Monday, March 14, 2016

Guest Post: The Daring Heroines of Dystopian Fiction

Today we are pleased to welcome back Beth Madison to the blog.

The Daring Heroines of Dystopian Fiction

In today’s wave of popular YA dystopian fiction novels, strong women are taking charge. The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, and The Fifth Wave are all examples of this phenomenon, each finding success in both film and novel form. The books follow a similar template - the government has failed its citizens, society is falling apart, and now everything hinges on the will of a feisty female leader to break it all down and build it back up again. These protagonists are fearless. As readers, we can only hope that this trend in fiction reflects actual improvements in gender equality, as more people are exposed to the battles (both real and imagined) that women have conquered and won.

In each of these novels, the central female characters fight, lead, and rebel. Their gender is not a barrier or a handicap, even in battle. They are the protagonists and sometimes even the villains. This is the equality that women are still fighting for, and that young women in particular see as so close and so attainable. Women are now running for president, and combat roles in the military have finally been opened to them. The long, slow climb of several decades has become a sprint. Fiction reflects reality, but it also sometimes reflects the reality we desire rather than the one we truly have. This may be why now, in particular, these novels are catching fire.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers for a battle to the death in order to save her sister, despite being her family's sole provider. She not only manages to win that battle, but she is able to save the life of Peeta, the other volunteer from her district, turning the usual damsel in distress stereotype on its head. She then goes on to lead a revolution that overthrows the corrupt government entirely, thereby saving all the future children who would have otherwise been killed in public battle. She is a warrior and a woman, and does not have to compromise one for the other. This is something fans of the series clearly appreciate, and one thing that propelled the films, which can be seen online (more info) and on cable (details here), to the blockbuster status they attained.

The Divergent series also takes place in a world where the government artificially divides its people, and where gender inequality is seemingly non-existent. While there is plenty of injustice, and in fact one of Beatrice's deepest fears in the film in particular is shown to be rape, there does not seem to be a systematic bias against women. In fact, the leader of the Erudites and Tris' main nemesis in the film is a woman herself. Everyone is oppressed more or less equally. Though Tris starts out more concerned with saving herself than her family, unlike The Hunger Games, she also eventually leads a revolution that changes her whole world.

The Fifth Wave is slightly different. The enemy is not a corrupt government, but an invading extraterrestrial army. However, much like the other films, it quickly becomes a struggle for survival in which gender plays little to no role. The protagonist, Cassie, just wants to save what little family she has left from the invaders. She becomes a fighter because she has no choice - its fight or die. Though she needs to be taught more than the other protagonists on this list, she refuses to be used or manipulated. A big subplot is learning who to trust, and learning that evil can hide behind a pleasing facade. This is a lesson that all young girls are taught early in life, and it certainly resonates in this story.

In the end, what may be most appealing about the recent wave of female-led dystopian fiction is that while gender isn't the main focus, neither is it ignored. Romance is allowed, as is vulnerability. Neither of these things are depicted as weaknesses, however, nor do any of the women in the novels need rescuing by men. They are rescued and rescuers in equal measure. It is liberating to be immersed in fiction where, though there is still struggle and strife, the huge burden of gender inequality has finally been lifted.

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