Young adult dystopia

It’s well known that dystopia is the hottest teen trend since vampires, but it’s more than a momentary trend — dystopia has been a staple of young adult literature and high school curricula for decades at this point. It’s very strange, because most high schools don’t remotely equip their students to understand the abstract social questions at play in such literature. I assume that part of the reason for spending time on 1984 or The Giver is to innoculate teenagers against the temptations of “totalitarianism,” but it seems like the strategy may be in danger of backfiring. Whereas before we had dystopias about the inevitably horrific consequences of any attempt to indulge in utopian impulses, our new dystopian literature is no longer about the ironic dystopian results of utopia — instead, it’s made up of pretty straightforward extrapolations from our contemporary experience. We’re no longer congratulating ourselves for avoiding the folly of central planning, but instead imagining the consequences of our contemporary ideology of never-ending high-stakes competition.

The Hunger Games is the obvious example. It’s far from a total fantasy, because I assume that someone will figure out a way to make an actual life-and-death reality TV show within our lifetimes. When that happens, people will be outraged, but will they be surprised? I don’t think so. Divergent has a similar immediate pull, as it is essentially about high-stakes testing regimes. And it makes sense that as these dystopias ever more closely approximate our contemporary world, the protagonists tend to be teenage girls — because who has more experience of trying desperately to carve out some space for agency in an oppressive regime than a teenage girl?

6 thoughts on “Young adult dystopia

  1. “because who has more experience of trying desperately to carve out some space for agency in an oppressive regime than a teenage girl?”

    It’s not too easy for gay males either.

  2. I am content to tell myself that everything I need know about HUNGER GAMES, I learned from watching the dystopian Japanese schoolyard horror film BATTLE ROYALE (2000). Of course I must be wrong, because I see a sequel has come out in which that archer girl is submitted to the games a second time, whereas in BATTLE ROYALE the emancipatory potential of never-ending high-stakes competition — i.e., the emergence of able dissidents who turn the systemic exhortation to violence against the very game that trained and armed them — explodes into bizarre images of insurrectionary utopia, where scrawny teenage Linux-savvy hacker and hot Asian checker-skirted schoolgirl unite and escape to the Tokyo underground (subway).

    The sexual politics remain problematic, but in a way that almost in spite of their own machismo hints at the exploitability of masculine exploitation: it’s primarily girls who RESIST the call to violence, whether because they feel incapable of it or because they withdraw from the field of competition to form a domestic enclave where they act compulsively as mothers, sisters, caregivers to the injured, &c. All in all, the film rewards all of these girls with the moral highground but toys with their vulnerability as moral exemplars undefended by less principled schoolboys. That second female resistance-formation to violence, the retreat into a makeshift domesticity, collapses to an outburst of the same female insecurities and self-hatreds that Lena Dunham likes to accessorize with — that is, it collapses to the psychic economy rendering the domestic a secret domain of violence too. (SURPRISE! It’s over a boy.) By then the film has suggested that this retreat to hearth and home is precisely a retreat, of an admirable but politically nil kind leaving no one the better (i.e., alive in two days) for having improvised tortellini from canned rations. Our admiration is meant to dim in light of this. What in the story proves more effective “politically” is the incandescently pure pacifism/passivity of a sweet, meek ingénue whose pathetic moral ideal (she never fights, somewhat more out of terror than principle) mobilizes heroic boys to band up, protect her, and mediate between her self-preservative instinct, her “constitutional unfitness” to kill, and the need to kill. SURPRISE! The movie broods anxiously over whether she will fight for her life as all the rest, especially her wardens, have had to, chose to, compromised themselves to, enjoyed having to. The movie’s final solution to the threats affronting its feminine ideal — and the movie’s internal antinomy of female passivity/instigation — isn’t perhaps interesting.

    So I take it the girl in HUNGER GAMES shoots to kill? She can’t any longer claim a traditional female exemption from a call to physical violence, while psychic disempowerment remains her heritage as a young girl, willing to cooperate and therefore to fight the fight, not fight the game or even stir others to fight game. Gosh, thirteen years and a diet of rice and fish sure make a difference.

Comments are closed.