Telling About Girls: Questions of the Body, Sexuality and Gender Equality in Recent Finnish YA Literature

Myry Voipio and Suvi Oksanen

In recent years, the theme of gender equality has been central to Nordic young adult (YA) literature. It overlaps with several pivotal YA themes and has transcended the generic boundaries. The questions of equality, the body, sexuality, gender and power have been palpable in works ranging from realistic coming-of-age stories to fantasy, fairy tales and science fiction.

Often the theme has been discussed from the viewpoints of young adult or adolescent females and girl protagonists have even dominated the Nordic YA field. The novels approach the subject of gender equality by promoting girls’ abilities, strength and agency: Girls can do whatever they want, just as boys can. One can see this as a feminist approach and an intentional choice by the authors (see e. g. Modig 2014). On a larger scale, it has to do with the societal context and the changes that have taken place regarding the depiction of girls in literature and popular culture (Mulari 2015; Voipio 2015; Österlund, Söderberg & Formark 2013). Nordic girls are also generally described and seen as central figures in the realisation of gender equality (see Formark & Bränström-Öhman 2013). Moreover, contemporary youth literature has openly and joyfully discussed former taboos, such as girls’ sexuality, the body and power, which are thematically central features in new Finnish literature for adolescents (also Voipio 2015).

Saving the World, Girl by Girl

In Nordic YA literature, powerful girl characters have been appearing ever more frequently. This is connected both to the literary history of strong girls – remember Astrid Lindgren’s world famous Pippi Longstocking? – and to the development of the international girl power phenomenon that started in the 1990s. Girls’ abilities, power and agency were emphasised on an unprecedented scale and girls became popular protagonists in literature and popular culture. (See Driscoll 2002; Huhtala 2007; Formark & Bränström Öhman 2013; Mulari 2015.) The tendency of girls to save the world is also wide-spread and can be recognised in world-wide contexts, as is suggested, for example, by the 2012 video, “The Weapons of Mass Construction”, by Plan International (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_dstPoXEBs).

In recent Finnish YA novels, girls are the future and are often viewed as saviours of both the world and themselves. However, girls are also depicted in the novels as aware of the world, conscious of their responsibilities and the limits of their agency. For example, in Vilja-Tuulia Huotarinen’s Kimmel (2014), the heroine named Kimmel takes her responsibility very “matter-of-factly”:

However, they believed that their girl would save the orb. Like all parents, they were sure of it. No one could take better care of the world than a sixteen-year-old of today.

The girl was painting her nails pink.

She said:

– OK, and she blew on her fingers.

(Huotarinen 2014: Kimmel, p. 5.)

Even if girls are meant to save the world, in Kimmel, they do it step-by-step: at first Kimmel thinks that her sixteen years of experience will not allow for doing miracles. However, immediately after that thought, she thinks that she might be able to do small miracles after all, one by one. In the novel, Kimmel meets eleven different girls who each have a problem that is related both to the contemporary world and to the somewhat classic YA questions of identity, love and the future. For example, the Mirror Girl does not see herself as good enough and she wonders if there is something wrong with her period, since the colour is not turquoise like it is in the advertisements for sanitary products. The Leader is unable to be happy unless she gets the best grades, not only in school but in everything she does. With the Sword Girl, Kimmel writes a guide for fixing a broken heart.

sarkyneen-sydamen-hoitoohje
A guide for fixing a broken heart.

In addition to several themes traditionally found in youth literature, the novel also discusses more problematic and difficult issues such as sexual violence, class and social segregation. An intersectional approach – taking in consideration the classifications of, for example, gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, age and health (see Karkulehto et. al. 2012) – to questions about girl’s right to her own body, sexuality and freedom, which are raised through a girl called the Iron Tooth, who has been sexually abused. She has not told anyone about it, before she speaks to Kimmel:

We are the people who get off on the last stop and we have been thrusted here, to the very end of the city. Usually someone is only interested in us when we are suspected of having done something wrong. – – That is why I have not told anyone about this.

