How Dystopian Young Adult Literature Fosters Feminism in Teenagers
By Trisha Saxena
Dystopian literature has become a very popular genre among young adult readers. This research paper will examine the connection between dystopian young adult literature (DYAL) and one of the key ideas of feminism, i.e., that of encouraging women to diverge from traditional gender norms if they wish to do so. According to Scholes and Ostenson (n.d.), dystopian fiction “satirizes utopian ideals” and focuses on the idea that, having allowed “government, technology, [or] commercialization to run amok,” humanity is responsible for the destruction of society due to its “incompetence, consent, or complacency.”In contrast to utopian fiction, which idealizes society and promises a better future, dystopian fiction often takes a more cynical approach. It emphasizes the idea that society must be held responsible for its own destruction since it has been complacent enough to allow the government, technology, or commercialisation to lose their accountability and gain complete control over society’s functioning. DYAL uses a traditional coming-of-age story set against the background of a society in turmoil to convey the idea that young adults can be the agents that help society regain its control. Often, the protagonist of the novel is rebellious and has a need to disrupt the current social order to bring about some sort of change. These novels can be even more powerful when they feature a woman as the protagonist, because the character’s position in the story challenges those societal roles that emphasize passivity and helplessness in a woman. This image of a strong, outspoken leader has the potential to inspire young women to break out of stereotypical gender roles and explore their identities more freely. Pre-established gender norms in society can have their benefits (such as providing a sense of identity or security) but may also have far greater costs that affect adolescents. According to Witt (1997), “These costs include limiting opportunities for both boys and girls, ignoring talent, and perpetuating unfairness in our society.” While not all gender roles are harmful, they perpetuate stereotypes about how one is expected to behave in society. Gender-based stereotypes can create barriers that prevent individuals, particularly women, from accessing opportunities, whether economic, political, or social.
It is important for us, then, to understand the role that these rebellious female protagonists play in shaping the identities of young women and the possibility of a feminist thought process in teenagers in general. It is particularly useful in helping us understand how far we can push the idea of rebelling against pre-established social structures, in order to influence teenagers to actively participate in solving social issues so they may bring a positive change to the world.This research paper will examine The Hunger Games as an example of a dystopian young adult novel, and whether its portrayal of a strong female character encourages feminist ideals in teenagers, leading to a broader questioning of societal structures.This paper will argue that female protagonists in dystopian young adult novels encourage adolescents to oppose gender-based norms of behaviour. This internal rejection of established social norms can encourage an interest in other activist movements through the broader questioning of established social structures.
Adolescents and Gender Roles
Gender roles are a pervasive aspect of society and influence the way people behave on a daily basis. They consist of prescriptive standards for one’s behavior in society, and usually pertain to the “division of labor” and “child-rearing” processes between men and women (“Gender Role”, n.d.). Gender roles provide a model for the way men and women are expected to behave and to present themselves in society based solely on their gender. In terms of personality traits, the “ideal woman” is considered to be one with “emotions reflecting insufficient power”, including being “overly emotional”, and displaying little to no anger, while the “ideal man” is considered to be one who “reflect[s] little or no emotion”, along with displays of “heightened anger and aggression” (Gerber, 2008, p. 309). These expectations of personality traits generally display women as being passive and less in control of themselves, while men are displayed as aggressive and exhibiting more self-restraint. Pre-conceived notions of behavior can influence the way women and men are viewed and treated in society. For example, women are often viewed as less competent than men, and as such have far less influence on their colleagues. As a result, they are required to establish their competency and to display far greater warmth and collaboration than men (Carli, 2001). Women are required to adjust their behavior and attitude in the workplace in order to seem more competent, particularly because the expectation of society is that women are far less competent than men. Thus, gender roles require women in particular to exhibit characteristics such as passivity that they may not inherently possess. This can be incredibly restrictive and prevents women from expressing their gender identities the way they wish to.
Adolescents learn to behave according to these gender roles from a very young age, and this can affect the way they view and express themselves. While the way parents raise their children can influence the development of gender roles related behavior in children (Witt, 1997), the media they consume in the form of television, video games, and even literature, can influence their perception of gender roles. Adolescents use this media to self-socialise, i.e., to directly influence their own social development, and it plays a great role in the formation of their identity (Arnett, 1995). For adolescents, the portrayal of men and women in traditional gender roles in the media they consume emphasizes the idea that these norms are societally accepted and even valued. For example, video games may portray women as dependent and subordinate to men, and since traditional roles are generally rewarded, girls and boys may come to accept these ideas (Dietz, 1998). The belief that traditional gender roles are rewarded encourages adolescents to accept and follow these roles in order to fulfill social expectations and feel accepted by others. Thus, media representations and parental attitudes influence the way adolescents currently view gender roles.
