What began as a six-page essay assignment for a “Studies in Young Adult Literature” course has turned into a full-fledged, multi-semester thesis project for Emporia State senior secondary theater and speech education and secondary English education major, Chelsie (Glover) Baldwin.
She will be presenting her project, “The Portrayal of Toxic Relationships and Harmful Ideologies in Young Adult Literature and Their Effect on Adolescents,” at 4 p.m., April 18 in the Blue Key Room of the Memorial Union.
Baldwin analyzed and researched 31 different books for her project, but mainly focused on Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight” series, Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” series, Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” series, Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series and John Green’s “Paper Towns” and “Looking for Alaska.”
“When I was growing up, I wanted a marriage or relationship exactly like what Edward and Bella (from “Twilight”) had,” Baldwin said. “But they don’t have a great relationship and I think there’s a lot more conversations now about domestic abuse and psychological abuse and gaslighting and things like that that wasn’t around when I was reading those books for the first time. But even though that those conversations exist, adolescents may not be involved in that.”
The thesis discusses the unrealistic expectations, toxic masculinity, gender stereotypes and abuse that are portrayed in popular books and franchises for young adults.
“One of the biggest problems which I talk about is that the abuse is presented but it’s not established as abuse,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin cited that in “Twilight,” the main character Bella catches her love interest Edward stalking her and watching her while she sleeps. However, Bella is not concerned about Edward’s behavior and is, instead, embarrassed because she talks in her sleep.
“I shouldn’t want to be with a guy like Edward because he is abusive and terrible,” Baldwin said. “But growing up I was like ‘This is what love should be.’”
Another topic that Baldwin explores in her thesis is hegemonic masculinity, or “toxic male traits that everyone subscribes to because it keeps males dominant over females,” according to Baldwin.
“I did a lot of my research around that because it’s really interesting to learn about how that’s why men aren’t supposed to be emotional because it makes them weak, because it’s a feminine trait and women are weak,” Baldwin said. “And how that’s shaped our entire society is insane.”
Baldwin found examples of this in “Paper Towns,” “Looking for Alaska” and the “Hunger Games” series. The heroine of the “Hunger Games,” Katniss Everdeen, is meant to be a strong female character, but the books make her as masculine as possible. She survives because of traditionally masculine traits such as hunting and being aggressive and violent, not because of any traditionally feminine traits.
Baldwin is not calling for these books to be taken off the shelves; however, she is hoping to spark discussions between educators, parents, librarians and others who work with children about the effects that these portrayals of relationships have on adolescents.
“We shouldn’t be working to restrict what kids read,” Baldwin said. “But we should be working to guide conversations that help foster good relationship dynamics and make them not put into a box of gender.”
Baldwin has presented her in-progress thesis project at two conferences so far: the Kansas Honors Connection Conference and the Great Plains Honors Conference in Wichita.
“I have been at the presentations she has made, I have watched people respond and she’s really making people think,” said Gary Wyatt, dean of the Honors College and acting provost.