Do you feel like you are living in an oppressive world where you just can’t accomplish anything because of overbearing authoritarians who are making near-senseless rules, doling out indiscriminate and meaningless punishments, and setting restrictive curfews that curtail your own individuality and sense of importance… Well congratulations you might just be a teenager, or a protagonist in a young adult dystopia book. Titles like Hunger Games, Divergent, The Giver, Maze Runner, Ready Player One, and Cat in the Hat, have exploded in sales as everyone from your preteen niece to that weird guy who shops at Forever 21 rush out to get the latest titles of YA dystopia. These books have been adapted to blockbuster and quick-cash-grab movies, even as this genre continues to explode all over the shelves of Barnes and Nobles, and… well that’s really the only bookstore left.
So what does this mean, and will we ever explain the punchline of that Cat in the Hat joke? You’ll just have to keep reading to find out…
The Insurgent Series
For a long time dystopia was really a genre for adults. Think of the classic dystopia that you have read in school: Brave New World, 1984, Do Robots Dream of Electric Sleep -AKA Bladerunner-, Fahrenheit 451, etc. These books were written with a purpose in mind. Dystopia is a history of the future, a mirror reflection of our own time. At their core they are thought experiments conducted about the trends and issues we see around us, which elevates them to something more than entertainment. When writers write dystopia they are actually writing about our own world… Or at least, that was how we used to think of dystopian novels. YA dystopia is something different, entirely.
Children -and especially teens– can relate to dystopia in the same way that your weird uncle relates to his dog… they just get each other. All the elements of dystopia are present in teenage lives: an overbearing and seemingly unjust authority figure, social pressure for conformity, the feeling of powerlessness, strange fashion choices, etc. And of course, dystopia novels are all about the protagonist who rebels against the status quo, and rebellion is an inherent milestone in growing up. The desire to redefine the world and your life is one of the hallmarks of moving from childhood to adulthood, same as it is for dystopian stories. That is doubly true when growing up in 2018, when compared with growing up in 1958. Dystopia has reached its height of popularity, because we look around and we see a world that is a bit dystopic. Kids today are growing up in a world that was screwed up by their parents and their parents’ parents, and they know it. Decisions on issues like global warming and the growing debt crisis were made for them before they were even born. They are the generation who may get left holding the bucket, and that adds to feelings of helplessness, anxiety over the future, and other impulses that draw people to dystopian literature.
Yet, we would be remiss if we did not bring up that there is something off about this new breed of dystopia. This is not your father’s world of fascist faceless government oppression. That could be because YA books and movies draw on very familiar and predictable beats. Each book, whether it follow Katniss or Wade Wilson hits similar and steady story point: Contrived plots, vague background/histories, love triangles, inter-generational conflict, sequel possibilities, and a generally unsatisfying commentary/conclusion. Now this is not a criticism of the genre, but it is a sign of something else that is going on with both these books, and with society in general.
The Givers and the Takers
In a very general sense, dystopia can fall into two broader categories: “Anti-Capitalism” or “Anti-Government.” There are stories where dystopian societies come about because of capitalism run amok. In Bladerunner and -the highly recommended Netflix show, Altered Carbon– the enemies are often the corporations. These monolithic institutions that have enough money to run society from the shadows, if not in the open. The flip side of that grayed-out-coin, are stories where governments become oppressive totalitarian regimes, such as in Animal Farm and A Brave New World. There is of course, some overlap, but in political terms -because this is the world we now live in- you can basically break it down to right-wing and left-wing societies. The enemy is either overpowered corporations, or overpowered welfare states, and in the old days a lot of these books were written in response to Communism or Capitalism.
These two different types of dystopian societies were fairly well balanced coming into the late 90’s, but YA literature shifted that equilibrium. Almost exclusively we now see dystopian stories that lean more toward a right-wing attitude, where “big government” becomes the enemy. The Hunger Games, Divergent, and especially The Giver, all depict these types of society. The Giver in-particular depicts a “hellish” society where children are raised communally; where traditional gender roles are abolished; and where inflammatory language, experiences, and feelings have been purged. Its a world where people spend all days riding around on bicycles instead of gas-guzzling cars. Now we all loved the book as kids, but looking back at it, the oppressive regime of The Giver sounds more like a hippy commune than a traditional fascist state. You can even argue that in Ready Player One -despite the enemy being the IOI corporation- that it is actually a pro-capitalist book. After all, the true master of the oppressive society is Gregarious Simulation Systems, which runs the virtual world of the OASIS. The whole point of the book is not to rebel against that society, but to compete to take ownership of it. The book is about maintaining a status quo where the entire world is run by a corporation. That’s like an Ayn Rand utopia.
