Representations of femininity and masculinity in Young Adult dystopian fiction

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


In Young Adult dystopian fiction published between 2008 and 2014, a trend developed of showcasing the heroines’ hard-won victories. These young women reject submissive femininity and adopt a way of being female that embraces both femininity and masculinity. Scholars have welcomed these representations of young women in Young Adult fiction. Lauded in the popular imagination and in critical analysis, these heroines seem to challenge patriarchal norms. However, if we look more closely, in the empowered girl’s wake, we find boys floundering at the edges of the narrative. Scholars who have addressed the male characters in these texts have focused on the relationship the young men have with the female first-person narrator. I argue for a nuanced approach to narratives featuring empowered female characters that also address the construction of young men in young adult fiction.
The thesis explores the fictional representations or constructions of the young female and male characters in the texts I have selected—The Hunger Games (Collins, 2008–2010), Divergent (Roth, 2011–2014), and Chaos Walking (Ness, 2008–2010) series. It explores these representations in relation to the representations of the fictional young female characters, their parents (particularly their mothers), other males, and the political, cultural, and social elements of the dystopian landscapes. I analyse the series in terms of the pressures on and costs to both the heroine figure and her male companion of mixing a trope of empowered girlhood with the generic demands of dystopian fiction set within an abusive patriarchal system and with the modal pressures of heteronormative romance. Ultimately, both male and female protagonists are constrained by their enmeshment in patriarchal systems.
In the thesis, I draw connections between the literary representation of young women and young men in the texts I have selected and the “real world” narrative of boys-in-crisis. In The Hunger Games and Divergent, the young women, as empowered girl-shaped spaces, discredit the young men but also negate the mother-son relationship. They pose a threat, real or perceived, as first-person narrators and principal actors with the largest share of power. Young women’s empowerment is not challenged by the narrative and “real world” hegemonic postfeminist discourse. In response to the perceived female threat, the young men often exhibit a violent hypermasculinity, partly because of the dystopian conditions in which they find themselves. In Chaos Walking, the male first-person narrator is deeply reliant on his female companion, who also represents a pseudo-maternal figure for him, able to unlock the secrets of his world. In so doing, she, too, problematises the representative violent hypermasculinity of their dystopian world. These representations of wounded and dangerous young males may add fuel to the real-world boys-in-crisis narrative which surfaced in the early 1990s. The boy-in-crisis narrative suggests that young men are violent, risk-takers, who have suicidal tendencies, are substance-dependent, disruptive at school and have literacy difficulties. Like the young men in the fictional series, they exhibit “toxic masculinity,” a recently identified term used to describe young men who enact a violent hypermasculinity. Scholarly discourse about men and masculinity continues to express concern about the representation of young men in the public domain and Young Adult fiction. There are far-reaching implications for applauding female protagonists’ actions, often themselves violent, in the context of the ongoing boys-in-crisis narrative; the literary construction of wounded and violent boys may negatively impact upon valid ways for boys to express masculinity.
I draw on Judith Butler’s and Julia Kristeva’s theories on gender and the maternal to explore the construction of young men and women, and the relationships between young adults and their parents, particularly mothers, in the series. I combine Butler’s and Kristeva’s theories of subjectivity with prominent scholarly discussions of femininity and masculinity. By combining elements of postmodernist and modernist thought, the thesis contributes to an understanding of the representation of young adult characters in these novels.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Charles Sturt University
  • Bacchus, Ruth, Principal Supervisor
  • Macleod, Mark, Principal Supervisor
  • Wallace, Joy, Co-Supervisor
Publication statusPublished - 23 May 2023


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