Date of Award

8-2007

Level of Access

Campus-Only Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

Communication

Advisor

Michael Socolow

Second Committee Member

Nathan E. Stormer

Third Committee Member

Sandra J. Berkowitz

Abstract

The purpose of this project is to uncover the news narratives that construct public representations of Nancy Reagan in 1981 and 1987. This is primarily achieved through a narrative analysis of the 1981 and 1987 Time and New York Times coverage of Nancy Reagan. In addition, a thematic analysis identifies four themes common to both the 1981 and 1987 coverage: fashion and style, the use of influence and power, the role of the first lady, and Mrs. Reagan's personality. The thematic analysis served as a mechanism to organize the more than 500 articles retrieved from databases into themes that allowed for a clearer identification of narratives. Three significant narratives emerge from the examination of articles and editorials during those two years: Queen Nancy, Nancy Reagan as Dragon Lady, and Mrs. Reagan engaged in a Catfight with Raisa Gorbachev. The Queen Nancy narrative accomplishes two things: it expresses the disdain of feminists who felt that Nancy Reagan represented a regression back to an era when women were only concerned with home and family. It also functions as a restoration narrative for a nation emerging from the troubled 1970s. Within this restoration narrative, the portion of Queen Nancy that valorizes Nancy Reagan's extravagance also contains an implicit rebuke of Rosalynn Carter's social performance. The second narrative, which appears in the 1987 coverage, is Nancy Reagan as a Dragon Lady. In this characterization, Nancy Reagan is a manipulative, power-hungry, back-room operator who incites fear among the White House staff. By employing commonly-held negative stereotypes about powerful women, the Dragon Lady narrative distracts attention from the ethical failings of Ronald Reagan and his staff, who were dealing with the fallout from the Iran-contra scandal. Finally, 1987 also contains a narrative which positions Nancy Reagan in a "catfight" with Raisa Gorbachev. In the waning years of the Cold War, the Catfight narrative acts as a synecdoche for the competition between the global superpowers, and the competing values of capitalism and communism. This project also contains a historiographical framework that contextualizes the rhetorical analysis. Consequently, I examined the development of the institution of the first lady, because for all first ladies, to differing extents, the institution has functioned to constrain what they are able to say, or how they are able to act. The goal of the historical section is to demonstrate the rhetorical choices first ladies made to deal with those constraints, within the context of the era in which each woman served. Identifying these narratives is important, because inherent within them are gender stereotypes that speak to the reader without being overtly visible. As the narratives gain traction, it becomes more difficult for journalists to view their subjects outside the narratives they themselves created. Because the first lady is such an important symbol for the position of women in society, it is incumbent upon journalists to become more critical of the tropes they repeat.

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