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Name: Sean Donnelly

PhD: English Literature 

Thesis Title: Future Girls: Revolutionary Adolescence in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction

Thesis Description:

My PhD project will produce a comparative analysis of contemporary Young Adult dystopian novels, including Saci Lloyd's The Carbon Diaries (2008-2009), Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies (2005-2007), Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games (2008-10), Veronica Roth’s Divergent (2011-2013), Teri Terry's Slated (2012-2014), Keira Cass's The Selection (2012-14), Kass Morgan's The 100 (2013-15), Louise O'Neill's Only Ever Yours (2014), Naomi Alderman's The Power (2016) and Anna Day's The Fandom (2018).

I am interested in clarifying how these texts work as an emerging literary genre, and in particular how they centre on the figure of what I term "the dystopian girl". I will investigate how these texts situate the adolescent as a social and political agent, and the interplay of liberation and repression in their consideration of how teenagers may (or may not) be able to challenge hegemony. My project will therefore situate these fictions in the context of scientific, historical and literary ideas about the adolescent, considering how contemporary YA produces "the adolescent" as a cultural idea. 

Given that the empowered teenage girl is a recurring, even defining, trope, I will situate this research alongside close textual analysis of the texts, considering how female protagonists are delineated and the implications this has for the conveyance of agency. This analysis will be framed with reference to contemporary iterations of feminism, particularly postfeminism and the notion that modern ideal of Western girls as model neoliberal citizens which often works to mask the ongoing generation of gender inequality. 

I will investigate the political significance of the dystopian girl as an recurring avatar of 21st century popular culture. Why is she is everywhere, and what is her significance? Drawing on dystopian theory, I will question the political efficacy of the dystopian girl as a nominally liberating figure, suggesting that her delineation often works to perpetuate rather than challenge hegemonic political narratives, in particular the delimitation of transformative political possibility under neoliberalism. I will investigate the envisioning of utopian possibility in these texts and how this ties into wider cultural ideas about productive resistance to structural power, particularly in neoliberal frameworks. 

I have coined the term "digital paracosm" to indicate the provision of immersive and interactive storyworlds in contemporary fiction. The delineation of the settings in these texts incorporates bricolage, intertextuality and open-endedness to situate the storyworld as manipulable and interactive. Borrowing from Henry Jenkins' work on convergence culture, I argue that the transmedia franchising of these texts, through film and TV adaptation, spin-off novels and merchandising, extends these narrative devices, underlining the expansiveness and interactivity of the paracosm and conveying narrative as a malleable, discursive process, rather than a linear trajectory with a fixed endpoint. 


Supervisors: Dr. Zara Dinnen (University of Birmingham, 2015-17); Dr. Danielle Fuller (University of Birmingham, 2015-18); Professor Peter Morey (University of Birmingham, 2017-present); Dr Rachel Sykes (University of Birmingham, 2018-present)


Journal Publications:

Conferences and Papers: 

  • "Dreaming of a White Future: The Absence of Race in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction" Investigating Identities in YA Conference, University of Northampton, December 2017 (funded by CCLC). 

  • "The Limits of Radical Adolescence in Teri Terry's Slated" Teenage Kicks Conference, Kingston University, Sept 2017 (funded by SDF)

  • "Young Adult Dystopian Fiction as Postfeminist Utopia" Dystopia Now Conference, Birkbeck University, 26 May 2017.

  • "Reading the Dystopian Girl in Uglies, Divergent and The Hunger Games", 'The Friction of Representation in Contemporary Visual Culture’, Centre for Contemporary Literature and Culture, University of Birmingham, 13 March 2017 

  • "Disney, Tomorrowland and Utopia" '500 Years of Utopia' 17th Conference of the Utopian Studies Society, University of Lisbon, 5-10 July 2016. (funded by SDF) 

  • "'Dystopian Paracosms': an exploration of contemporary young adult dystopian fiction" 10th Annual Postgraduate Symposium, University of Warwick,  22-23 May 2014. 

Teaching and Other Activities: 

  • I budgeted, curated and organised Reading YA, a one-day conference on Young Adult Fiction at the University of Birmingham in May 2018 as part of the Centre for Contemporary Literature and Culture. The official site can be found here:
  • I led a 2nd year undergraduate seminar group on the two-term "Uses of Genre" module in 2016/17, and marked three rounds of 1st year undergraduate papers throughout 2017. 
  • I created and taught a KS4 module on Young Adult Dystopian Fiction as part of the Brilliant club charity in Holte School, Birmingham in March 2017 and Dame Elizabeth Cadbury School, Bournville in June 2017. 
  • I worked as a transcriber on the Death Before Birth project at the University of Birmingham in 2017. 

Primary Research Interests:

  • Dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, YA and children's fiction, contemporary British fiction, sf and fantasy, utopian studies, film studies, fan studies, feminism and gender studies. 


University email address:

Twitter: SeanDDonnelly