Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Event: Girlpower? Teenage Heroines in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction (Part 3)

(If you missed them, please check out parts one and two!)

Finally, it was time for questions! I got the ball rolling, noting that I thought it was interesting that Tally was the more progressive of the two characters when laid out side-by-side like this, yet Tally came into being five years or so before Katniss, and I wondered if Broad saw anything of significance in that we went "backwards," so to speak. She responded that Tally as a character-type certainly never had a chance to be cemented like Katniss has been, due to The Hunger Games' explosive popularity. Tally seems to be unique, unfortunately, and Broad didn't have any other texts to reference for characters like Tally. Uglies may be the only contemporary YA dystopian story with a progressive character like Tally.

Next question was about whether either author had written about their goals in writing these stories and characters. Broad mentioned Scott Westerfeld's Blog and how he has said many times that he was interested in writing about rebellion, and that Westerfeld has edited an anthology of other writers writing about his work, from which we can infer at the very least which opinions on his work he considers worth looking into, even if they weren't his exact intention. Suzanne Collins, on the other hand, doesn't keep a blog and has said less about her goals in writing The Hunger Games, other than the famous story of how she was flipping between coverage of the Iraq War and reality television.

Another audience member wanted Broad's opinion on The Hunger Games movie, as the plot seems more straightforward in the film, and she wondered how it might influence the audience's perception of the story. Broad noted that since the books are from Katniss' perspective, not only do we have her constant inner dialogue, but we never get to leave her point of view. Because so much of the romance plot in the first book is from Katniss' inner turmoil about it, Broad felt that in the movie it was actually less pronounced. Additionally, in the film the idea of the brewing revolution is amplified, because we get to cut away from the Games as see more of the Capitol, President Snow, and the general political state of Panem, meaning that from a revolutionary perspective, the movie might be even more interesting than the book.

And then possibly my favorite questioner brought up issues of race and heteronormativity, first asking about the intersection of girlpower and the predominantly white narrative (perhaps best exemplified by the uproar over casting a Black actor as Rue, though personally I would have added the uproar over casting a blond white woman for a character described as having olive skin and brown hair), and then wondering if YA fiction for women is experimental enough to challenge the heteronormative narrative. First, Broad acknowledges that YA dystopian fiction, and YA lit in general, is very whitewashed (a topic regular readers of this blog are surely familiar with at this point). Hunger Games has some awareness of race, but it's not foregrounded (and I wish Broad had taken time here to point out that in some ways race is completely eliminated from the picture in Uglies, as Tally notes that, at least after the Pretty surgery, everyone is the same shade of tan). Readers bring in assumptions of whiteness, and in order to fight that assumption authors need to do more than offer vague cues of "olive" or "dark" skin.

Second, in order to challenge a heteronormative narrative (I just like repeating that phrase), it requires an active, conscious step, that few (if any) books are making now. She also took this time to bring up how there is no disability in these stories. There is a lot of potential for the genre to explore and challenge assumptions of race, sexuality, able-bodiness, etc, but the drive to cash in on this super hot genre may limit the drive to challenge and experiment.

And what did I think of the whole presentation?

There was a boatload of details here - seriously, even though this summary has spanned over three posts, I still have un-tapped notes. And, due to the speed of the presentation, I'm sure that I missed more than a few details. Hopefully none ended up misrepresenting Broad's point of view.

When it comes to analyzing The Hunger Games, I never would have thought to look at it through the lens of its romantic subplot - because you all know how anti-romance I am in general, and especially anti-romance in view of The Hunger Games. But like I said in my first post on this subject, I think when you look at the trilogy as a whole, for better or for worse, the romance becomes increasingly important as the story goes along. It's not nearly as prominent as some dystopian stories that have followed (I swear sometimes "dystopian" has become a synonym for "angsty teen love triangle"), but it definitely affects the narrative in a big way by the time we get to Mockingjay. Broad's analysis of Katniss's "happy ending" in Mockingjay was absolutely spot-on in terms of why it disappointed me. Not necessarily because it was a betrayal of the character (though I don't think Katniss of The Hunger Games would recognize the Katniss of Mockingjay's epilogue), but because it's an ending I've seen over and over again, and I didn't want this character that truly had some revolutionary potential to fall into such a trope.