(Huotarinen 2014: Kimmel, p. 90.)

Questions about shame, guilt and the trustworthiness of the story are often connected to experiences of violence and harassment (Keskinen 2010). When the Iron Tooth meets Kimmel, though, she does not have to stay silent anymore and she can finally talk about her experience. Huotarinen’s story does not blame the girl or represent her only as a victim (see e.g. Younger 2009). Rather she is a survivor and a representation of a strong girl, one in the long line of depictions of powerful Nordic female literary characters.

Compared to the international literature for girls in general, the characters in Kimmel expand the ways girls and their experiences are represented in young adult fiction. The stories seem to aim to depict girls as powerful and capable agents and at the same time to represent girlhood intersectionally and realistically. Girls might even be able to save both themselves and the world – however, they do not have to do it alone but can help each other out.

Love, Frogs and Lust

Girls’ sexuality has been a cultural and social taboo for a long time. Even in the contemporary world, it continues to be one of the most central questions that girls have to negotiate both on a societal level and within families (Aapola, Gonick & Harris 2005). In recent years, the representations of sexuality and sexual encounters in YA literature have become more natural and liberated (also Voipio 2013). Previously, the boldest way for a girl character to reveal her sexuality was to hold hands with her sweetheart, or by recounting her affection in an internal monologue (see Outinen 1992; Younger 2009; Voipio 2015). In contemporary Nordic YA literature, however, it is acceptable for the heroines to have sex, to dream about boys – and girls! – in a lustful manner, and to engage in relationships with boys, girls or gender-fluid people (also Voipio 2013; Voipio 2015). By discussing sexuality and desire more openly, with a bright tone and from a variety of viewpoints, contemporary Finnish youth literature represents active sexual agency as everyone’s right to openly identify with any form of sexuality they want and not just heterosexuality (Karkulehto 2007; Voipio 2013).

The questions of being free to be yourself and to love who you want to love have been central to the work of the Finnish youth literature author Salla Simukka. Equality, gender and sexuality are important ideological and thematic features also in her Snow White trilogy (Punainen kuin veri 2013, Valkea kuin lumi 2014, Musta kuin eebenpuu 2014). The trilogy consists of three thrillers, each with a mystery solved in the novel. In the first book, the protagonist Lumikki (’Snow White’) Andersson gets involved with drug dealers in Tampere, Finland; in the second, she meets and exposes a self-harming religious cult in Prague, Czech Republic; and in the third, a dangerous stalker begins to haunt her and she solves an old mystery about her own childhood. Intertwined in the functional and suspenseful plots are the questions of identity, sexuality and equality. The trilogy also discusses bullying. Besides handling sexuality in versatile ways, the Snow White trilogy can also be considered to represent “Nordic Noir”, the authors of which have often included the questions of social and sexual equality into different kinds of detective stories.

In the Snow White trilogy, themes of sexuality, the body, body rights and equality are carefully and skilfully described through the protagonist, Lumikki, who experiences romantic relationships with both a young woman, later a transgender man called Liekki, and a young man, Sampsa. Lumikki does not see these two males in gender-related terms: rather, as is typical to Simukka’s work, she sees and loves them simply as people. Lumikki does not consider birth-assigned sex as important as loving and love (see also Voipio 2013). Her relationship to gender is appreciative and she values people, not their gender (or genitals, for that matter): the only truly important thing is feeling. Importantly, the Snow White trilogy promotes the aforementioned right of everybody to identify with something else than heterosexuality. In a genre that traditionally has described relations between opposite sexes, and still mostly does, more open representations of sexuality are extremely important (see also Karkulehto 2007; Voipio 2013). This could be considered as an especially valuable way of dealing with these themes since in many countries, youth literature serves as an important source for young readers to gain knowledge about sexuality and sexual relations (Younger 2009). Ideologically, feeling worthy as the person you are and the ability to love who you want to love is one of the strong messages found in contemporary Nordic youth literature.

