Underpinned by a postfeminist positioning, my thesis explores constructions of girlhood in twenty-first century Western culture. This largely hegemonic, and increasingly visual, space positions the adolescent female as a creature of great interest and anxiety, investing her – and her body – with an excess of expectation. Within this frame, YA literature serves as a cultural marker, an indication of the perceived shape of adolescence at any given time. Thus, while YA generally participates in the repetition and construction of hegemonic ideals, the YA fantasy of Tamora Pierce, Alison Croggon, Kristin Cashore and Marissa Meyer offers – through Secondary Worlds, magic and series – alternative spaces in which the binary oppositions that underpin Western Consensus Reality may be explored.
The first section focuses on appearance, and how, since the early 1990’s ‘Girl Power’ movement, appearance has been negotiated through a neoliberal narrative of choice – the adolescent girl may choose how to look, who to be. Additionally, the female adolescent’s (developing) body is constructed as both the source of her power and as something she must control. Analogously, there is an increased emphasis on self-surveillance, an emphasis that also coincides with narratives of individualism. Yet, while these narratives appeal to a sense of agency, the sheer homogeneity of appearance suggests a narrowing of options available to female adolescents. In order to read outside this positioning, I turn to the cross-dressed and shape-shifting bodies in the above YA fantasy, as these bodies not only illustrate the disadvantages of relying on superficial appearance to determine identity but also bodies that include instability within the body image.
Where the previous section focused on external appearance, this section focuses on sex and sexuality, largely internal processes, and on how such processes are made known through discourse. Despite the adolescent’s nascent sexuality, there is an absence of discourse around sexual practices – specifically around the adolescent girl taking ownership of her own pleasure. Instead, the discourses of mensuration and sex centre on the hygienic and the medicinal. However, YA fantasy, again, offers narrations in which menstrual blood is not always a topic of taboo, in which contraception is more than just keeping knees together, and in which pregnancy further illustrates the potential multiplicity of the female body. Adolescent sexuality becomes not monstrous but a source of power.
While issues surrounding the Internet pervade this thesis, the final section turns specifically to fandoms, to the virtual communities of cyberspace that often coalesce around YA texts. While I read YA fantasy as a discursive space in which hegemonic ideals of beauty and sexuality may be discussed in ways that move beyond the binary oppositions of Western patriarchy, the Internet and its concomitant online spaces offer an avenue through which adolescents may form communities of shared meaning that continue that subversion. It is the constructed nature of the online presence of the fan, often with only tenuous links to its ‘real’ world creator, as well as the construction of the fan communities, crossing racial, class and gender lines, that make this subversion possible. In this way, online communities formed around YA fantasy offer a further means of disrupting binarized, hegemonic ideals.
Dr Emma Francis
Dr Rachel Moseley