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Actors and Aliens: Representations of Teenage Protagonists in Bestselling YA Fiction

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posted on 2021-11-22, 00:50 authored by Ball, Rebecca

This project explores the representation of teenagers in some of the most popular Young Adult Fiction (YA) books of the early 2010s. A dominant assumption within the scholarly discussion of YA is that YA books are books for young people that feature protagonists with whom young people personally identify. Through an analysis of nine American YA books, this thesis offers an overview of the sorts of protagonists often found in the novels on New Zealand’s YA bestseller lists. Reporting results from a questionnaire and one-on-one interviews conducted with young YA readers, it explores whether or not this model of being a teenager is one with which young people do actually identify.  Using Erving Goffman’s 1959 theory of impression management as a lens, this thesis explores how the protagonists of the selected novels see their world as a stage upon which they are expected to act out socially acceptable roles. While female protagonists use strategies to meet this pressure and emerge as competent social actors, male protagonists find themselves governed by forces beyond their control that render them social aliens. Whereas female protagonists face negative consequences for being themselves, male protagonists are rewarded for doing so. Regardless of their acting ability, all protagonists are represented as confused, insecure and troubled. The selected texts thus support stereotypes about teenage girls, teenage boys and young people in general that differ from those of the past but are ultimately no less problematic.  The participants in this project’s small mixed-methods study shared this view of the protagonists but did not generally identify with them. While they enjoyed reading these books, this was not necessarily because of the protagonists, for whom they felt more concern than empathy. Rather than reflecting any kind of ‘truth’ about what it means to be a teenager, it seems that the protagonists of the selected texts reflect how adult authors, editors and booksellers imagine teenagers to be. This is a significant finding given the rising numbers of adults who are reading YA and the declining numbers of teenagers who are reading for pleasure.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970120 Expanding Knowledge in Languages, Communication and Culture

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies


Miles, Geoff; Ferrall, Charles; Hubbard, Gillian