Originally presented at the Young Adult Studies Association online conference, November 2022.
Transcript: Hello YASA, wherever you are in the world! My name is Alex, and I’m recording today from Ngunnawal country. In this paper I’ll be presenting some work from my recently submitted doctoral thesis, which examined non-binary representation in YA through the lens of mythology-inspired fantasy. Specifically, today I’m going to talk about an issue that crops up when representing groups like non-binary people in fantasy, or other speculative fiction: the idea of the non-human non-binary character. This potentially dallies with a lot of negative conceptions, but I argue it’s also potentially a very playful space to explore gender identity outside of the confines of contemporary realism.
I like to think I have a fairly varied palette when it comes to my anime tastes: a genre charcuterie board with some fantasy here, some meaningful coming-of-age stories there, and a peppering of rom-coms seasoned just right. There’s one category, though, that I always find myself savoring and looking forward to each season. If there’s a cast of funny teen girls trying out a new hobby, be it animation, camping, playing guitar, or building a treehouse, I’m there.
But why does this genre have such a gravitational pull? I could answer, simply and truthfully, that we live in stressful times and these shows are often very relaxing. But upon deeper consideration, there’s something else about these girls’ hobby shows that makes my heart happy, and it’s happening more on the level of character construction and development.
I have a new scholarly paper out, free to read in the International Journal of Young Adult Literature! This scoops up and lays out a bunch of my thesis data, representing a lot of research work. Check it out if you’re interested!
Non-binary gender is a marginalised queer identity increasingly receiving mainstream media representation, a subject that warrants investigation. Non-binary is an umbrella term under which many experiences of gender fall, a factor that necessitates a nuanced variety of narrative representations to avoid perpetuating or creating static and singular archetypes. This article examines a sample of young adult novels with non-binary protagonists published between 2017 and 2020, exploring the various ways these texts express and explore their central characters’ gender identity. My findings reveal thematic commonalities between these novels, with particular focus on the language used to describe these characters’ felt sense of gender, their experiences with dysphoria/euphoria, their relationships to broader queer communities within their story worlds, and the intersections of queer gender and speculative elements. I argue that this subset we might call ‘non-binary YA’ serves as an emblem of the development of queer YA overall, its rapid expansion through various genres and narrative types providing a microcosm of the growth of the literary field and pointing to its future.
This post contains major spoilers for the end of Gideon the Ninth and the whole of Harrow the Ninth, and minor spoilers for The Dawnhounds.
If I had a ten-cent coin for every New Zealand sci-fi/fantasy novel that killed off its sapphic main character only to bring her back to life through cool worldbuilding and thematically resonant means… well, I’d only have twenty cents, but it’s neat that it’s happened more than once.
We all know the trope—the cliché even—of the tragic queer character. “Bury Your Gays” is part of most people’s fandom lingo even if they’re not familiar with its broader media history. Whether due to censorship regulations, underlying homophobia on the writers’ part, or otherwise well-meaning creatives stumbling into familiar patterns, there’s a long, established literary history of killin’ off the non-heterosexuals. This makes every story that doesn’t do this refreshing, of course. But on a deeper level, it also makes room for stories that engage with this trope through genre fiction: drawing the reader’s eye to the familiar pattern playing out, and then ultimately rejecting it for maximum thematic satisfaction.
Watch along for a dip into some of my research on the different ways writers can use POV—first-person, close third-person, or the “voice of god” omniscient third-person—to tell different kinds of queer stories and affirm the identities of their non-binary characters in different ways. I use a small sample of recent YA novels as examples, and even talk a little about my own novel manuscript 👀
Please also enjoy my cowboy shirt, the way my glasses sometimes go fully white in the sunshine like an anime character, and the dorky eye-catching thumbnail I made.
Originally presented, virtually, at the Australian Children’s Literature Association for Research conference, 1st July 2022.
There’s something a little bit queer about Spy x Family. It’s not what we would normally shelve as LGBTQIA+ media by any means—none of the characters, for example, seem canonically queer, or even coded as such. But a story can have queer themes even if it doesn’t have queer representation, and can be open to queer readings even if it doesn’t directly acknowledge any queer issues within its narrative or any of its narrative framings.
There’s something about SpyFam’s tale of traumatized outcasts navigating a strict and normative world, where their fates depend on them adequately performing the roles of a nuclear family… something about that resonates with queer theory and queer experience, and it makes the series a great example of how we can apply these theories to narratives that might not be at all queer on the surface.
When you hear the phrase universal themes, what comes to mind? This is a topic that’s been on my brain recently, in part due to my literary research and in part due to something I came across while I was procrastinating my literary research. Pixar’s new movie, Turning Red, dropped on Disney+ this month and has naturally been in the news and in pop culture discussion. CinemaBlend’s managing director Sean O’Connell sparked quite a bit of conversation when, in an early review, he criticised the movie for being “unrelatable”. This review has since been deleted, but its essence is helpfully preserved by articles like this one:
“I recognized the humor in the film, but connected with none of it. By rooting ‘Turning Red’ very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto, the film legitimately feels like it was made for [director] Domee Shi’s friends and immediate family members,” O’Connell wrote in the since-pulled review. “Which is fine — but also, a tad limiting in its scope.”
Now, I’m not here today to take apart O’Connell and his argument—the Internet at large has already done that plenty. Instead, I want to use this review as a jumping-off point to unpack this idea of a “universal narrative” in kids’ media. Because in his professionally-published knee-jerk reactions to this film, O’Connell has usefully highlighted some dominant, persistent perceptions at the heart of discussions about diverse media. These are:
Stories that step beyond the mainstream “universal” perspective are “niche” and “limited in scope”
Stories that step beyond the mainstream “universal” perspective must be educational to close this gap
I’ll be using a lot of “air quotes” (though not scare quotes, I hope) in this post because I really want to dig into the constructed nature of these ideas. The idea of a “universal narrative”, or, to be even more specific, the idea of a universal coming-of-age narrative or universal story about childhood, is not something that formed in a vacuum. While the notion of universal tropes or experiences that every viewer can relate to might not sound like anything insidious—surely it sounds inclusive!—it’s one that often ends up framing and stifling conversations about storytelling. When O’Connell talks about universality, what is he picturing? Maybe more to the point, what is he not picturing? And what can his expectations tell us about broader trends in storytelling and reader reception?
In Iso Mitsuo’s newest sci-fi, The Orbital Children, the heroes are faced with a cosmic conundrum: they are asked, “is it worth sacrificing the few for the needs of the many?” The heroes of The Orbital Children unilaterally say “no”.
This ambitious, colorful sci-fi story takes place in space, yet deals with themes that are strikingly down to earth. The narrative draws on very real, very present, and very dangerous ideologies like the myth of overpopulation and the way fascist groups weaponize notions of “the greater good” and environmentalism. It positions these ideas as a villainous mindset that must be overcome, not only to save the world, but in order to imagine a better future in the first place.
The rules of the romantic comedy are simple and easy to learn, especially when you’re in love with the concept of love… but what if you’re an LGBTQIA+ teenager and this formula has historically cut you out? Well, you have to tweak those rules to make your own.