Emmy-award winning writer and voice-over artist Ashly Burch ’12 returned to Occidental College to speak at the “Industry Insights: Careers in Media and Entertainment” panel at the Hameetman Career Center Oct. 26. Other panelists included John Bidasio ’68, co-founder of Westwind Media; Stacey Carr ’04, manager of programming and development at Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) and Jeff Grosvenor ’04, vice president of comedy and development at Warner Bros. Television. Burch graduated with a degree in Media Arts and Culture (MAC) with a focus on critical media. She highlighted how her studies in the MAC department influenced her career and prepared her for her creative endeavors in the video game industry.
Burch is notable for her work on the Cartoon Network series “Adventure Time” as the voice of Breezy and as a storyline writer for seasons seven, eight and nine. She and her team received an Emmy this year for Outstanding Short-Form Animated Program.
MAC Professor Allison de Fren explained that students in the department follow either the critical media or production track. She discussed how students like Burch in the critical media track analyze film, television, video games or other video projects instead of producing content. For her web-based comprehensive project, Burch analyzed gender norms in the revisionist western video game “Red Dead Redemption.” De Fren found Burch’s project compelling because of her nuanced approach to the medium.
“[Burch’s comprehensive project] wasn’t just this multi-modal project that included qualitative research, but she was in many ways staging a kind of intervention in the field. At the time she was writing, game studies were just coming of age,” de Fren said.
In her comprehensive project, Burch was interested in how the interactivity of playing a video game as a male character affected the female gamer experience. According to Burch, the game “Red Dead Redemption” has a male-dominated storyline that utilized stereotypical representations of women, most notably in the role of damsel in distress. Burch explained that she assumed fellow female gamers would also view the game as problematic, but was surprised to find that the women she interviewed enjoyed the gendered aspects of the game such as picking flowers or riding horses. She highlighted that having her assumptions challenged inspired self-reflection.
“It forced me to confront in a non-theoretical sense how gender was reflected in people in a way I had not realized … having an assumption that I was later disabused of was a healthy thing for me, intellectually and emotionally,” Burch said.
Burch said that she enjoyed her comprehensive project because it allowed her to pursue a subject that she found interesting and compelling. She explained that the skills she learned while researching her comprehensive project were applicable to other facets of her career and her life.
“People often get caught up in college wondering how what they’re doing now is going to get them where they want to be in a very tactile way,” Burch said. “For me, the most beneficial thing you can get out of this experience is learning about yourself, learning about how you think and learning about how you interact with the world.”
De Fren remarked that film schools focus on professionalizing their students and helping them network. At Occidental, according to de Fren, the core curriculum creates a well-rounded citizen of the world rather than a film professional. MAC major Clark Leazier (senior) moderated the panel and explained that the breadth of knowledge students learn in the department widens their job searches. He said that students learn bits of producing, writing and editing that they can apply to a variety of contexts. Peter Bird (first year) attended the panel as a prospective MAC major and enjoyed listening to Burch discuss her career trajectories.
“I was fascinated to hear about her work because she utilized all the knowledge that she had into creating but also in working her way into the industry,” Bird said.
MAC major Tristan Mehlhaff (senior) agreed with Burch’s insights about the department. According to Mehlhaff, MAC students learn more than what makes a good film, but also what a good film is saying in terms of critical analysis. Mehlhaff also enjoyed the panel and seeing how far alumni have taken their Occidental education.
“It was really nice to see that Oxy alums are doing cool things. You think that Oxy is a small school that would get you a small job, but it’s nice to hear big names that came from Oxy,” Mehlhaff said.