Heteronormativity and Homosexuality within Young Adult Literature

To start off my blog, a blog that will undoubtedly praise and worship at the feet of the young adult lit genre, I am writing a disclaimer of sorts. This disclaimer is to recognize that, like all literature, the YA genre does contain flaws. While many authors and pieces of fiction that I will talk on are champions for the minority, the underdog, the relegated, and the marginalized, some authors and works of fiction do contain qualities that discriminate and belittle specific identities.

To demonstrate my awareness and acknowledgment of this, I am including an essay that I wrote for my Women and Gender Studies class on heteronormativity and homosexuality within YA lit; an essay that will include many pieces of lit I loved reading. This is to demonstrate how I recognize and confront all aspects of my favourite genre, and to testify that I am not ignorant of the inequalities within popular culture.

Happy reading and welcome to WHY YA MATTERS!

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Literature, and fiction specifically, is a place many people, young and old, retreat to in an effort to escape the trials and taxes of everyday reality. As an ardent reader of the young adult genre of literature and as a student of WGST 1F90, I thought it would be interesting to further study some of my favourite novels and employ what WGST has taught me thus far. In my analysis, I will discuss how the young adult New York Times bestselling novels of Mortal Instruments: The City of Bones, Divergent, and The Hunger Games unwittingly endorse heteronormativity, homophobia and gender conforming behavior through the portrayal of women and the othering of homosexuality. Cassandra Clare, Veronica Roth and Suzanne Collins subliminally supply young adult readers, ages twelve to eighteen (Wendig 2012), with fictional worlds that promote gender roles based primarily in heterosexual identity. While examining the heterosexist protagonist relations, hegemonically masculine societal values and the emphasis placed on gender appropriate behavior, I will argue that these novels perpetuate and present sexual and gender inequality. I look forward to employing pleasure-critique nexus in an effort to recognize how deeply ingrained heterosexism and gender inequity is in pop culture and North American mainstream media.

Heteronormativity as delineated by Mann (2012) is the belief that heterosexual identity is normal, natural, and right. Normativity, defined as the conventional form of association, belonging, and identification, amassed with heterosexual behavior generates an othering in homosexuality. In turn, this expulsion of homosexuality makes way for homophobia; a heterosexual fear of/ discrimination against gay men and lesbian women. Homophobia enforces the idea that people who identify as homosexual are fundamentally different and in some cases sick/mentally unstable because of their violation of heteronormativity (Mann 2012). Mann’s queer feminist theory informs the endorsement of the heteronormativity, homophobia, and gender conforming behavior present in young adult literature through the intersectional chain reaction one concept has with another. The normativity that revolves around heterosexual YA literature is telling of the homophobia they covertly reinforce; the rarity of a YA novel centering in homosexuality is profound in this discussion of heteronormativity. As point of evidence, Cassandra Clare’s (2007) Mortal Instruments: City of Bones contains a passage that champions’ heteronormativity and homophobia;

“Why not?”

“Because I like someone else,” Simon said.

“Okay.” Simon looked faintly greenish, the way he had once when he’d broken his ankle playing soccer in the park and had had to limp home on it. She wondered what on earth about liking someone could possibly have him wound up to such a pitch of anxiety. “You’re not gay, are you?”

Simon’s greenish color deepened. “If I were, I would dress better.” (Clare, 39)

In this interaction, Clary deduces that the only reason Simon could be “faintly greenish” and “wound up to such a pitch of anxiety” is if he was ashamed of his homosexuality. Additionally, Clare writes her character to compare the shame of identifying as homosexual to the physical pain of a broken ankle. In response to this, Garcia (2013) recognizes the “harmful castigation that it is a problem if Simon is gay; it (the passage) reads more like an accusation or a mean spirited joke” (Garcia, 87). Mann outlines in her queer theory the paranoia that heteronormativity and homophobia instigate; research concluded that “fear of being called ‘fag’ in high school looms over nearly all boys and results in compulsive displays of masculinity, aggression, and violence against girls” (Mann 2012). Furthermore, Simon casts his own cliché understanding of what homosexuality exhibits, and claims that if he was gay, he would “dress better,”(Clare, 39) causing readers to believe that if you like men, you’ll miraculously begin to dress in a specific manner. Garcia testifies that heteronormativity is broadened in young adult literature through the “pejorative assumptions about LGBTQI behavior” and in this, challenges the perceptions of homosexuality being “abnormally different” (Garcia 87).

