VILLANOVA, Pa. – Beyoncé’s politically charged performance at halftime of the Super Bowl on February 7, 2016, elicited mixed reactions, but for Villanova University student Richelle Hurley ’17 CLAS, ’18 MA, the performance was a clear effort to change the social construction of both sports and race. This analysis earned Hurley the Top Student Paper Award in the Communication as Social Construction Division at the National Communication Association convention in Dallas, Texas, this past November.
In her paper, "An Inappropriate Football 'Formation': Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl Performance, Mystery, and the Narrative of Football and Race in America," Hurley argues that football has long been a socially constructed space that keeps out conversations of politics and injustice, and that Beyoncé’s performance, with its references to the Black Panther movement and social justice messaging, defied social norms and expectations.
If we only talk about injustice where it is "allowed," then we will never achieve justice and social change. Social constructions are not set in stone. Since we are the ones who create them, we have to take the initiative and use our agency to change them.
“Social construction is the idea that everything we know exists through collective communication,” Hurley explains. “For example, pancakes are not inherently a breakfast food. We have all just communicated that meaning and agreed on it, so it is a socially constructed choice to make pancakes a breakfast food.”
Social constructs can have significant consequences. Hurley notes that if the response to a sexual assault is to ask what the victim was wearing or how much she had to drink, then the collective construction of sexual assault is one of blaming the victim.
“The widespread and harmful effects of social construction can be hard to change, especially if it is a construction we have reinforced for a long time. Beyoncé’s performance was significant because it represents an effort to change social constructions,” says Hurley, who is completing a combined Bachelor’s and Master’s program in Communication.
Hurley’s adviser for the paper, Bryan Crable, PhD, Professor of Communication/Rhetorical Studies, believes it is this connection of a prominent event to a well-known communication theory that made Hurley’s paper a contender for the award.
“Richelle did a great job of reading the performance and capturing why it was controversial,” says Dr. Crable, who is also the Founding Director of the Waterhouse Family Institute for the Study of Communication and Society at Villanova. “She developed a creative topic in a theoretical framework that was not easy but well known in the discipline. It was insightful and well connected to theory.”
Hurley credits Dr. Crable with being instrumental in the development and submission of her paper.
“Dr. Crable was very supportive. He helped me prepare for the convention and encouraged me every step of the way. I am grateful for his guidance,” Hurley says.
The NCA convention brought more than 4,000 educators, students and practitioners of communication together to advance and support the discipline of communication in all its forms. Hurley was overjoyed to win the award and valued the convention as an important learning experience, but most of all, she hopes her paper serves to help change harmful social constructions.
“In order to create significant social change, people need to follow Beyoncé’s lead and offer opposing narratives to the harmful constructions that our society has long accepted, even if that means people might get upset,” Hurley says. “If we only talk about injustice where it is ‘allowed,’ then we will never achieve justice and social change. Social constructions are not set in stone. Since we are the ones who create them, we have to take the initiative and use our agency to change them.”