Date of Award

Summer 2015

Degree Type

Honors Project


College of Liberal Arts

First Advisor

Kristina Deffenbacher

Second Advisor

Megan Atwood


Since 2000, Young Adult (YA) literature has grown exponentially. The subgenres of cancer novels (teen “sick-lit”) and LGBTQ fiction, in particular, have experienced a recent surge in popularity. The novels in these subgenres that feature young men as the affected characters (diagnosed with cancer and/or identifying as gay or queer) are particularly interesting because of the threats that these experiences pose to heteronormative masculinity. Because this fiction is directed at an impressionable audience in the process of forming their identities, the novels’ representations of gender could have a strong influence over readers’ gender identity development. Researchers have begun exploring the subgenres of teen sick-lit and LGBTQ YA, but rarely through the lens of masculinity or gender identity development; in fact, the concept of masculinity is explored in-depth in only one literary critic’s analysis of an LGBTQ series. Given the lack of critical analyses on masculine gender representations in these two subgenres, as well as the threats to masculinity posed to characters within these narratives, there is a clear need for critical work examining gender representations in YA cancer novels and novels with gay protagonists.

After analyzing a representative sample of these novels through the lens of sociological research on the significance of masculinity for young men negotiating a cancer diagnosis or gay identity, I observed the centrality of masculinity to the stories’ narratives and character development. I additionally observed the influence of sibling relationships on male protagonists’ gender identity development in both subgenres. Overall, cancer and gay-themed novels with male protagonists tended to reinforce heteronormative gender roles, unhealthy expectations of masculinity, and a rejection of femininity. However, many novels with gay protagonists did present alternative, somewhat feminized masculinities, and the settings of two novels provided models for societies that challenge gender boundaries. Sibling relationships, another largely unexamined aspect of YA novels, sometimes perpetuated problematic gender stereotypes, but siblings were mostly positive influences on protagonists’ gender identity development.








Departmental Honors Project