As heteronormativity and homophobia intersect in observation of Clare’s Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, so does heterosexuality and gender conforming/non-conforming behavior in Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games (2008). Kane (2013) establishes that gender non-conforming/conforming behavior is based on the actions and decisions made which coincide with what is socially viewed as appropriately acceptable, evidentially in cause of gender being culturally constructed. Moreover, Messner (2013) assists in clarifying the subject of gender behavior and performance with his proposal that “each of us actively scripted our own sexual and gender performances, but these scripts were constructed within the constraints of a socially organized (institutionalized system of power and pleasure” (Messner, 195). By acknowledging gender performance as being representative of ‘institutionalized systems of power’ it is understood why gender conforming behavior is demanded of the character Katniss.  In Hunger Games, Collin’s heterosexual protagonist Katniss spends more time being groomed and primed for audiences than she is prepared for the carnage she will reap in the arena. She is only praised by Effie when she conforms to her gender, and the majority of their interactions are spent with Effie berating Katniss about her lacking of feminine wiles; her smile, her ability to walk in heels, and her tendency to glare (Collins, 115).  For Effie, it is clear that the stress she contains over Katniss is found in her fear that if she does not act like the lady the Capital (institution of power) demands, she will not receive assistance from sponsors when she enters the bloodbath of the arena because she has not impressed them. The importance in this, is that Katniss’s favorability is dependent upon gender constructions: she is a female, so she must be pretty and banal and submissive. It is a ludacris concept in The Hunger Games because once the tributes are placed in the arena, appropriate gender behaviors are eradicated when they all try to kill one another.

In Roth’s (2011) Divergent, the dystopian city of Chicago is separated into five factions; Amity (the peaceful), Erudite (the intelligent), Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless) and Dauntless (the brave). Characters in the novel are born into their family’s faction, and then on their sixteenth birthday are granted the opportunity to either stay in their faction of birth, or leave and acquire the attributes of a faction of their own choosing. The protagonist of the novel, Tris, decides to leave her original faction and join Dauntless, a faction that is very much exemplar of hegemonic masculinity. Predominantly lead by male figures, the people who belong to Dauntless are defined by characters in the books as “Hellions… pierced, tattooed, and black clothed. Their primary purpose is to guard the fence that surrounds our city” (Roth, 7). Although Roth initially provides her readers with a superficial representation of strength and bravery in the attire of the Dauntless faction, her protagonist quickly learns that her own value will be determined in her ability to physically fight another person. Connell (2013) defines hegemonic masculinity as “a position of cultural authority and leadership (and) an expression of the privilege men collectively have over women” (Connell, 171). Hegemonic masculinity is portrayed in the text through the strength that most men contain over most women; a natural privilege that they possess and in Divergent, exploit. As Roth establishes, the brute strength of a person is determinative of their worth in the faction and as Tris experiences, it is her lack of physical strength that makes her a target of her fellow initiates. In order to evaluate them, the initiates undergo a training regime that mentally assesses their bravery in the face of their deepest fears, and pits them physically against one another.  Tris, primarily ranked lower in the physical aspect of training, succeeds in the simulations that test her mental endurance. However, as Tris surpasses the men in her group she is viewed in direct violation of the concept of the commandments of mars. A behavior that some men exhibit, the commandments of mars subsist off the need to “dominate to control, succeed at any cost, fight the female (and) protect the male image and ego” (J. Janke, personal communication, October 21st, 2014). It is an ideology that takes the power away from one group of people, and gives it to another, assisting in furthering gender inequity and homophobia. The commandments of mars is representative in the behavior of the men who, in an effort to remove Tris from the training program, blindfold and attack her three to one;

“… Then someone grabs me from behind. I start to scream, but a hand claps over my mouth. It smells like soap and it’s big enough to cover the lower half of my face. I thrash but the arms holding me are too strong, and I bite down on one of the fingers….A strip of dark cloth covers my eyes… I struggle to breathe. There are at least two hands on my arms, dragging me forward, and one on my back, shoving me in the same direction, and one in my mouth, keeping the screams in. Three people. My chest hurts. I can’t resist three people on my own… A heavy hand gropes along my chest.

‘You sure you’re sixteen? Doesn’t feel like you’re more than twelve.’

The other boys laugh. ‘Wait I think I found something!’ His hand squeezes me.”(Roth, 277).

In Roth’s text, gender inequity is demonstrated as derivative of the commandments of mars; the men “fight the female” “protect their image and ego” and “succeed at any cost” in the sexual assault and attempted murder of the protagonist. In sexually assaulting her, hegemonic masculinity is found in the privilege that the men feel is their right to take ownership over Tris’s body and touch her without her consent. However, this behavior is not without a toll on the men who exhibit it, and we see an example of this in the desolate demeanor of one of the adversaries who assaulted the protagonist;

“I won’t hurt you. I never wanted to…’ Al covers his face with both hands. ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I… please forgive me, please…’

My Body feels rigid and cold, and I am not angry, I am not hurt, I am nothing.

‘Never come near me again. If you do, I swear to God I will kill you,’ I say. ‘You coward.” (Roth, 300).

While hegemonic masculinity and gender inequity is present in the text, it is also challenged and fought by Roth’s Tris in the agency she reclaims over her own body, much to the delight of a feminist reader.

