Monday, January 19, 2015

Oppressive Regimes in YA Literature

We could all write papers on commonalities shared by the "governments" depicted in these series:
They all practice deception and manipulation of the populace. They all divide citizens into castes of some type, each receiving entitlements or suffering inhuman burdens. They all exist in the context of some type of post-war or post-apocalyptic earth. They are all, ultimately, something to resist, to decry, to fight.

That's the short-form and I'm sure you could create a longer, more detailed list of similarities. You might also add more series titles, perhaps THE MAZE RUNNER or ENDER'S GAME, to fit into this category. But, what I want to discuss (to wonder) here is...


Is this phenomenon similar to the "orphan" motif in kidlit? From Oliver Twist to Anne of Green Gables, and from Jane Eyre to Harry Potter, taking away the "security blanket" of parents gives young protagonists both vulnerability and a unique and appealing sense of agency. Is an external oppressor, such as a terrible regime, just a different way to create a similarly disenfranchised yet compellingly independent main character while also letting them have siblings or parents about whom they can care?

Or is the repressive regime an indicator of something else happening in our actual world culture? Like the workhouses and abusive guardians of kidlit yore which, although extreme, might have been somehow feasible to readers of past centuries, perhaps today's YA consumers see elements of totalitarianism all around them. Suzanne Collins cited reality television as one of her inspirations for her stories of Katniss Everdeen. Marie Lu published the first LEGEND title in the wake of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, WikiLeaks, the massive Haitian earthquake of 2010, and the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"--all situations in which the actions of those in power, including their actions with respect to when and how they informed the public, were under constant scrutiny.

We might even stretch this thesis to incorporate the sub-category of government interference in love relationships in series such as Allie Condie's MATCHED, Lauren Oliver's DELIRIUM and Kira Cass's THE SELECTION. Do sites like eHarmony and, actually, Match, make people feel more hopeful or more vulnerable about love and the possibility that it can be explained by algorithm?

Today, as situations like the tragic events in Ferguson and the assassination of two police officers in Brooklyn fill our media feeds, is it any wonder that the literature being read by the Twitter and Instagram generation features a frightening subtext of "who can we trust"? The fictional "near-future" of DIVERGENT seems plausible to them and Tris's questioning of authority feels just and heroic.

I began writing this post after finishing reading Legend and while writing a contemporary YA manuscript which, like my previous books, does not contain dystopian or futuristic elements. I was wondering whether I was being stubborn by refusing to write in the spirit of our current zeitgeist. To this question, I still do not have an answer. Perhaps the truth is that I don't like looking at or world as a place where even democracies hover on the brink of becoming something less free.

Is that what you see?

1 comment:

Ellie said...

Being a YA reader, the dystopian worlds resonate with most of us teenagers in ways that adults forget becuase they've forgotten what it felt like to be a teenager. We are the age where we aren't children, but also not adults. We are definitely treated differently by eveyrone. Techonology has also created a different world from our parents which causes rifts that may feel like they don't understand us. That creates a type of world view where it's a "me vs them" reality that the child has to 'break free from their restrains'. The fact that the dystopian worlds can become a part of our society now, is what also attracts readers. There's so much happening and so much stimuli that teenagers are being manipulated everyday. Media had already held a large population under its thumb about their beliefs of beauty, intelligence, etc., but now that the internet has become an integral part of almost everyone's lives, it's going to get worst. The events happening around the world are just a sign that maybe our world isn't as pretty as most people think it is. At least, that's what I've learned by observing the reactions of people online and offline. My AP English teacher told us that poets and writers are the first to see the future becuase what they write is based on the world around them. If what's being written is a reflection of what's to come, why not have teenagers be the heroes of the stories? We are the future of the world, but our future is being deteremined by the adults in our lives and their influences may be good or bad. What us teenagers are getting from most adults, is that yes, we are the next generation, but we are not 'mature' enough to understand what's going on. That's why dystopian novels are so fascinating. They're a reflection of the world around us and gives us hope that maybe we won't make the same mistakes as our ancestors.