together when it was time to submit. It was chaos but it was the only way my brain could process that much work. My critical project ended up being around 8500 words and the rest of my 10,000 words was made up of my reflection. I remember being so anxious about the word count and now I barely think about how much I'm writing.

Reflecting on my own work came quite naturally to me because I'm quite introspective already, and by that I mean I hold myself up to an unreachable standard constantly. When coming to write this post, I honestly thought about scrapping the whole thing because I already reflected on what I wrote quite concisely and intuitively as part of my dissertation. I agree with what I wrote then - that I agonise over research, that I want to write more than I'm capable and that I maybe could have picked three films made in the same country so that my research would have been easier. All of these observations I made three years ago. What else could I possibly say?

Well, I could maybe mention that, in my reflection, I accidentally ended up writing the same paragraph twice, even though I remember repeatedly doing spellchecks, grammar checks, running my work through a text-to-speak engine so I could hear how my writing sounded out loud. And yet, I made a huge mistake, and submitted it anyway. Thankfully the blunder didn't cost me many marks. Looking back now, I'm not surprised that I made this kind of mistake. This project stressed me out so much. I remember telling my housemate at the time that I'd read over my work so many times I actually couldn't tell if it was good or not. My sentences didn't sound real.

And my tutor was virtually no help. Not that they weren't a good teacher or that I didn't find their lectures interesting but they were absolutely awful at responding to emails. I know that uni tutors are some of the busiest people ever but of the many times I emailed them, I got no response at all. So I just decided to leave it and work on my own. I attended the in-person sessions when I felt it was necessary (and also because they were mandatory) but the feedback there was generic and not very helpful. For me, this really was the independent project that my tutors had been warning us about in first year.

The absolute worst thing about writing this project had absolutely nothing to do with the subject or the research - it was trying to get the fucking page numbers on the correct page. When writing a dissertation, you usually have a title page and a contents page, and from there, you have the rest of your work. I could not for the life of me figure out how to make the page numbers start after the contents page. Every time I tried, the document would add a new page that I would have to delete which would then move the whole document which would then change the page numbers! And when I tried to add them manually, it would change the order of the pages. I don't use Microsoft Word much anymore but I remember this experience so vividly because I was on the verge of putting my fist through my laptop screen towards the end. Good thing I was writing about anger.

A question kept coming up when writing this post was this - what would I have changed if I were to rewrite my work? The answer is, not as much as I thought when I came up with that question. I wrote three chapters, femininity, sexuality and the pathology of anger and gender, and I think that all of these were a great place to take these films. They all map onto what I was aiming for. I feel like if I were to go back and rewrite it, what I would maybe do is use stronger evidence. I've often struggled with the film analysis part of my film analysis. I loved the research and setting up points but using technical language to describe the specifics always felt more difficult than the explanation of the effect it was having. I suppose I still kind of struggle with that.

I'm grateful and (I'll say it once again) proud that I even managed to produce something this big that was actually of high quality. It allowed me to collate my writing and researching skills, with my curiosity about a subject being foregrounded in this process. Like I said, I write about what I'm passionate about and I think that's all I ever wanted to do.


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