Thoughts on Theses: Sophie Ewing

Sophie Ewing is a double major in English and Asian Languages and Civilizations. Her thesis is about minor literature and counter-discourse in Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden. Her thesis advisor is Emily C. Jordan Folger Professor of Black Studies and English C. Rhonda Cobham-Sander.

Photo courtesy of Ziji Zhou '25.

Q: When did you decide on writing a senior thesis, and what is your thesis about?

A: I think I decided last spring of 2021. I’m an English major and I knew I wanted to do a thesis in the English department. I had to make a thesis proposal, and I really want[ed] to do something that was self-directed, and where I could choose what I would like working on. I originally was doing a thesis on coming-of-age stories, then it changed a bit. I ended up writing a thesis on “The Handmaiden,” which is a Korean movie directed by Park Chan-Wook. It was a bit like a gothic romance and it was set in the 1930s in Korea. [The movie] was adapted from a book called “Fingersmith.” I read the book and I watched the movie. I really liked both so I want[ed] to write about both. I ended up just writing about the movie. What was interesting about the movie is that it comments on a lot of things like the Japanese colonization of Korea, gender relations, and a queer love story.

Q: How did the thesis relate to your major, and how did you get interested in studying film in particular?

A: I am a double major in English and Asian languages and civilizations, so it is related to both majors, in my opinion. In English, I’ve studied English literature in the 19th century and different narrative structures — for example, the marriage plot, which is really important to how stories are constructed. I feel that a lot of things I studied in the English major gave me context for understanding [“The Handmaiden”], which had been adapted from a novel that lectures on all these different traditions. At the same time, I was studying my second major which is Asian languages and civilizations. I was studying World War II. I specifically took a course called “The History and Memory of the Asia-Pacific War” with Professor [of Asian Languages and Civilizations and History Trent] Maxey, and that was when I studied World War II and East Asia and the different relationships between Japan and China and between Japan and Korea. [I also studied] the way things [that] happened during World War II are remembered today and the way that they show up in contemporary politics, especially around the comfort women issue. I brought a lot of that to my thesis because it’s a film about Japanese colonization. I was thinking about all those issues anyway. Specifically, I chose to do a film project just because I liked the story of the film, initially, but I’ve also been very interested in film as well as literature. Personally, I’m an artist and I enjoy artistic things. I also think visually, as well as linguistically, and I really enjoy doing visual analysis.

Q: What has the researching and writing process been like for you?

A: I worked on it over the summer last year and then up to early April this year. Over the summer, I did a lot of reading of novels about World War II to get a sense of the field [and] of what people are writing. [As] I started to read these novels, I made the decision, “Oh, I want to start on this film, specifically.” Initially, I had a lot of things that I might have written about. The summer was also about narrowing it down to just writing about one thing. I also started to research different film theories and backgrounds [that could be useful for my thesis]. [For example,] I read Japanese literature about World War II from survey articles. I also read some theories. One of the pieces of theory that helped me to write about [“The Handmaiden”] was called “Toward a Minor Literature”' by [Gilles] Deleuze and [Félix] Guattari, and it was talking about how [some] authors live in a society with a kind of dominant language, but they come from a minority. They write in that dominant language to express themselves as a minority, and specifically, the authors introduced the concept[s] of deterritorialization and reterritorialization. I was reading about this concept and trying to apply it to [“The Handmaiden”]. The movie involves a lot of language switching. Sometimes they talk in Japanese, and sometimes they talk in Korean, and it’s very significant. Trying to figure out theoretical concepts helped me articulate this film. Then I start[ed] to write a lot. I think I wrote one chapter in the fall semester and wrote the rest over winter break and spring.

Q: How did you choose your thesis advisor?

A: [The department] assigned [Emily C. Jordan Folger] Professor [of Black Studies and English C. Rhonda] Cobham-Sander to me. [She] specializes in Caribbean literature and as far as I can remember, she had done a project about Asian diasporas in the Caribbean. Originally, I was going to write about books on diaspora. There’s this book called “A Tale for the Time Being” that I was going to write about, which is about a Japanese American girl who goes back to Japan, and [it] sort of involves Asian American writing. However, my project changed a bit. But in general, it was a very fun experience to be her advisee because she was very good at guiding me even though she didn’t necessarily have the same background, like, this specific background. She was very good at guiding me and saying things like, “Oh, this is what you need to do next.” I think that it was helpful to have [a combination of] the experience of translating things [to my thesis advisor] and [the scope of knowledge] she had as an English professor. You can choose your advisor if you have a strong preference for an advisor and you know your area. For example, if you’re writing about performance art, or you’re writing about Victorian literature, you can probably find someone in the English Department who specializes in those areas and ask them to be your advisor. I didn’t do that because I wasn’t really sure about an advisor that had my specialty. But for the thesis defense, the way it works is you have your thesis advisor, and then you can choose the second person, who is someone that has a background that’s familiar. I chose [Assistant] Professor [of English in Film and Media Studies Joshua] Guilford because he has a background in film, which makes him familiar with all that stuff. Then you have a third person that you don’t choose at all and [who] doesn’t have any kind of familiarity with what you’re writing about. There’s a good balance of people who know where you’re coming from and what you’re talking about, and people who don’t have any background so you can explain it fully.

Q: What role did your thesis advisor play in helping you get your thesis done?

A: Well, I was a little floundering junior who came into the thesis process and was like, “I think I want to write about this but I don’t really know how to write a thesis.” She was very helpful and was like, “OK, now you read a lot of different novels in this area. So you have a background and now start getting theoretical pieces,” and like, “Here’s some theory that might be helpful,” and like, “Now you should write something, and I’ll give you notes about what you write.” She was very good at guiding me through the process and telling me what need[ed] to be done. She was also really helpful in giving me someone to talk about it with and to bounce ideas off. I had a lot of fun talking with her. Sometimes I went in with all these scattered ideas. She talk[ed] with me and I’d be like, “Oh, I never thought about it in that way.” She was a very good influence and guidance.