In recent Finnish YA literature, discussions on sexuality and desire are not limited to novels that focus on difficult issues. Sexuality, the body and desire are also prominent in many contemporary Finnish novels for girls that are written in a light and happy tone (see Voipio 2013; Voipio 2015). For example, in the hilarious novels by Anna Hallava and Nelli Hietala, the girl protagonists experience feelings of desire and act to get what they want.

If Finland has previously lacked its own teenage Bridget Jones, this problem seems now to have been solved. Anna Hallava’s entertaining chick lit jr. style and narrative combines the problems of being an adolescent girl with a fantasy plot. In ’The Frog Princess’ and ’The Operation Lipfire’ (Sammakkoprinsessa 2015; Operaatio Huulituli 2016), the protagonist, the 14-year-old Ophelia, is possessed by her hormones. Her dreams of kisses, touches and boys in general might be pink, glittery and a little bit naive, yet the drive and the desire behind the dreams is very real. She is not afraid of being labelled as “cheap” or a slut – pejoratives used for shaming girls and women, whether they are sexually active or not – but enjoys her sexuality and dares to dream, which continues to be uncommon in youth literature and culture discussing girls and sexuality (see Aapola, Gonick & Harris 2005; Younger 2009; Aaltonen 2011).

Unfortunately for Ophelia, she happens to be only half human – the other half is a fairy. Even more unfortunately, Ophelia’s fairy gift is true love, which complicates her dreams of deep, wonderful French kisses: If she kisses someone else than her true love, the person will turn into a frog.

I rose up kicking the chair to the floor behind me.

“No way! I want to kiss whomever I want!”

“I understand, darling, I understand.”

Mom tried to hug me but I shook her off.

“No, you really don’t understand! It’s not your gift! Your gift is probably kissing with dad or some other stupid thing. You can’t forbid me from kissing. Who does this Teodora think she is?”

“She is you godmother and traditionally the godmother chooses the gift for the fae”, mother said.

“Think how happy you’ll be”, dad said. “You can recognize your true love. It’s rare nowadays.”

I kicked the chair.

“I don’t care about true love! I want to kiss. I’m GOING to kiss!” I stormed down the stairs and crouched halfway through. “With tongues!”

I slammed the door shut and fell down on my bed. How did that Teodora dare? What right did she have to forbid me from kissing boys? She must have been some dry old prune who had never French kissed and didn’t want anyone else to experience the wonders of the Tongue, either.

(Hallava 2015: ’The Frog Princess’, p. 27.)

Ophelia is horrified by the fact that she cannot kiss whomever she wants. This restriction follows the rules of the one true love and true love waits canon (see Outinen 1992; Christian-Smith 1993; Younger 2009; Guillard 2011). Nevertheless, Ophelia fights against her fairy gift, both with thoughts and actions, which means turning people into frogs and using forbidden potions to enable kissing. This kind of constant negotiating is characteristic for girls’ literature: from the beginning of the genre in the mid-19th century, girls’ literature has maintained and obeyed the normative social ideals, norms and rules about girls and girlhood, while simultaneously transcending and breaking them (Westin 1994; Voipio 2013; Voipio 2015). Similarly, Hallava’s novels also both renew and resist contemporary female body ideals through Ophelia’s thoughts and feelings about her body.

As is familiar from the body characterization of entertaining literature for women, Ophelia is also slightly chubby, wants to lose weight and persistently brings this up in both novels (see Umminger 2006). She hopes to get thinner, yet she gorges on cake, candy and other goodies. Ophelia’s thoughts embody contemporary Western views on the ideal female body and the ways to obtain it: do not eat cake and exercise daily (see Tolonen 2001; Umminger 2006; Younger 2009). However, even though Ophelia describes herself as chubby, she also decides to dismiss all the “rules” and wants rather to enjoy life than starve herself. In the novels, this is depicted as a choice, not as a weakness or a “lapse” (see Umminger 2006). Ophelia’s ideas and impressions about the ideal female body respond to the perception real-life adolescent and young adult females have adopted from their contemporary culture during the last decades – or, rather, centuries (see Bordo 1993; Tolonen 2001; Younger 2009).

