Alicia Swiz is a feminist. She’s also a writer, a performer, and an educator who uses her various platforms to initiate conversations about women’s issues, intersectionality, and the representation of gender in media. Now, thanks to her recently released online course, potential students don’t have to be enrolled in college to learn from her.
After receiving her master’s degree in women’s and gender studies from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Swiz began teaching at Alamance Community College in Graham, North Carolina. In 2010, she moved to Chicago intending to find more opportunities to perform and to explore more creative ways to create dialogues about issues related to gender.
Since then, Swiz has become an important figure in the Chicago feminist community. Her writing has been featured in a number of local outlets, including a roundtable discussion on the importance of intersectionality in feminism for the Reader. She’s also the cofounder of Chicago’s local chapter of Shout Your Abortion, a network created to empower people to share their experiences with abortion, and the creator of SlutTalk, an organization that raises awareness of slut shaming and encourages sex positivity through performances, workshops, and social media.
Chicago-based writer Britt has collaborated with Swiz on her monthly Feminist Happy Hour events, live showcases that amplify the voices of women, femmes, and nonbinary performers in comedy. says she admires Swiz’s strength in her convictions and the way she doesn’t leave any topic off the table. “Alicia Swiz’s deft ability to combine feminism, education, and pop culture her one of the most important cultural figures in Chicago,” she says. “Alicia will never conform to other people’s expectations of what she should do in her work and she is never afraid to alienate audiences, something I admire as a writer and frequent guest performer on her programs.”
Shortly after moving to Chicago, Swiz began working as an adjunct professor at Harold Washington College, where she teaches courses on media and pop culture, explored through a feminist lens. “I like looking at mainstream media, that most of us have access to, just because of the way it works in our culture,” she says. “I like exploring that as a way of teaching people to think about gender critically.” Many of her friends and followers have told her they’d like to take her classes but are unable to, as they are not Harold Washington students.
Now, Swiz is expanding her accessibility as an educator and reaching beyond the scope of her classroom through her newly released online course, Intro to Gender and Media. The course consists of readings, recommended media, and online video lectures. It’s available for purchase for $97 through her website, aliciaswiz.com. Anyone can sign up to take it regardless of whether they are enrolled at a college or university.
Swiz’s decision to expand her visibility as an educator comes alongside her decision to expand her brand to cities around the country in the near future. “My plan is not so much to relocate but to not be tied to a specific location, personally. I want to take the work I’ve started in Chicago to different cities and communities—particularly the live events that I host. The online classes are a way for me to create financial sustainability so that I may be able to continue to do feminist work and events long term,” she says.
Although the contents of the course are introductory, Swiz says it is generally aimed at people who are already asking questions and engaging in discussions about gender and media. “I tried to cover a brief, focused history of the way our media is constructed in terms of power dynamics because I think that’s a big piece of the puzzle that people really aren’t consciously aware of when they’re watching or interacting with media,” she says.
The course is intended to provide insight into theories of media, notably the cultivation theory, an idea developed by professor George Gerbner. “Cultivation theory argues that the media has become our primary storyteller,” Swiz explains. “We’ve moved away from stories that come from church, or school or our families that have been passed down in our lineage. We now turn to television and the stories that are created by the news media to help construct our view of the world. I use cultivation theory to talk about how the media cultivates gender roles specifically, but I also look at the intersections of race and class.”
Even from the other side of a screen, Swiz is a dynamic and accessible teacher. Her video lectures that highlight themes from the course’s assigned readings aren’t necessarily flashy, but her approachable yet strong demeanor and passion for the topic make it clear that creating a genuine connection between herself, the course material and her virtual students is a priority for her. “I can’t wait to your experiences and what kind of insights you’re having,” she says in the introduction video. “I hope to get to know all of you through this.” She also makes a point to consistently emphasize the importance of intersectionality and asks her white viewers to keep the privileges of their skin color in mind as they explore the topics of the course.
Swiz is working toward making the class more interactive so that students can engage in discussion-based learning, including a live chat component. Currently, students can upload questions about the course through Dropbox.
Since Swiz released the course on May 7, five people have signed up. One student is Omar Manejwala, an internationally known addiction doctor who was featured on 20/20 to analyze the show’s interview with Charlie Sheen, who signed up for the course out of interest. Manejwala says that although he feels well versed in topics related to oppression, the experience has been eye-opening for him as a man who had never taken anything resembling a women’s studies course. “I found myself angry, scared and even confused at times, forcing myself to revisit the films of my youth with a new perspective. It’s gut-wrenching to go back through these movies and see the bias, manipulation, and perpetuation of stigmatizing and shame-based roles,” he says.
Manejwala also acknowledges the course’s challenges: “Alicia’s vitriol at times in delivering the material can be hard to watch, but I pushed through knowing that my experience watching these lectures is nothing compared to having to grow up in a media environment where nearly everything is infuriating in its dismissive approach to my gender.”
As more students enroll in the course, Swiz hopes the engagement they have with its topics will successfully support her goal of creating dialogues about gender representation both inside and outside of her virtual classroom. “I’ve always been a huge advocate of people becoming more critical thinkers of media. It’s just something I’ve struggled with how to do on different platforms,” she says. “I hope this will inspire other educators and I hope it will inspire people who have access to large media to support education like this.”
Swiz plans to develop more classes in the future that will continue the conversation on gender. One particular course is intended for students who might be unsure about their identity as feminists, called Finding Your Feminism. “It’s going to be a collection of different feminist theorists and feminist authors from all different disciplines who maybe identify as feminist, humanist, or other realms, to invite people who sort of don’t know a lot about feminism or don’t think feminism is aligned with them and their values to explore a variety of writers,” she says.
Although Swiz’s platform is wide reaching, she’s used to dealing with detraction, particularly from men in her community college classes who question the need to look at media through a feminist lens. “I have to continue to reestablish that this is a discourse that’s been silenced in our education system, that hasn’t been a part of mainstream media,” she says about responding to dissent. “Women’s stories, LGBTQ stories, trans stories, those are not the stories at the center of any of our media ever. That’s just fact. So when you invite dialogue about this, people feel resistant to it because it’s not the norm.”