by Devon Maloney)
It’s been nearly 30 years since Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. Portraying a future U.S. in which a religious military coup has obliterated women’s rights and relegated many to the role of domestic sex slaves, the groundbreaking novel invited the waves of opposition that meet so much great political literature, from conservative outcry to banning in schools, to the point where the American Library Association named it the 37th most frequently challenged book of the 1990s. To hear detractors tell it, The Handmaid’s Tale—with its depictions of sex and violence as well as its larger commentary about power hierarchies and the value they place on women—tells a story that is completely inappropriate for young people.
And then The Hunger Games happened.
In a post-Harry Potter world where YA fiction is mega-franchise fodder, feminist sci-fi authors descended from the Atwood school—albeit with decidedly less sexual themes—have produced some of the most popular books of the past decade, nearly all primarily geared toward young adult readers. Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy—the harbinger of the dystopian YA craze—has put approximately 65 million copies into circulation in the U.S. alone; the first two movie adaptations have already grossed more than $800 million together domestically (and the third book, Mockingjay, will be adapted into two films over the next few years, making the franchise a multibillion-dollar machine). There’s Lauren Oliver’s Delirium trilogy, and Marie Lu’s Legend, and of course, Veronica Roth’s Divergent. The latter, which stars a teenage girl born immune to her society’s people-classification system and fated to clash with its leaders, has put 13 million copies in circulation since April 2011 and will see its first film adaptation open in American theaters March 21.
The trend is well-documented, but one of the biggest questions it poses is rarely, if ever, asked: how did dystopia, a genre long hallmarked by largely adult (and often male) themes and characters, become so dominated by the young and female?
Teen Beat (The System)
The obvious answer is that it needed to. “There’s a craving in young people to see themselves represented,” says Veronica Roth. “For so long we’ve conditioned women to identify with male stories and female stories. We don’t do the same for men; they don’t have to identify with women at all. For young women, it’s starting to become a question of, ‘Why am I not on the page?’ That, of course, has gotten the genre a lot of criticism for just being chick books.”
That theory applies to pop culture in general, but as many see it, the dystopian future—one that mimics the present so well these days—is a perfect setting for empowerment themes that other genres can’t possibly tackle. “There’s something really powerful about setting up a destroyed, hopeless world and then having a character”—a female character, no less—”who has the agency to change it,” says Roth. “That’s more possible than it used to be for a larger group of people, even if we’re not there yet.”
“It’s a natural evolution of the women’s movement,” says Neil Burger, who directed Divergent‘s film version. “We’ve stumbled upon a way to explore how these young women are being empowered—to situate it in dystopic societies.” Roth’s Divergent books have been called a lot of things, the most notable being a Hunger Games knockoff, but one thing in particular keeps that from being true: Divergent isn’t a dystopia in the traditional sense. Its militant future world isn’t critical of current society as much as a character-driven allegory of youthful rebellion.
And that distinction is visible throughout much of this new wave of dystopian fiction. In fact, most of the genre’s successful stories are largely hero-growth pieces, using a future setting to propel a plot, rather than using the plot to illuminate a heavily metaphorical setting. That sort of narrative is much easier to sell in Hollywood’s blockbuster culture, and much easier for a wide audience to consume, even if it means the message—and the point the future world is making—runs the risk of being obscured by PR strategies and mainstream media.
“Divergent did have a sort of classic hero’s journey to it, and because it’s a young woman, she had more obstacles to overcome, which was far more interesting to me than a guy in a cape,” says Burger of his decision to take on the film. “Brave New World, Children of Men—those are stories about, ‘If we continue down this path as a society, this is what will happen.’ Divergent isn’t about that; it’s an artificial construct. You have to really think about how it’ll be relevant to people now.”
Allegory Be Damned, Life Stinks
And there’s yet another distinction to understand about the current YA flood, one that only emerges when you consider how the books are being published and the motivations of those who shepherd them to the mainstream. “The dystopias of the past were largely metaphorical political commentary,” says Scholastic VP and editorial director David Levithan, who has overseen the publication of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy since its beginning. “While these new books obviously do reflect the fears of the present day, there’s much more storytelling involved now. Although they can be read as allegories, I don’t think they’re written as allegories.”
In other words, Divergent and its peers are being judged by a dystopian standard that hasn’t really evolved to meet an era in which dystopia is all around us. These books succeed largely because, unlike the traditional understanding of the genre (though, as Levithan and other publishers note, “dystopian” isn’t really a genre, and only exists to identify the recent trend; “speculative fiction” is the larger sci-fi genre to which these books might have otherwise belonged), they offer hope to the young living in our real-life dystopia, where there’s rarely optimism to be found.
These YA dystopias have certainly over-flooded the markets, making us sick of seeing facsimile after facsimile of the same futuristic, oppressive/depressive world in which a young (most often white) protagonist prevails. But through the cries of market saturation and copy-paste plotting, the people behind this newest vision of young gloom remain (perhaps obligatorily) optimistic. “A lot of people said ‘sword-and-sandal’ was completely dead, but then we did Gladiator,” says Divergent producer Douglas Wick. “People said vampire stories were dead before Twilight. People said you couldn’t revive Batman and then Chris Nolan came along. There’s always some genuinely creative person, not a duplicator, who can make something fresh again.”
It’s worth asking why these stories would be declared dead in the water, too, just as they start appealing to a younger audience. (Before you say young people are only interested in it for the romance factor, please read this op-ed written by a high schooler.) The genre has simply expanded to reach a wider, less “hardcore sci-fi” audience in the same way that larger science-fiction culture has spread so extensively. Of course, just as this cycle of character-driven stories overtook the dystopian conversation, so could—and will—another wave. Dystopian literature, after all, is inherently in service to a skeptic underdog, and there will always be underdogs, just as there will always be futures to fear. Dystopia does not die, even when its books are burned.
As The Handmaid’s Tale and its ilk have demonstrated for decades, there’s rarely a dystopia that doesn’t receive its fair share of blowback. That’s not to say that Hunger Games or Divergent will (or should) be celebrated like its more cerebral forbears, but it should at least give weary cynics pause. There are a lot worse things that could be happening when it comes to society’s reading habits.