However, in ’Operation Lipfire’, Ophelia’s body issues are more visible than in the first novel, even irritatingly so. Why is she still dwelling on the same issue she already seemed to have more or less solved? Questions about the ideal young adult and adult female body continue to be central in our culture: as we are surrounded by the idealized (and photo-manipulated) bodies, it is no wonder that the body, weight and norms are represented and discussed in girls’ and YA literature. From the viewpoint of an adolescent female protagonist, being bombarded by the representations of ideal beauty can definitely cause self-doubt, however certain she has been of her previous decisions and thoughts (see Younger 2009; see Umminger 2006). Internationally, the American author Julie Murphy, for example, has ignored this body ideal with her novel Dumplin’ (2015), in which the female protagonist is plus-sized. In the novel, Murphy does not point out her protagonist’s weight: she is described as being happy with herself and she does not feel the pressure to lose weight in order to be accepted by herself or the community.

hallavahietala

Nelli Hietala’s novel ’The Passion Week of Miia Martikainen’ (Miia Martikaisen kärsimysviikko 2016) introduces us to a heroine who is a virgin without being ashamed of it. Rather, Miia takes her virginity quite lightly, without either over-glorifying or making too big a deal out of it. This kind of an attitude has been relatively rare in YA literature, since both virginity and sexual activity have usually been represented as problematic (see e.g. Younger 2009). These issues are also something that the protagonists in contemporary fiction novels for girls have been questioning, emphasizing for example the notion that few things in the world have been as controlled as the sexuality of girls (Voipio 2013).

Miia is self-confident when she talks about sex. She knows about birth control and how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. Also, she thinks that the first time she will have sex is going to be an interesting and hopefully a satisfying experience. It is something she has been waiting to experience, since even though she realizes that many girls of her age (which is 17) are still virgins, she would like to gain “sexual knowledge”. She has also decided to have sex whenever she feels like it. This implicates that her partner does not have to be a steady boyfriend or the big love of her life, which generally have provided the “appropriate” conditions for girls in literature to engage in sexual activity (see Younger 2009; Voipio 2013).

— but in the back of my mind an idea had started to grow, which I initially battled, but which after some pondering during the few kilometres before we arrived at the harbour had knocked down all my weak attempts to resist and had proven itself to be genius: I would bang him.

                 All the facts were on Taneli’s side: he was an outlier, whom I would never see again, who doesn’t know anyone in here and who looks so weird that he won’t even get to know anyone. He was an outlier who would never get a chance – and doesn’t even understand to search for one – to tell anyone I know, that Miia Matleena Martikainen, 17 years of age, was as much of a virgin than any young woman equipped with functioning hands and a vivid imagination could be and so innocent that during her long life she had never even seen a naked man.

                 The operation would be business-like and smooth, like a dentist’s appointment. After that, I could join the normal people and disapprove of the overflowing of sex. It’s nice to object to something you have more than enough of.

(Hietala 2016: ’The Passion Week of Miia Martikainen’, p. 33.)

Delightfully, the one sex scene in the novel is both beautiful and realistic. It describes passion and awkwardness, which are often related to first sexual encounters, without making the event sinful or “wrong” and without passing a judgement on premarital sex (see Aapola, Gonick & Harris 2005; Voipio 2013). Considering that for many readers YA literature is an important source of knowledge about sexuality and sexual encounters (Younger 2009), Hietala’s work is exemplary: in the novel, sex is not described as something terrible, frightening or wrong, but as something nice and consensual between the parties. Love maybe the eternally persisting ideal in YA literature; nevertheless, the novel state that sex can be great without love, too, when there is desire and chemistry (see also Voipio 2013). Describing a girl’s desire and a heated sexual encounter outside the context of a steady love-relationship, Hietala’s novel transcends one prevailing norm about girls and sexuality in contemporary Western cultural imagery (see e.g. Voipio 2013).

