Heather Brown completed her PhD at Deakin in 2022. Her thesis title is ‘Interrogating Postfeminist Female Empowerment in Bestselling Postmillennial Young Adult Literature’.
Female protagonists are often praised for being ‘empowered’ because they perform gender differently, exercise choice and demonstrate agency. This thesis challenges this assertion through an examination of four tropes of empowerment: feminine masquerade, ‘sex-positive’ sexuality, authentic individualism and the ‘strong’ female character in the bestselling young adult literature titles Kiera Cass’s The Selection (2012-14), Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (2008-10), Tahereh Mafi’s Shatter Me (2011-14), Veronica Roth’s Divergent (2011-13), Kiera Cass’s The Heir (2015), Kody Keplinger’s The DUFF (2011), Sara Shepard’s Pretty Little Liars (2006) and Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass (2012-15) series. It demonstrates that the female protagonists reflect the postfeminist empowerment discourse which rejects the second-wave characterisation of women as universal victims of patriarchy, by emphasising choice and agency as a means to power. However, using Judith Butler’s theory of gender performance and discursive constraint in conjunction with critical scholarship on postfeminism, this thesis argues that the representation of female empowerment is more complex than mere agency or choice. By analysing the mechanisms that enable empowerment, it shows that although female protagonists can perform gender differently and defy patriarchal discourses, empowerment remains highly gendered, and secondary (mostly) male characters have a significant role in discursive production. The misinterpretation, regulation or approbation of secondary characters frequently overrides the female protagonists’ re-signification of existing gendered discourse and performative acts, and affects the female protagonists’ ability to access power. Reflecting the contradictions and complexities of the postfeminist real-world context, this thesis ultimately demonstrates how postfeminist female empowerment can be both complex and frequently illusory. Attempts to re-signify existing discourse is often superseded by others, and seemingly subversive acts can uphold traditional patriarchal discourse under the guise of choice.