Portrayal of Young Adults in DYAL
While other forms of media provide adolescents with traditional gender models, DYAL can provide them with an alternative. The manner in which DYAL authors treat the characters, particularly the protagonists, influences the way readers view themselves. In particular, the manner in which characters and their personality traits are portrayed can have a lasting effect on the way readers express themselves and their personalities. This section will examine major personality traits that indicate a subversion of societal expectations for women and will explain how these personality traits indicate a subversion. Protagonists of DYAL, whether male or female, often exhibit a complete dissatisfaction with the world they live in, as in any other dystopian novel, but they also exhibit a desire and an inherent ability to execute their plans to bring about change. In this regard, they are quite ambitious and build a connection with the reader through their deeper understanding of the flaws of the world. Another important aspect of the portrayal of young adults is their recognition of their own agency and their awareness that they are a part of something much bigger than themselves (Scholes & Ostenson, n.d.). This self-awareness exhibited by young adults in DYAL gives readers the opportunity to introspect and understand their own strengths and weaknesses, thus connecting with the reader on a more personal level. Aside from these two characteristics, female protagonists in DYAL exhibit four major personality traits that indicate a major subversion of traditionally feminine gender roles.
One of the most easily identifiable and obvious personality traits that female protagonists in DYAL exhibit is that of leadership ability. DYAL often subverts the idea that women are unsuitable for leadership roles. When a female character is placed at the center of the story, she is, through this very position, subverting the traditional gender role. She is the one who drives the story forward through her actions and decisions. Within the story itself, the female protagonist often becomes the face of a rebellion, and eventually leads the people to a victory against the authoritarian government. For example, the character of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games trilogy exhibits leadership qualities when she chooses to kill President Coin as recognition that the President is a danger to the people in the land of Panem and cannot actually bring any change to the society. This idea is reflected in her thoughts:
Because something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children's lives to settle its differences. You can spin it any way you like. Snow thought the Hunger Games were an efficient means of control. Coin thought the parachutes would expedite the war. But in the end, who does it benefit? No one. The truth is, it benefits no one to live in a world where these things happen (Collins, 2010, p.169).
These choices indicate a sense of caring about the greater good, and an ability to make decisions (no matter how violent) and stand by them. Another aspect of leadership is problem-solving, as exhibited by the protagonist Tris Prior in the Divergent trilogy when she finds a solution for her team to win during a game of Capture the Flag (Roth, 2011). The ability to think quickly and figure out a viable solution is an important leadership quality that female protagonists tend to display in DYAL, thus subverting the idea that women are dependent on men.
Another very important subversive personality trait exhibited by female protagonists is their ability to engage in violent behavior when the situation calls for it, with complete disregard for traditionally feminine roles that emphasize non-violence. DYAL often portrays female protagonists with an exceedingly strong ability to display aggression when the need arises. In situations where the character is required to defend herself using violent means, she will almost certainly fire the arrow from her bow, because she has trained herself to survive. However, even when she believes an injustice is taking place, she will react in a more aggressive manner to defend the people who are being treated unjustly. It may be said that these characters exhibit a willingness to participate in violence. For example, Katniss becomes willing to eliminate her rivals during the Hunger Games (a televised fight to the death between several teenagers from different districts of Panem) in order to survive:
The weapons give me an entirely new perspective on the Games. I know I have tough opponents left to face. But I am no longer merely prey that runs and hides or takes desperate measures. If Cato broke through the trees right now, I wouldn’t flee, I’d shoot. I find I’m actually anticipating the moment with pleasure (Collins, 2008, p.195).
Katniss’s anticipation of the moment in which she will attack her rival presents her willingness to act violently without any inhibitions. This is not to say that this willingness to participate in violence is a positive character trait, of course, but it cannot be denied that it depicts a divergence from the traditional gender norms of society.