Girls Who Use Their Power

In the recent Nordic YA literature, power and active agency have often been represented by an adolescent or young adult female (see Huhtala 2007). Traditionally, however, the active and powerful protagonists in children’s and youth literature have been male. After the international girl power phenomenon in the 1990s, strong girl characters have been welcome to play the leading roles in literature, movies and other representational media (see Driscoll 2002; Huhtala 2007; Mulari 2015). Yet the Nordic children’s and youth literature has been introducing potent female characters in the genre for several decades (see Huhtala 2007; Voipio 2015). It is therefore no wonder that powerful girls are central characters in contemporary youth literature. The normative representations of male and female roles are nevertheless constantly being renewed: Strong male heroes save the “damsel in distress”, even if the damsel might very well be equipped to save herself. Because of these enduring images, normative roles and ideals, it is important to provide more versatile role models for girls – and for boys. The recent Finnish YA literature takes interesting views on these questions and strives to represent a different way of being, instead of simply adhering to the prevalent expectations.

In young adult literature, one way of imagining and presenting ways and orders alternative to the existing ones is through alienation. Discussing girls, power and society, speculative fiction – texts that have an element of magic or marvel in them, such as fairy tales, fantasy and science fiction – offers a number of possibilities. It presents us with a world that is different from ours and has unique laws, allowing us to re-imagine the world order. For example, Maria Turtschaninoff and Siiri Enoranta have utilised alienation in their re-writing of cultural and social norms and production of feminist imageries.

An interesting, yet surprisingly simple way to discuss power and gender equality in literature is to turn over the normative gender and power structures endemic to Western societies. Siiri Enoranta’s ’The Sorrow-deer Tamer’ (Surunhauras, lasinterävä 2015) is a kaleidoscope novel about love, loss, sorrow, longing and the understanding humanity. Through various characters and their viewpoints, Enoranta weaves together a novel that is set in another world, one with different landscapes and societies that have their own rules, norms and ways. The two most pivotal places are the peninsula of Sidrineia, a queendom of capable females, and the island of the Sorrow-deer tribe. In Sidrineia, one of the protagonists, princess Sadeia, holds her country in an iron grip. In Sadeia’s queendom, all the men are inferior to women – and it seems like this has always been the case – with the only equal relationships between women and men existing merely for breeding and pleasure. However, a different social order is represented through the island-based tribe of the Sorrow-deer, who believe in equality between the sexes. Moreover, relationships between everyone are accepted, hence heterosexuality or homosexuality as separate sexual orientations do not exist in the tribe or the society (see e.g. Foucault 2010). When the people of Sidrineia get to know the tribe of the Sorrow-deer, the differences between their perceptions and norms concerning for example power, capability and gender are instantly revealed.

Sadeia knew that change and progress always took its time to arrive at the countryside where people were neither schooled nor civilized, but she could not understand why the peasants had yet to replace their male-dominant leader and moved to the court model, in which all the tasks demanding even the slightest responsibility or reasoning had been removed from men. The nobility had understood the same thing as Sadeia: a man always thought first with his groin and only then with his brain, if at all. But tomorrow Sadeia should submit herself to discuss with a man and pretend to think that he is nearly valuable enough to share a table with her.

(Enoranta 2015: ’The Sorrow-deer Tamer’, p. 62)

Nevertheless, besides pondering the questions of power, gender and society on a larger scale, ’The Sorrow-deer Tamer’ discusses these themes especially through people, their hopes, fears and actions.

maresi-ja-naondel
In her novels, Maria Turstscaninoff discusses power, violence and gender.