 Mann’s queer feminist theory advises my thesis because it recognizes the domino effect one concept has with another; heteronormativity clashes with homosexuality and initiates socially appropriate gender behavior. Heteronormativity and non-conforming gender behavior cause homophobia and enforce hegemonic masculinity for fear of social ostracism. When speaking on heteronormativity and homosexuality in YA literature, an important characteristic to note of Clare’s City of Bones, Collins’ The Hunger Games, and Roth’s Divergent is their print to screen adaptations, and how when mainstream media intervened, the slightest reference to homosexuality was removed and ignored in cinematic reproductions. Heteronormativity is perpetuated, as Garcia says, “through suppression of LGBTQI presence within novels” (87), and when this same suppression is applied in wide scale multimillion dollar screen portrayals, the normalizing reach of heterosexuality is extended.  Hall advocates that “the establishment of normalcy (i.e, what is accepted as ‘normal’ through social-and stereo-types is one aspect of the habit of ruling groups… to attempt to fashion the whole of society according to their own world view, value system, sensibility and ideology” (Hall, 229). The ruling group in most cases consists of the white, androcentric, heterosexual people of an elevated class structure, and it is these people who dictate and approve how reproductions will be established, and which identities will be ignored.

The topic of the sexual and gender inequalities in young adult literature is relevant to social change because literature, and art in general, is illustrative of the shared human experience. Art is inspired by the interrelations of all facets of life and humanity, and social change cannot come about unless transformation is made throughout every aspect of the working definition of life. Young adult literature is a source of both safety and pleasure for innumerous people, and written stories stay with a person long after they are read. For social change, literature, as well as people, must become aware and recognizing of the socially constructed gendered spheres that we occupy, in order to begin to step outside of them. Literature holds this responsibility because it is representative of the time and culture in which it was written. Literature and art withstands time, and are beacons of reference to refer to in times of trial. While I believe that authors do not have to contain this social responsibility in their writings, I do believe that in order to be relevant and to contribute to the health of society, all identities, genders, and sexualities must be considered with the appropriate respect and acknowledgement. This is why the topic of heteronormativity and homosexuality in young adult literature is important.

 

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9 thoughts on “Heteronormativity and Homosexuality within Young Adult Literature

  1. Mackenzie, great article.

    I appreciated this : “Literature holds this responsibility because it is representative of the time and culture in which it was written. ” That was a good point.

    You added a new word to my vocabulary: Heteronormativity . Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m really excited to read more of your content! You touch on some really important points in your essay. I just wanted to ask you of what you make of the fact that many of the YA novels that endorse homophobia, heteronormativity, and traditional gender roles are the novels that become pop culture icons? Is it a coincidence that most novel to movie adaptations of YA novels endorse these problematic views?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely don’t think its a coincidence! Alot of the time the YA books that are selected for movie adaptations are chosen so because they are easy to recreate, they are easy to appeal to. I feel like, unfortunately, novels that confront heteronormativity and homophobia are the ones that producers and directors are daunted by. Which is a shame, it goes to show how far entrenched heteronormativity is within popular culture. And, like I mentioned in my essay, books that producers are interested in adapting into movies, but that which deal slightly with LGBTQ issues, are the ones that face a complete rehaul in plot and character identity. In Roth’s Divergent, there is a LGBTQ relationship but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from what the movie depicted.

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  3. An interesting piece, very well written and structurally composed. These were good pieces to choose from, the popularity of these series with youth audiences will help draw more attention to your blog and, subsequently, the issues you bring up in it. I feel that this is quite a broad topic in and of itself and can span multiple posts. I’m curious as to whether you will touch upon other works that deal more directly with this issue in alternative and possibly more obscure YA works.

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  4. Interesting post; unfortunately as you’ve said cultural productions are a product of the time and place that they were created, and are thus filled with the biases and other issues inherent to the time and place. I’m not sure what can be done to move past this, but I unfortunately think it’s something that’s going to take time, more time than we’d like. It will be interesting to see the world in the years to come and how it changes, this much is sure.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Um………I know this may sound sacrilegious coming from an English Professor, but could you give a brief summary of the your paper on heteronormativity/homosexuality at the start for those of us who are pressed for time and can’t read the whole thing right now?

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    1. To summarize the essay, Professor Danahay, my writing revolves around the topic of heteronormativity and homosexuality within the genre of young adult literature. I begin with this essay because my blog is one that will here after be a champion of sorts for the YA genre and all intersections said genre has with popular culture. This is to make aware that I am not ignorant to the flaws within YA lit, those being the unconscious or conscious conditioning of heteronormativity and homophobia in readers. I examine three popular works of YA fiction, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games, and Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, and employ pleasure critique nexus in an effort to reveal just how entrenched heteronormativity and homophobia is in popular culture.

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