Reviews 2010

Frigjord oskuld: Heterosexuellt mognadsimperativ i svensk ungdomsroman [Empowered Innocence: The Heterosexual Developmental Imperative in Swedish Young Adult Fiction]

Frigjord oskuld: Heterosexuellt mognadsimperativ i svensk ungdomsroman [Empowered Innocence: The Heterosexual Developmental Imperative in Swedish Young Adult Fiction]. Mia Franck. Åbo: Åbo Akademi University Press, 2009. 322 pages. €27 (paperback).

Ever since 1906, when Finland was the first European nation to grant women the right to vote, women’s rights have been at the centre of attention in Finnish society. In correspondence with this social awareness, women’s studies have always been strongly represented in academic life and research into this topic is currently carried out at no less than eight out of Finland’s twenty universities. Finno-Swedish Mia Franck’s dissertation Empowered Innocence fits well into this tradition of foregrounding women’s perspective and experiences. In her doctoral research, she sets out to scrutinize “the varying possibilities for girl characters to act out and negotiate (hetero)sexuality in Swedish young adult fiction (YAF) from the 1960s to the 2000s” (286).

Franck constructs her theoretical framework from several feminist and queer theories. The main concept behind her analyses is Penelope Eckert’s “developmental imperative,” a notion which hints at the demands made on girls to show the right kind of behaviour according to their age. Franck stresses that she does not interpret sexuality “as a separate entity, but as affected by gender, class and age” (286), and consequently broadens the concept of a developmental imperative to comprise heterosexuality. Such a heterosexual developmental imperative implies that girls – in addition to age – are expected to act in accordance with heteronormative expectations. These heterosexual norms are defined by Gayle Rubin’s hierarchical circle of sexuality, and combined with Maria Österlund’s girl and boy matrixes, which list stereotypes such as the good, boyish and bad girl, as well as the macho, soft boy and coward.

Franck argues that the depiction of sexuality in Swedish YAF can be divided into three categories, which also structure the rest of the dissertation: broken romance, violent norm and heteronormative failure (286). Franck examines nine novels by renowned Swedish YAF authors: Tillträde till festen [Admission to the Party] (1969) and Ett slag i ansiktet [A Slap in the Face] (1976) by Gunnel Beckman; Juliane och jag [Juliane and I] (1982) and Duktig pojke! [Good Boy!] (1983) by Inger Edelfeldt; När alla ljuger [When Everybody Lies] (1995) and Man kan inte säga allt [One Cannot Say Everything] (1999) by German-born Peter Pohl; Lilla Marie [Little Marie] (1995) by Mats Wahl, and Ingen grekisk gud, precis [Not Exactly a Grecian God] (2002) and Dansar Elias? Nej! [Does Elias Dance? No!] (2004) by Katarina Kieri. The selected books came out between 1969 and 2004 and are therefore expected to represent changing concepts of gender and class. In order to understand the effect of age on changing sexual relationships, Franck chooses novels featuring protagonists between 12 and 19 years old. Some of these novels fit into more than one category. Five of the books have girl narrators, whereas surprisingly enough four are narrated from a boy’s perspective. Franck contends that the inclusion of boy and girl narratives by the same author is essential for her study of girl sexuality, as the male narrative angle may influence the interpretation of that sexuality.

Central to the first category, broken romance, is a maturation process. Franck’s analysis demonstrates that the characters’ behaviour is directed by heteronormativity and that sexuality is negotiable, although always within the boundaries of heterosexuality. The body plays an important role and is constantly being observed and scrutinized. Respectability and shame are crucial concepts for the second category, violent norm, where femininity is linked to inferiority. Male desire is depicted as uncontrollable, and women are therefore expected to behave respectably and tame their own longings in order not to arouse men. Violence is used to force women to act within the borders of heterosexuality. Again, heteronormativity dictates the behaviour of the characters, as it is male desire which sets the rules for acceptable sexual conduct. The last category, heteronormative failure, is all about questioning heterosexuality. The protagonists all struggle with desires which deviate from normalised boy-girl relationships (such as homosexual, lesbian or incestuous feelings). They have to stage their heterosexuality and control their lust in order not to be perceived as aberrant. The close readings which start from this perspective, namely those of När alla ljuger, Duktig pojke! and Juliane och jag, prove to be the most persuasive.

Mia Franck’s reading of the novels exposes some recurrent motifs. Throughout the works in her corpus, the act of writing plays an important part, and in some novels it is essential to the protagonist’s maturation. Another aspect which features in several books is an investigation of one’s own body. Especially in those works that can be labelled as violent norm, the girl progatonist is contrasted by a “sidechick.” This girl in a supporting role is sexually active and fearless and thus counterbalances the protagonist, foregrounding the latter as a typical “good girl” in Österlund’s matrix. Franck comes to the conclusion that “prevailing conceptions of masculinity and femininity shape the ways in which sexuality is depicted” and that the characters have to hide deviant sexual preferences and stage heterosexuality “in order to live up to gender expectations” (289). In her summary she admits that she is somewhat torn with regards to the results of her analysis: “I feel ambiguous about the ways in which heterosexual representations of girls and boys are constantly ranked in relation to other sexualities, within heterosexual discourses and in relation to gender, class and age” (290). Franck’s analyses prove however to be quite convincing.

Given that Empowered Innocence is a doctoral thesis published in book form, it cannot be expected to be an easy read. Unfortunately, the text is occasionally marred by small grammatical and typographical errors. Moreover, the theoretical concepts are not all clear from the beginning, but only become lucid in the close readings. These analyses, in which Franck puts her theoretical concepts to the test, show that the three categories –especially the third category, heteronormative failure – are workable tools for examining the depiction of sexuality in literature. The analyses are well written, and provide for lucid illustrations of the abstract notions of broken romance, violent norm and heteronormative failure. The reader is expected to make some loose ends meet as well. Reading the book thus proves to be interesting and thought-provoking. There is one aspect which seems to be lacking, though. When accounting for her selection of novels, Franck argued that she chose books from different decades so as to be able to identify possible evolutions. After having finished the book, however, I feel that these questions remain to be answered and that a diachronic perspective could shed another light on the material. Nevertheless, when push comes to shove, Mia Franck’s research definitely does stand up to scrutiny.

Sara Van den Bossche
Ghent University, Belgium