In Nordic literature, feminist emphasis has become more and more prominent over the past couple of decades. Especially female authors – such as Sofi Oksanen, Emmi Itäranta and Leena Parkkinen – have discussed issues related to for example gender, equality, sexuality and violence in their novels. This tendency is also palpable in the recent Nordic children’s and youth literature that does not hesitate to depict difficult issues from a feminist point of view (also Voipio 2013). For example, the Finnish author Maria Turtschaninoff intentionally discusses power, violence and gender in her young adult novels (see Modig 2014). In Maresi (2014), she tells the story of the versatility of female power and wisdom on a matriarchal abbey island, which reaches mystical and mythical levels. The events are told by Maresi, a novice in an abbey on an isolated island that is populated only by females. In the abbey, everybody fills a function and girls get to learn multiple skills from growing vegetables and cooking to reading and writing. Everything is peaceful until a new novice, Jai, arrives. Soon after, violent and frightful things happen: Jai is on a run from her violent father who has already killed her sister in the name of family honour. However, her father cannot let go and comes looking for Jai, bringing with him a boatload of mercenaries who want to pillage the abbey and rape the novice girls. Only by combining their different powers, the old wisdom and knowledge, the women and girls survive, but not without having to make great sacrifices. Maresi herself realises that she can channel and use the ancient power of death to save the youngest girls from the hands of the violent intruders.

Naondel (2016), an independent sequel to Maresi, is situated in the same world, in a time before the faraway abbey was established. In the novel, girls and young women from different locations and tribes narrate their experiences of cruelty, exploitation and violence. In the worlds of Maresi and Naondel, girls and women of all ages possess and use mythical powers, know ancient secrets and teach others for the greater good. When the world is ruled with male violence and brutality, as it is described in the novels, women can create their own sanctuaries and try slowly to change the world through the education of children and young people.

The recent Finnish YA novels do not hesitate to openly discuss questions of power, society, gender equality, the body and sexuality. The novels describe girls’ attitudes and experiences concerning these themes, whether it is about power and gender equality in society, the desire for kisses or sexual intercourse, or the experiences of sexual violence. This way, contemporary Finnish youth literature broadens the depiction of girls, gender, the body, power and sexuality. Through their versatile representations, these novels also enable the reader to encounter more varied and empowered stories of girlhood and girls than ever before.

Citations from the novels are translated by Suvi Oksanen and Myry Voipio.

Literature

  • Enoranta, Siiri 2015: Surunhauras, lasinterävä. (’The Sorrow-deer Tamer’.) WSOY.
  • Hallava, Anna 2015: Sammakkoprinsessa. (’The Frog Princess’.) WSOY.
  • Hallava, Anna 2016: Operaatio Huulituli. (’Operation Lipfire’.) WSOY.
  • Hietala, Nelli 2016: Miia Martikaisen kärsimysviikko. (’The Passion Week of Miia Martikainen’.) Karisto.
  • Huotarinen, Vilja-Tuulia 2014: Kimmel. Karisto.
  • Murphy, Julie 2015: Dumplin. Balzer+Bay/HarperCollins.
  • Simukka, Salla 2013: Punainen kuin veri. (’As Red as Blood’, 2014.) Tammi.
  • Simukka, Salla 2014: Valkea kuin lumi. (’As White as Snow’, 2015.) Tammi.
  • Simukka, Salla 2014: Musta kuin eebenpuu. (’As Black as Ebony’, 2015.) Tammi.
  • Turtschaninoff, Maria 2014: Maresi. Krönikor från Röda klostret. (’Maresi. The Red Abbey Chronicles’, 2015.) Schildts & Söderströms.
  • Turtschaninoff, Maria 2016: Naondel. Krönikor från Röda klostret. (’Naondel. The Red Abbey Chronicles.’) Förlaget.

References

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  • Modig, Johanna 2014: Maria Turtschaninoff får årets Finlandia Junior. http://svenska.yle.fi/artikel/2014/11/20/maria-turtschaninoff-far-arets-finlandia-junior. Haettu 1.6.2015.
  • Mulari, Heta 2015: New Feminism, Gender Equality and Neoliberalism in Swedish Girl Films, 1995–2006. PhD. diss. Turku: University of Turku.
  • Outinen, Hellevi 1992: Häpeästä nautintoon. Seksuaalisuus tyttökirjoissa 1920-luvulta 1980-luvulle. Teoksessa Sari Näre & Jaana Lähteenmaa (toim.) Letit liehumaan. Tyttökulttuuri murroksessa. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 47–55.
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