Of course, maybe we shouldn’t expect anything different, given our own world. We live in a time where corporations are powerful enough to send rockets to space. Kids have been raised with Twitter, Amazon, Google, IKEA, and more. In fact, these books and movies are only popular because of corporations and capitalism. YA novels are big business, and YA dystopian movies bring in a lot of money for those very same monolithic and faceless corporations that would make Fritz Lang blush, -that’s a deep cut joke. The Hunger Games trilogy sold 36.5 million copies, and two of its movies are on the list of the top 50 biggest opening weekends on record. The Divergent trilogy held the first, second and third places on the American bestseller list at the start of 2014. And none of this even cracks the numbers made by other movies hoping to capitalize on this trend, The Maze Runner, Ready Player One, The 5th Wave, that on with Tim Robbins… Do you remember, when Apple created that 1984-style commercial? Well, they are now in the Top 5 of Fortune 500 companies with a customer base that is almost cultishly loyal. Capitalism is freer and more rampant than anytime in modern history… So, why is big-government so often the YA boogeyman?
The Hunger Games: The Mocking of Nurture
The biggest difference between Old Dystopia and YA Dystopia are the protagonists and their journeys. In Fahrenheit 451, the protagonist, Montague, starts the book as a brainwashed fireman, a person responsible for maintaining the oppressive society. By the end of the book he has realized the error of his ways and disappears into the wilderness, leaving society. He is a normal person, and the same could be said of the protagonists of 1984, A Brave New World, and the list goes on. They are normal people and their personal journeys are the center of their books. They do very little to affect larger change in their societies. They do not change the system or collapse the government. Their journeys are personal.
Compare that with Katniss Everdeen, Jonas from The Giver, or whoever Shailene Woodley portrays… where going to say Girly McSpecialPerson… These characters are “chosen ones.” Katniss is the Girl on Fire. Girly McSpecialPerson is Divergent. Jonas is selected to be the next Giver. They are unique, and their actions redefine their societies, changing them if not outright demolishing them. Their journeys are less internal and more external. They all have 3+ books to rebel and fight against society, because they inherently know the difference between right and wrong… and that is something worth talking about. Classic dystopia was about waking up to realize what is wrong with a society, it was about fighting against what you were taught to come to a greater truth. While, protagonists in YA dystopia inherently know the difference between right and wrong. They are not affected by the environment they grew up in, thus they become an argument for nature over nurture.
All of this is fine, but it gets worrying when you think about the message that it gives kids. It’s like saying, “you don’t need to look both ways before crossing the street because you are inherently special and know the difference between a clear street and an oncoming car,” or “hey kids, Tide Pods are delicious.” Now, we are not claiming this is some right-wing conspiracy that promotes an inherently-great-man-view-of-history, but it does -kind of- promote the idea that kids don’t need to question their own feelings or their own thoughts. They don’t need to worry about if they are the ones inadvertently helping an evil society to flourish, because they naturally know if something is right. If there is no internal journey from brainwashed citizen to questioning outsider, than the dystopia genre ceases to be a warning against possible futures. Instead, it really just becomes an alternate reality adventure story.
Ready Player Won?
Remember, dystopia is an inherently American tradition. We love to obsess over how our society can go wrong -even more than how it can go right- and what we get in characters like Katniss is the ultimate example of individualism. She is a maverick, which is something every American politician, CEO, and street-corner vendor is trying to convince us that he/she is. To be a maverick is to be almost cliched American. As such these new dystopias reinforce our ethos of individualism, it reinforces capitalism, and thus it reinforces our own way of life. These books, unlike classic dystopia, do not criticize American society, they prop it up. They remind us how grateful we should be to not live in Panem, or the Community, or wherever it is Shailene Woodley lives at any given moment.
In the end, this new way to approach dystopia may just be a by-product of our country at the moment. Books and movie are often just an extension of our own dreams or fears. The rise of totalitarian government dystopia corresponds pretty close with the progressive movement of Barrack Obama, and that may not be a coincidence. Maybe we are all like teenagers sometimes, fearing an oppressive presence that is going to tell us what to do. Maybe following the adventures of Katniss is a way for all of us to feel like individuals again, like hopeful teenagers again.
So, we may live in a society where we have vague and undefined freedoms, but at least we don’t live in a hellish world run by Donald Sutherland or a giant walking talking near-omnipotent cat in striped headgear that toys with children as if they were mice right before dinnertime… And you thought we forget about that joke.