Gender construction of female protagonists in recent Afrikaans youth novels

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Abstract

Critics of young adult literature (YAL) agree that youth novels can play an important role in forming identity in adolescent readers. While reading YAL the reader is confronted with implicit social, political and cultural norms, power structures, stereotypes and sexism which form part of their world and could have an influence in forming their identity and gender roles.

The aim of this article is to establish whether there was a meaningful change in the portraying of gender roles, especially those of female characters, in recent prize-winning Afrikaans youth novels. The research investigated whether such a change took place and what influence it could have had on the gender and identity construction of the young female reader. Five youth novels with strong female protagonists, published between 2002 and 2012, were selected: Die ongelooflike avonture van Hanna Hoekom by Marita van der Vyver (2002), Pandora se boks by Nelia Engelbrecht (2007), Lien se lankstaanskoene by Derick van der Walt (2007), Die verdrinking van Josua van Eden by Carina Diedericks-Hugo (2008) and Ek was hier by Nanette van Rooyen (2011).

The methodology used was feminist critical discourse analysis.

Critics of YAL, like Lethonen (2012), Wickens (2011), Seelinger Trites (2000) and Younger (1998), agree that the core of YAL often includes a power struggle in different forms that may have an impact on the adolescent reader with regard to identity forming. Seelinger Trites (2000:47) mentions the following:

Identity politics matter most in most adolescent literature however, in terms of how an adolescent’s self-identifications position her within her culture. How an adolescent defines herself in terms of race, gender, and class often determines her access to power in her specific position.

According to Coats (2011:318) the purpose of modern youth literature is often to confront the young reader with urgent moral, social and cultural issues in an indirect and accessible manner. The teaching of YAL in school should thus also be informed by the theories of social and cultural power structures, identity forming and constructions, and critical reading to identify the ideologies in these texts (Kokesh and Sternadori 2015:140). McCallum and Stephens (2011:370) emphasise the interaction in realistic YAL between the direct and indirect portraying of social order and power structures. While reading and interpreting, the young reader interacts with characters, plot, ideological frameworks and structures of social and cultural power. This interaction and identification with characters and their world can also lead to a resistance to and transgression of current cultural and social norms, especially when informed and performed by the protagonist in the text. In such an instance, according to McCallum and Stephens (2011:368) there is a recognition of the self as an independent individual with his/her own identity, and the self as an agent who could make his/her own choices about the prevailing norms and structures.

In the past, before 1990, Afrikaans youth novels tended to portray a traditional, patriarchal core family who adheres to the current social norms of that time and age. More recent novels, since the 1990s, tend to move away from that image towards the description of a more complex, fluid social structure with a more equal power base for men and women. Also evident is the change to more independent, powerful female protagonists with more freedom to make their own choices. They are part of alternative or dysfunctional families that undermine and question the previous portrayal of Afrikaans society and family life. The theoretical framework of feminist discourse analysis was used to analyse the five recent youth novels (since 2002) with a specific focus on the textual framework and language of these novels. The purpose was to investigate how the female protagonists were portrayed through the language used, the influence of their friends and other characters on their actions, and their reactions to the current social norms and power relations envisaged in these texts. Marshall (2004:256) formulated this analysis as follows: “[I]n terms of girlhood, post-structural approaches allow an analysis of how girls are presented with and inserted into ideological and discursive positions by practises which locate them in meaning and its regimes of truth.”

The following categories were defined during the discourse analysis in the five novels: patterns of focalisation, the portrayal of strong female characters and feminist sub-characters, the role of physical appearance, the role of male characters, family life and structure, the influence of social structures, and the use of stereotypes and sexual references.

The study concludes that the five novels did indeed indicate a meaningful change from the beginning of 2000 in the portraying of female characters and protagonists in Afrikaans youth literature. This may have a meaningful influence on the processes of forming identity and understanding of gender roles by the female readers of these novels.

The use of very strong female protagonists is conspicuous and strong feminist sub-characters also play an important role in directly stating and performing feminist issues. Although most of the protagonists are still beautiful girls, the importance of the physical appearance is continuously undermined and critiqued by the protagonist and other characters. Direct references to feminist ideology and outspoken feminist characters are part of these novels. The portrayal of family life changed to alternative compositions and dysfunctional homes with absent fathers and or mothers, more freedom for the adolescent characters in their choices and a fluid sense of gender roles in society.

The adolescent protagonists are also more aware of the social contexts and norms, and power structures surrounding them. The result is a more open discourse. The character and reader are forced to reflect on these structures and what these entail for their freedom and possible choices. It is also true that the stereotypical adolescent moods and issues are portrayed. The male characters are still seen as strong, independent characters and teen romance remains an important part in these novels. Thus the stronger female protagonists in these recent Afrikaans youth novels do represent a significant change in the portraying of gender roles.

These protagonists (and the readers) are aware that the process of forming identity and understanding one’s gender role is a fluid one depending on a context of relationships and social structures.

Keywords: discourse analysis; gender; gender identity; gender roles; power structures; sexism; stereotypes; young adult literature

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Die aard van genderuitbeelding van vroulike hoofkarakters in onlangse Afrikaanse jeugliteratuur

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