Friday, May 3, 2013

Brave New Girls: What it means to be a heroine in dystopian YA literature

If I were in New York City, I would definitely be going to this talk on May 10. The editors of the forthcoming book Contemporary Fiction for Young Adults: Brave New Teenagers will discuss the intersections between dystopias and pop culture, examining the hows and whys of the dystopian trend in contemporary young adult literature.

This relates to Alya's post from yesterday, where she mused over the popularity of certain kinds of young adult books. In fact, just the other day, Alya and I were chatting and marveling about how the dystopian trend hasn't yet hit a saturation point in the YA market. Why is this, do you think? Is it because audiences were so captivated by the thrilling Hunger Games that they just want more reading experiences like that? Is it because teenagers now live in a post-9/11 America, where a palpable awareness of terrorism gives rise to fear, and teens need to read comforting tales of heroes trumping totalitarian societies? Or is it simply because this is our culture's version of the mythic hero tale? Instead of knights questing to eradicate a monster and bring back some sort of treasure to the ruling party, we now have teenage protagonists (usually female) questing to overthrow a frightening dictatorship and return life to a semblance of "normal."

So the next question is why the teenage girl protagonist? Obviously there is science fiction and dystopian literature that features adult protagonists, but it is the work that follows the teenager's journey that has so populated the market. I might suggest that the fight against authority and the ultimate triumph of the teenage hero is a [wishful] metaphor for the move from adolescence to adulthood, a fantastical one where the adolescent successfully finds her place after the trials and tribulations of "figuring it all out."

Of course, we know that life is never that easy -- the time period between adolescence and adulthood is increasingly murky, and even if one "grows up" successfully (e.g. has a job they don't hate and enough money to live on their own), the story doesn't end there.

But frequently in dystopian literature, the story does end with the ultimate triumph of the female protagonist. She has suffered loss, yes, and she must cope with the drastic changes that her decisions have led to, but she is also wiser, and she has a place of relative power in this new society. Her journey has led her from being acted upon to being the actor.

So maybe what this boils down to (admittedly simplisticly) is that teenagers (and adults, too) are drawn to dystopian young adult literature for the hope they provide. Ultimately, don't we all want to believe that we would be actors and not acted-upon, come the revolution? Even if we know that the majority of people will let change happen TO them, we can read works that allow us to align with the people who CREATE that change.

We can pretend that we are brave new heroes.

1 comment:

  1. Great post; I hope others join this discussion because it's everywhere we turn these days.

    You make an interesting observation: most of the current dystopian novels have female protagonists. I think it merits some further exploration as to why female, why the girl teenager versus the boy. Of course, there are usually male companions who evolve alongside or because of the girl, but that doesn't change the fact that the girl is the main character.

    This is just a thought I'm having in the moment and might be completely off base, but boys originally had adventure tales while girls had more domestic stories. Now, given the turn to dystopia -- altered worlds, more treacherous, malignant, dangerous, totalitarian, etc -- why should girls be given the spotlight now? I like your suggestion that survival through this authoritarian world can serve as a metaphor for that transition into adulthood, yet I have to question why girls are predominantly given this environment in which to survive. Is it a subconscious decision to illustrate that females have a more difficult real world to contend with in general, in terms of real social and political structures? I'm kind of rambling here--thinking about the marginalized state of women through history, being given this spotlight now, growing and challenging authorities that boys don't have to engage in or initiate.

    Or on the flipside, the recognition that the girl has much more strength than previously conceived, and much more agency than granted before. But then, who is granting it? Sigh. Circles in my head.