Dissertation Dive: How Exotic Dancers, Pageant Contestants Are Regulated and Commodified

Emerson faculty members’ expertise and interests are as varied as the students they teach. This is one article in a series about faculty and staff dissertations.

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Brenda Foley

Name: Brenda Foley

Emerson role: Associate Professor, Performing Arts

Dissertation title: Image as Identity: Beauty Contestants and Exotic Dancers as Merchants of Morality

Degree and university: Brown University, PhD, Special Graduate Studies in Women’s Studies, Theatre and Performance Studies, and History

Why did you want to write about this topic for your dissertation?

My dissertation at Brown University was as much a result of timing as it was a matter of scholarly focus. I had completed an MA in Theatre Studies there, and at the time, Brown didn’t yet have a PhD program in Performance Studies. But one could apply for an interdisciplinary PhD in “special graduate studies” via a fairly rigorous process that involved corralling faculty sponsors and making a case for the dissertation and course of study in advance of actually doing the work.

My interest in women and representation had developed over many years in Equity theatre and I was eager to further explore our societal compulsion to assign a value system to women based on their bodies and behaviors. The performance forms of pageants and striptease have historically been sites of such value codification. My dissertation interrogated the impulse behind that coding, and exposed the ways in which women in performance continue to be regulated, commodified, and contained. 

The research was supported by a CLIR Mellon Fellowship in Original Source Research and later published as a monograph by Palgrave Macmillan as Undressed for Success: Beauty Contestants and Exotic Dancers as Merchants of Morality.