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Street Queens and Clean Teens: Melodramatic Approaches to AIDS in Young Adult Literature and Popular Culture



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Duckels, Gabriel 


This research examines melodramatic approaches to AIDS in Young Adult literature and popular culture in the United States from the mid-1980s to the present day: tear-jerking, over-the-top depictions of sexuality, death, and oppression. The YA novel has traditionally been derided as a literary form because of its melodramatic scope, but melodrama is integral to the negotiation of moral issues and material harm, such as LGBTQ+ rights and HIV/AIDS. Focused on the development of queer representation, I argue that melodrama deserves more attention from children’s literature scholars as a barometer of the field’s ideological work, yielding its own aesthetic conventions which resonate across centuries of melodramatic culture. YA literature about AIDS constitutes a rich and credible “AIDS archive” but in-depth scholarly engagement has been minimal to non-existent, whether among children’s literature scholars or historians of AIDS. Against this impasse, this thesis interrogates an under-examined archive of representation and offers new methods to analyse it.

I argue that the YA novel and the mass-mediation of AIDS in the US are examples of melodramatic popular culture which work with and against realism to emotionally move an intended adolescent reader towards social change, across manifold political stances. Hence, the YA novel and its engagement with AIDS is a specific example of the transformative role of popular culture in making (and remaking) what it means to be a citizen. AIDS emerged in the 1980s as a spectacle of sexual taboo, mass death, and oppression; its material realities acquired their meaning through their mediation as sentimental, sensational, or unseen. If YA novels and the impact of AIDS share association with the production of intense emotions, overwhelming narratives, and a desire to educate young people, then my doctoral research takes these melodramatic dimensions as a critical framework to examine the role of the former in the ongoing transformative cultural politics of the latter.

This thesis has seven chapters – best understood as three acts. The first act (Chapters One, Two, and Three) focuses on the issue-based “problem novel” as a dominant but derided form of YA literature during the late twentieth century. I am interested in recuperating the pejorative connotations of the “AIDS problem novel” as a critical lens to analyse its cultural and psychic work. In particular, I am interested in finding alternative approaches than simply condemning queer-focused texts from this era as either homophobic or homonormative. After the arrival of combination therapy, AIDS fell from view in popular culture at the same time as queer representation in YA novels increased. The second act of this thesis (Chapters Four and Five) addresses the role of the “New Gay YA novel” in the construction of an unproblematic gay adolescent subject whose vitality depended upon the disavowal of gendered, racialised, and oppressed antisocial contexts, of which AIDS was the ultimate symptom. The third and final act (Chapters Six and Seven) focuses on attempts to retell the national story of AIDS as a historical event, revived through the representational politics of the mid-2010s. I interrogate the role of nostalgia, melodrama, pedagogy, and pleasure in scholarly and popular accounts of AIDS history, identifying a public impulse to reveal a repressed history through the articulation of what I call “queer virtue.” By focusing on genre, I resist over-identification with the liberating promise therein – emphasising the distance between the idealism of representation, the stories which are told and retold, and the realities that remain unseen.

In summary, this thesis combines textual and metacritical analysis to synthesize three parallel objects of study. These objects are: the fraught role of AIDS in the development of problem novels and queer representation in YA literature; the transforming discourse around AIDS, popular culture, and adolescence in the US over the last forty years; and melodrama’s significance as a deprecated but consistent mode in public life, central to the ways in which notions of justice and suffering are addressed and redressed therein.





Jaques, Zoe


children's literature, disability studies, HIV/AIDS, melodrama, queer studies, young adult literature


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Harding Distinguished Postgraduate Scholars Program Children's Literature Association