Possibly the most important character trait, however, is the female protagonist’s complete indifference towards the pursuit of romantic relationships. DYAL often focuses on more important aspects than romance by placing female protagonists in positions where they often have to think about their family, friends, and the greater good, and romantic relationships are often placed at the bottom of their priority list. Hall (2012) examines Katniss’s rejection of femininity in her fear of being seen as weak when Peeta proclaims his love for her, and her confusion and refusal to think about pursuing a romantic relationship until she needs to use it to keep herself alive during the Hunger Games. Katniss’s resignation to the idea that she needs to pretend to be in a relationship with Peeta in order to stay alive becomes a prominent feature of the second novel in the series, but any romantic feelings she may have for him are completely overshadowed by her contribution to the rebellion and her need to protect her mother and sister, thus suggesting that she does not have much concern for these feelings, or/and does not believe they require as much attention as other, more important problems (Collins, 2009).
The role Katniss plays in her family can also be used as an example of a character that subverts traditional gender roles. Hall (2012) explains, “[Katniss] and Gale have to be breadwinners for their families due to the deaths of their fathers; they hunt illegally in the woods in order to acquire food and to make some money. Hunting and providing for the family are typically masculine activities.” (p. 39) Katniss is forced to provide for her mother and sister after her father’s death, due to her mother’s inability to work following a mental breakdown. In this way, her character subverts the traditional gender role of a woman as a stay at home mother who is expected to engage in housekeeping duties, while the husband takes on the role of the breadwinner. While it can certainly be argued that Katniss’s unique situation forces her to take up this role, it is worth noting that she does ultimately make the choice to do so, when she could just as easily reject the idea of becoming a breadwinner for her family.
Additionally, DYAL may also subvert traditional masculine roles, by portraying male characters as more passive and unwilling to participate in violence, as in the case of Peeta Mellark in the Hunger Games trilogy (Woloshyn, Taber, & Lane, 2013). While the female protagonists display a clear rejection of femininity through their character traits, male characters display their rejection of masculine roles in a much subtler manner, and usually through actions that seem insignificant. In the Hunger Games, Peeta’s willingness to repeatedly express his emotions and be open about his feelings for Katniss reflect a diversion from the traditional masculine role of being unexpressive, or remaining aloof (Hall, 2012). However, the portrayal of male characters rejecting masculine gender roles is just as important, in order to encourage male readers to diverge from traditional roles that enforce potentially toxic behaviour defined as a “drive to dominate” and an “endorsement of misogynistic and homophobic views” (Parent, Gobble, and Rochlen, 2018.)
While these character traits aren’t directly linked to the idea of feminism, the idea behind them is certainly a reflection of the movement. One of the core aspects of feminism, particularly Second Wave feminism, centers around liberating women from the gender roles that are constantly imposed upon them and giving them the freedom to make their own choices without any external societal pressures (Lorber, 2010). The portrayal of female protagonists in DYAL exhibits this idea, because characters express themselves freely and without any consideration for societal expectations. Smith (2014) argues that these characters only exhibit feminist tendencies while they are in extraordinary situations and seem to fall back on traditional gender roles when their society has returned to normal, thus diminishing the value of the feminist message in these novels. While this is definitely true, it is worth noting that these characters do not necessarily lose their feminist qualities by adapting to certain gender roles. Katniss does get married and have children, but this doesn’t mean she’s no longer willing to stand up for what she believes in. Similarly, Tris in the Divergent trilogy becomes a martyr, but this does not take away from the idea that she was a strong, independent leader. In fact, it may be said that the adaptation of certain gender roles exhibits the idea that feminist character traits and traditionally feminine roles aren’t mutually exclusive things, but they can co-exist with one another.
How Can Protagonists Become Role Models for Teenagers?
DYAL enhances feminist ideals for teenagers and leads to protagonists becoming role models for them because of the similarities between the experiences of the two. Adolescents see reflections of themselves in DYAL protagonists. Scholes & Ostenson (n.d.) believe young adults experience a similar, but internal growth that protagonists in DYAL experience in a more directly recognizable manner. While protagonists in DYAL become aware of the very obvious inhumanities in their society, teenagers begin to recognize the subtle imperfections in their immediate surroundings and begin questioning authoritative behavior. One such “imperfection” is the establishment and perpetuation of pre-existing gender roles. Recognizing the flaws in gender roles can lead to a process of growth where teenagers stop accepting traditional gender roles. Adolescents also find comfort in the emotions that protagonists portray in DYAL. Scholes & Ostenson argue, “They find kindred spirits, then, in the protagonists of dystopian literature who, by virtue of their growing awareness of society's flaws, find themselves similarly isolated from adults and even from their own peers,” (n.d., para. 17). At an age where they are increasingly concerned with their status within society and amongst their peers, adolescents can begin to feel isolated if they don’t fit in to the social standards that they believe they are expected to conform to. In the context of gender norms, the recognition of the flaws in gender roles can make teenagers feel isolated if they do not wish to conform to these norms. Recognizing a similar feeling of isolation in a fictional character can provide adolescents with a sense of belonging that helps them come to terms with their identities, particularly those aspects that contradict societal expectations.Thus, finding a connection between their experiences and the experiences of protagonists can allow teenagers to use protagonists as role models.
