Reviews 2009

Death, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Adolescent Literature

Death, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Adolescent Literature. Kathryn James. New York and London: Routledge. 2009. 179 pages. £65 (hardback).

Kathryn James’s study of the ways in which death is gendered and sexualised in literature for adolescents has its roots in Roberta Seelinger Trites’s seminal study of adolescent fiction, Disturbing the Universe. Trites identified the centrality of death and sexuality in understanding how discourses of power function in works for adolescents. She argued that when teenagers recognise their own mortality and/or become sexually active, they are also negotiating forms of power that are typically considered adult. Although Trites acknowledges points of connection between death and sexuality, Disturbing the Universe treats these topics separately. James’s study accepts Trites’s premises and develops her argument by uncovering the ways in which gender and sex/uality are intimately linked in the discourse about death. Her motivations are clear:

representations of death in children’s fiction can provide an unusually clear opportunity to understand some of the ways in which meaning is created and shared within a society. For one, any critical study of a culture’s approaches and responses to death can expose some of the most fundamental features of its social life [...] Secondly, children’s literature may reflect these values with special clarity, [...] because of the vigilance with which it is monitored. (James 2)

Gender and sexuality thus form the “lens” for examining representations of death (4). James seeks to expose what the discourse surrounding death reveals about society’s attitudes towards adolescents’ gender and sexuality. Implicitly, James positions herself to be critical of how youngsters are socialised into adulthood as she comments on the ways in which teenagers who do not fall within proscribed norms are often rendered deviant by the text. She does not, however, set out to suggest alternatives.

In fiction for young readers, James argues, death is always presented with a mind to the text’s possible educational value. This approach has also dominated critical responses to literary portrayals of death: most critics focus on the possible bibliotherapeutic value of books and overlook the cultural and social significance of death, which interests James. She suggests that the characters in the fictional works she examines do not know how to live until they are confronted with death. Thus death can provide a means of communicating with young people about how life can be lived, and this is where the topic of death becomes linked to gender and sexuality.

James’s study embraces some ninety works of literature for adolescents, approximately half of which are discussed in detail in the later chapters of the book. These detailed discussions do not assume that the reader is familiar with all the predominantly Australian novels, and so James provides extensive glosses. When I was unfamiliar with the primary source, I found this helpful, but much to her credit, even when I knew the primary source well, I did not find her glosses tedious.

The individual analyses of the various works are all detailed, thoughtful and thought-provoking. However, there were times when I felt James showed a distinct lack of confidence which, I suspect, can be traced back to the book’s origins as a doctoral dissertation. It is evident in the reverence with which she treats earlier scholarly traditions. For instance, her uncritical acceptance of Freudian views seems decidedly at odds with her other concerns. Most of the time, she presents a strongly feminist stance, and her discussions of the massacres of Australian Aboriginals show familiarity with post-colonial theorising, yet her psychoanalytical readings show no signs of awareness of how feminist and postcolonial scholars have questioned the Freudian worldview.

The study’s origins as a dissertation is even more evident in the organisation of the material. Instead of briefly outlining the skeleton of her argument and then filling in the details as she works through her primary materials, thereby creating a conversation between her primary and secondary sources, James spends the first of her five main chapters ‘reviewing the literature’, and does not include an analysis of a single novel. As a result, the first novel analysed in the study, Melissa Lucashenco’s Killing Darcy, is not mentioned until page 36, one fifth of the way into the study. From this point onwards, James’s text is structured around thorough discussions of individual works which would have benefitted from more overt commentary on how they relate to her overall argument.

After the theoretical discussion of the nature of death and James’s methodologies, the chapters are arranged in terms of genre. Chapter Two focuses on historical literature examining the role of death in the process of nation building as she examines various character types who are valorised within Australian literature: the Aborigine, the Anzac soldier, the convict and the bush ranger. Her thesis is that the cultural myths surrounding the deaths of these iconic figures result in localised (i.e. national) views of death. This focus on the connections between national identity and death offers a valuable means of accessing the specific ways in which death functions as discourse. James notes that all the aforementioned figures are male, and that female equivalents are hard to find.. When women do appear in these texts, they are eroticised or perhaps even killed as a result of their inappropriate entry into the male world of the bush and/or inappropriate sexual activity. Thus James connects “the age-old idea that death is the price that women will pay for sex outside marriage” to Australian narratives of nationhood (49).

Chapter Three focuses on contemporary social problem novels where death is associated with “violence, teenage pregnancy, homosexuality, sexual abuse [...] and disease” (7). At first, James seems unaware of the homophobia inherent in categorising queer sexuality as a social problem. In fairness however, her analyses of the texts containing gay and lesbian characters is far more even-handed and critical of the discourse that associates genuine problems, such as incest and other forms of sexual abuse, with homosexuality. Her stated central concern in this chapter is to show how the interplay between death, sexuality and gender results in the characters’ maturation. In practice, a common trope in the texts she examines is that adolescents whose sexuality is deemed out of control, whether it be of their own volition or not, are punished by being killed.

The fourth chapter moves away from verisimilitude to examine deaths which take place in fantastic settings, and demonstrates that despite their surface differences, these texts also seek to maintain the status quo. The fifth chapter continues with a more detailed examination of one specific genre within fantasy: the post-disaster novel. The use of fantasy settings distances the adolescent reader from the actuality of death in order to consider its social consequences in greater detail. For this reason, representations of death in fantastic settings are also closely tied to maturation and socialisation. Moreover, tropes such as metamorphosis reveal not only adolescent fears and fascination with the physical and sexual developments of puberty, but also, and perhaps primarily, adult anxieties about such matters. In other words, the chapter brings together ideas that have already been well established elsewhere. James’s contribution is a particularly detailed, sensitive summary and application of current thinking on this topic.

The chapter on post-disaster fiction is clearly influenced by James’s close working relationship with Clare Bradford during the time when New World Orders in Contemporary Children’s Literature was under construction, yet James’s volume makes no mention of Bradford et al’s volume other than a reference to a conference paper by Kerry Mallan. Like Bradford et al, James’s main point is that the underlying ideology of these texts is, ultimately, very conservative. The issue she foregrounds is the fear of the sexually liberated female. Noting how frequently the monstrous female appears in apocalyptic novels, James notes how unchallenged the fear of female sexuality remains today.

Death, Gender and Sexuality varies between erudite, albeit rather dry and indigestible, theoretical discussion and lively discussions of individual works which do not always return to the main concepts established in the first chapters. Each section works well, but the volume as a whole would have benefitted greatly from more dialogue between the sections. Despite my concerns about the organisation of the material, I found Death, Gender and Sexuality to be an insightful, thought provoking volume which I hope signals the start of a long publishing career.

Works Cited

Bradford, Clare, Kerry Mallan, John Stephens and Robyn McCallum. New World Orders in Contemporary Children’s Literature: Utopian Transformations. Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008.

Trites, Roberta Seelinger. Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000.

Lydia Kokkola
University of Turku, Finland