Content warning: discussions of transphobia, dysphoria; brief mentions of self-mutilation and surgery
It’s a beautiful day in March, 2023. The morning air is crisp, shimmering in between summer and autumn. The sun’s rays melt through a low-lying mist, lighting the world in smudges of gold, as if on the edge of a dream.
It is two years since the anime season of Winter 2021, when a certain series called Wonder Egg Priority aired.
And I’m still thinking about it.
God damn it, I’m still thinking about it. C’mere. Get comfy. Can I get you a cup of tea?
LGBTQIA+ characters (and their quests for love) are increasingly appearing in YA fiction, and more specifically in YA romantic comedies. The rom-com, particularly in its most mainstream and familiar Hollywood form, has long been rooted in heteronormativity, in so far as it rarely deviates from or offers any substantive variation of the boy-meets-girl model of romantic love. This is something that adolescent readers will surely be aware of. Likewise, many marginalised young adult protagonists are characterised by an awareness of these same conventions, thus placed by their authors in a metatextual conversation with the very genre they inhabit.
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.
Not properly, not for good—just literally running, along the scraggly stretch of beach below her family’s house.
The water is blue as far as her eyes can see, as much as her chest can hold when she breathes it in. She does this a lot—running. She likes her brain best when it’s almost quiet.
Halcyon House looms over her the whole run back, all white with a steep-gabled roof and rows of windows like empty eye sockets. Its faded face peers towards the edge of the cliff, casting soft shadows over the sand and sea. Cinnamon used to think that Halcyon stretched towards the ocean the way plants do the sun. Or as though determined to drown itself and everyone in it.
Premise: The Prince family has been notorious for generations, from rockstar dad Ian and his mental breakdown to great-aunt Sadie who “went mad” and mysteriously vanished in the ‘60s. Teenaged sisters Cinnamon and Scarlett have their own issues, and must confront the haphazard state of their family relationships when they all end up home for the summer holidays. When a storm cracks open a headstone in the family graveyard, questions left buried for half a century are suddenly brought back to the light. Is piecing together the Prince clan’s past the key to a more liveable future?
Rainbow rep: a bisexual protagonist (Cinnamon); an f/f romantic subplot (with another bisexual character, no less!); gay side characters/ensemble cast
Content considerations: depictions of panic attacks and anxiety; depression; anger issues; discussions of the stigma around mental health; brief discussions of suicide ideation
What in the world is a marketing demographic? They’re something that often seems so simple, so based in real-life logic about how humans grow and experience things, that sometimes you can forget how constructed they are. And how much our idea of what is suitable for a demographic of young people—or, even what a young person is—can vary from person to person, publisher’s office to publisher’s office. Where are those lines drawn, and who is holding the pen? Is it authors? Is it agents? Is it marketing departments? Is it a confusing disaster with no concrete answer??
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.
So, what does the world of YA with LGBTQIA+ protagonists look like in my own backyard? Here are some examples I enjoyed from my recent reading! I’m always looking for more, so if you have any other recommendations, please do drop them in the comments!
I need to be rational, but in the darkness it’s easy to conclude that whatever spell I’ve surfaced from is supernatural. Out in the woods, with nothing but the steam of my own breath and the mournful plea of the loons off the lake, phantoms feel material.
This doesn’t scare me. I don’t fear the dark. I know the dark, and it knows me. Within it, I’m safe from the sun’s lovely illusions. I know what I’ve always known: that the monsters worth fearing are the ones that are dangerous enough to hide in daylight.
Premise: when Mars’ twin sister, Caroline, suddenly dies under horrifying circumstances, he suspects foul play. He suspects most of all that it has something to do with Aspen Summer Academy, the prestigious summer camp Caroline had been attending—the camp Mars had to leave behind after vicious bullying. No one believes Mars when he says so, but there’s something truly eerie about Aspen’s sun-drenched meadows and idyllic log cabins. What dark secrets lie behind the camp’s cheery exterior? What violence is being hidden and excused under the banner of tradition? And… what’s that buzzing sound?
Rainbow rep: a genderfluid protagonist; binary gender roles and expectations played for horror (note: in the book, it’s stated that Mars is fine with any pronouns and shifts between them all the time. For the purposes of this post, I’m following the marketing copy and using he/him)
Content considerations: supernatural body horror; violence and injuries described in gnarly detail; systemic misogyny; toxic masculinity; bullying; implied/off-page sexual violence against side characters
Summer camps seem like a perfect horror setting. To me, personally—a kid prone to homesickness, frequently bullied, and decidedly bad at sports—staying in the middle of the countryside with a bunch of strange children doing outdoor activities for eight weeks already sounds like a nightmare scenario long before Jason Voorhees walks out of the lake with a big knife.
‘I think—aside from the adrenaline rush and vicarious feeling of surviving something just like the characters after you’ve watched a scary movie—I think I love horror so much because the whole world can be one big scary place, and especially for women, right?’ Riya carelessly flicks her plait, and brushes stray curls away from her face—something I’m beginning to notice she does when she’s excited. ‘But there’s something freeing about choosing to walk into a dark cinema and be scared. To take control and let yourself be frightened, to give yourself over to it. Because we don’t get a lot of say in what happens to us in the real world and the times we’re scared when we don’t want to be. Because there’s some creep on a train brushing up against you, or some perv at a party who thinks you being wasted is a free pass…’
In my head I think, Or some adults who think fear is entertainment, that your vulnerability is their authentic vision brought to life.
Riya continues, ‘But choosing fear? In a controlled environment, where the stories can push us to think about what we’d do in that situation—especially when most of the time the hero in a horror film is a woman—that’s amazing! That’s powerful.’
Premise: Ellie Marsden’s grandmother is the (in)famous Lottie Lovinger, who made her screen debut as a cricket-bat-wielding, mini-shorts-wearing Final Girl in a ‘70s slasher movie and has been an undisputed scream queen ever since. Once, Ellie wanted to follow in her footsteps, but her one experience as a child actor left her traumatised—and estranged from Lottie, who let the on-set abuse happen. But when Lottie has a stroke, Ellie must return home and reckon with her complicated relationship with the Lovinger family legacy. Was Lottie a heroine, or a monster? Can a person be both at once?
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.