Using DYAL to Empower Adolescents toward Social Change
DYAL acts as a driving force by encouraging teenagers to participate in social activism through the evocation of empathy and the portrayal of agnetic adolescents. Reading fiction in general enhances empathy, or the ability to detect and understand others’ emotions (Kidd & Castano, 2013). The representation of characters in distressing situations along with an insight into their emotions can evoke a sense of understanding for their problems. This empathy may be reflected in real world understandings and behavior, because an increased sense of empathy implies a concern for others and the awareness of the impact of one’s choices. Empathy is particularly important in being able to understand social justice movements (Segal and Wagaman, 2017). Participating in social activist movements and attempting to gain equal treatment for minorities is only possible through understanding the problems these disadvantaged groups face. Thus, empathy evoked through reading fiction can encourage an interest in activist movements that aim to bring a positive change to society by giving a voice to groups of minorities are oppressed or ignored. Furthermore, the recognition by fictional characters of their own agency and the “exercise of agency and responsibility”, which is an important aspect of their strengths may also drive an interest in social change (Scholes & Ostenson, n.d., para 22). The understanding that protagonists possess their own agency and can challenge authoritarian laws by being proactive rather than reactive, allows teenagers to accept their own agency. Recognizing the flaws in social structures and understanding the role of activist movements in fixing these flaws can encourage adolescents to engage themselves in political and social movements.
There are several real-world examples of activists or activist groups that have been inspired by DYAL. The Hunger Games trilogy has been the most influential series in inspiring activist movements. The #MyHungerGames movement on Twitter, for example, aimed to highlight daily realities that people face due to income inequality issues in the USA (Burris, 2014). Using the series as a way to connect with people allows activist groups to provide them with a platform to talk about these issues. Activist groups can use the series to connect with people and provide a discussion platform about these issues. In another example, protesters in Bangkok were detained for using Katniss’s three-fingered salute as a symbol of silent rebellion against the military coup in May 2014 (Mydans, 2014). In 2015 the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations initiated the “We are the Districts” Campaign to bring attention to poverty and economic inequalities in the USA (Hentges, 2015). The campaign name refers to the districts that revolt against the economic policies imposed on them by the Capitol in the trilogy, thus using the series to highlight similar economic issues in the USA. This is helping the organization create awareness and encouraging union workers to talk about issues of economic inequality.
Gender roles in society can be incredibly restrictive and the role they play during a child’s transition to adulthood is important to their identities. In particular, the role of parents and media consumed by teens is important to their understanding of traditional gender roles. Dystopian young adult literature, through its portrayal of subverted feminine gender roles, encourages teenagers to use female protagonists as role models to explore their identities more freely, thus encouraging feminist ideals that emphasize diverging from traditional gender roles. While feminist ideals aren’tdirectly emphasized in these novels, their underlying plot points correspond to these ideals, thus encouraging them in teenagers. Moreover, the similarities in the experiences of teenagers and protagonists (i.e., the questioning authoritative behaviour, a need to fit in with peers and/or the resulting social isolation, etc.) allows them to use these characters as role models for diverging from gender norms. Lastly, the portrayal of agency by these characters and the empathy evoked through reading their stories can encourage teenagers to participate in social activist movements, and several activist movements and groups that have taken inspiration from DYAL do exist. Thus, DYAL encourages feminism in teenagers and provides the support that incites them to become socially active. Since DYAL can have a lasting impact on its readers, it is worth considering the broader real-world implications of dystopian literature in general. Fiction is usually considered a form of entertainment and nothing more, but it does influence the way we think and behave. Perhaps dystopian fiction serves as a predictor of society’s future, but it also encourages society to reflect on itself and keep itself in check so that the government, technology, or commercialization do not eventually take over and turn fiction into reality. Most importantly, it forces one to question whether society is slowly heading towards this chaotic future, or, worse still, whether one is already living in it.
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