Q: Which kinds of audiences might be especially interested in reading your thesis?

A: In this imaginary land of scholars who would like to read, I would say East Asian scholars and Korean scholars, or [scholars] who are interested in talking about cinema. One [reason people may be interested is because of] what this film says about the historical period, and how this period is remembered or thought about in the contemporary moment, and what it says about colonial relationships. For example, the film features this central queer relationship between a Japanese woman and a Korean woman. [Scholars] talked a lot about “What does this relationship say?” and [that] it’s a very much like a feminist relationship because men in their lives are very abusive, and that it’s about solidarity. So they’re like, “What does this kind of relationship with solidarity mean about post-colonialism?” The colonial relations between Korea and Japan or that kind of thing and maybe more broad and political. They might be interested. I also think that there’s another angle because I really close-read the film and I also used all these other [devices]. I talked about the period using different concepts that come from literary theory and film theory. So there’s a historical perspective. Then there’s the perspective of film theorists who are like, “What does the male gaze look like in this film?”, “How do the images in this film work?”, “What is it?”, and “How is it working to produce a particular response in the audience to these particular scenes?” I think feminist film, like [the film] in this thesis, engages a lot with feminist film criticism and different theorists, so they might be interested in it from that perspective. I also think that I drew a lot on queer theory and, if anyone is interested in queer film, they’ll be really interested in this film and this thesis as well because that is a really big part of the film.

Q: You just finished your thesis defense. What was that like?

A: I was kind of nervous. I was like, “Oh, this is a big deal.” It’s a thesis defense. Also, I was a bit sick and had another presentation that day. I didn’t really prepare in depth. I just read my thesis again to familiarize myself with it. I’m not sure if there’s a ton of things you can do to prepare because it’s just a conversation between you and the professors that are assigned to read your thesis. The whole thing lasted about one hour. I talked with the professors for 40 minutes. Then, they asked me questions they had about my thesis. They wanted to hear more from me about aspects of my process or things I’d learned. I had the opportunity to ask them about my thesis or talk about more specific parts. Then they let me go and said, “You can leave the room now.” After that, they conferred amongst themselves. It was a nice experience.

Q: What aspects of the research process have been your favorites and least favorites so far? How did you resolve the problems?

A: I’ve really been able to explore different kinds of theory in a way I’ve been able to direct in. In the English department, sometimes they have you read theory, especially in the upper levels, you’re taking a 400-level course and that’s part of the course. I was taking all these courses that I would be curious about hearing about all these writers and things that are being mentioned. They really piqued my interest. I really enjoy being able to just have time on my own to go out and explore things that are related to this project and experiment with what it would look like if I applied this theory to my writing and incorporate it into my writing. Normally, when you write, say, a five-page English paper and have to get it in time, you’re like, “Oh, I have to write this” without having enough time to thoroughly research the background and other papers beforehand. I really enjoyed being able to have that time.

About the downsides of research, I wasn’t quite sure about the parameters of my project [at first]. I genuinely thought I want[ed] to write about this time period but I wasn’t really sure. How would I write about it? Or what perspective would I take on it? I didn’t like that as much because I was kind of floundering … But as it went on, it became a lot more fun because then, I narrowed the topic even more. I would drill down into specifics. Time-wise, I was really busy. I would have writer’s block or I wouldn’t have time to write. But the biggest thing that would help me is one, the deadlines. I’d be like, “Oh, you have to write now.” And two, sitting down to work on it even if I didn’t feel like [doing] it. The biggest problem for me is avoiding.

Q: What have you learned from some of the challenges or setbacks that you’ve had in doing your thesis?

A: That’s a good question. I learned that I can do it. If I have this big project that I commit to, and I set a plan for, and I have ideas about, I can complete that project. It’s very daunting when you start out and you think about just the finished product. But as you are working on it, it [gets] cut down to manageable things. Doing each of those things I can do, I can finish the whole thing. Also, what I thought I would write about and what I actually ended up writing were very different. I learned to trust my initial interests and instincts on what drew me to the thesis but also, to be open to two different ways of approaching [the issue].

Q: Is the thesis you’re working on relevant to your long-term career goals?

A: The next thing [after graduation] is, I’m going to go on a Fulbright grant to teach English in Taiwan for a year. I think it is [relevant to my long-term career goals] because working on this thesis made me really happy and I really enjoyed working on it. It showed me what I could do if I had an independent project. I [also] plan to go to graduate school. I would like to study English further. I think that it’s very related to my work on a thesis because it gave me a small preview of my future, that I could continue to do more of this in the future if I go to grad school.

Q: What advice would you provide to students thinking about doing a senior thesis in the future?

A: Well, it depends on the student. I don’t know how theses in different departments work. Not everyone has to do a thesis. For me, doing a thesis was about drawing on the things that I’ve studied throughout my career at Amherst in my own way and really taking control of where I want[ed] to go. For the thesis, instead of going into a classroom and having a classroom direct your learning and have it follow the directions of the professor, the thesis is the opportunity for you to take control of your own learning and see what you can do. I’d say, one, don’t feel pressured to do a thesis. It’s not like a prestige and you won’t make a break for a future career that you want with anything like [a senior thesis]. Two, it’s because you want to and because you have something that you really want to explore and really want to say. I think it’s a really fun experience. So it was for me. Start thinking about these things. It’s never too early to start thinking about what you want to do.