A few times I felt Broad left out a few important details in her analysis. For example, Katniss ends up having lots of thoughts about babies in Catching Fire. Now, anyone who has read Catching Fire knows exactly where those thoughts come from - Peeta has once again constructed a story to try to ensure Katniss' survival, and has told all of Panem that she is pregnant. Not once was this plot point mentioned in the presentation, so it felt like Katniss just spontaneously went from thinking "I'll never have children" to obsessing over hers and/or Peeta's future babies in Catching Fire.

Looking at the Uglies portion of the talk, I can totally understand why this may have been tangential to the topic, but I really would have liked to hear a bit about the remarkable relationship between Tally and Shay, both how it conforms to tropes (such as girls competing against each other, especially for the love of a man), but also how it defies those tropes (Tally and Shay keep coming back to each other, protecting each other even after apparently unforgivable failures in friendship). I think an argument could be made that Shay's friendship had far more of an impact on Tally than her relationships with David or Zane (man, do I wish we had a female-equivalent to "bromance" because I would totally use it for Tally and Shay).

Overall, however, I'm super excited that there's some academia out there on Uglies now - I wrote my senior thesis on the series and, while I haven't exactly been looking, I haven't seen any other scholarly writing on it since. As mentioned previously, Broad has a book coming out this winter from Routledge - Contemporary Dystopian Fiction for Young Adults, and looking at the list of essays in it just makes me salivate. The site lists the publication date as November 30th and I can only hope publication doesn't get pushed back! Sounds like an amazing contribution to the academic literature on young adult fiction.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Event: Girlpower? Teenage Heroines in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction (Part Two)

(If you missed it, check out Part 1!)

Here's where Broad began to really dig into the two texts, filled with spoilers and plot summaries (and she had a ton to say, all of it very interesting, that I won't recap fully here in the interests of brevity and the fact that much of this talk forms the basis of a chapter in a book Broad is co-editing for release this winter). As an aside, I was mildly amused by her summary of Catching Fire: "They're thrown into another Game." She pretty much moved directly from The Hunger Games to Mockingjay with only a line for Catching Fire. Which I'm not sure I can fault her for. I happen to love Catching Fire, and think it brings us some important character moments, but in retrospect it really is setting us up for the big battles of Mockingjay.

While on many levels, The Hunger Games trilogy is obviously an action/adventure dystopian story, on another level it's a love story, tracing Katniss' feelings for Peeta and Gale. The courtship(s) within the love triangle directly shape the narrative potential. Now initially this is the sort of commentary that gets my hackles up, but looking at the series in its entirety, it's kind of hard to argue that this is the direction Collins ultimately went in. And Broad makes some interesting arguments how even early on in the first book The Hunger Games falls into traditional romance tropes - for example, in traditional romance literature, the heroine often shows a disinterest in love and is changed over time by the hero. He convinces her that she craves love, while she gets to remain "pure" by stating she has no interest in such base emotions (and, it's implied, the carnal actions that come along with such emotions that Western society has often told women we shouldn't crave). Katniss fits that to a T, as she starts out being so adamant against marriage and children, and then the book concludes with disturbing (to me) references of how Peeta convinced her to have children.

Ultimately, Katniss isn't a character who makes a lot of choices. In terms of the romantic narrative, Katniss ends up with the boy that follows her back home. The men make the choices for her and Katniss follows along. While Katniss in many ways served to inspire a great revolution for the fictional universe, her ultimate choice to fall back into the modern-day status quo of marriage and children forces us to ask what has really changed by the end? Katniss hasn't presented any sort of alternative story for young women reading of her adventures, and in fact has fallen into a long line of adventuresome girl stories where the endings find them "less active, less assertive, and tamed by marriage."

And right there, I think Broad has put to words why I was just so disappointed with the ending of Mockingjay. Yes, within a fictional context, Katniss has won her freedom - to enjoy something she spent the first two books she wanted no part of. It falls back onto tropes of how young women just don't really know what they want and they'll eventually change their mind about things like raising children. And while overall clearly Katniss has a better future than what she would have had before the revolution, from a contemporary standpoint, getting married and having children as a happy ending doesn't look revolutionary at all.
In short, girls stories often end with marriage. Stories of empowered young women must subvert that, bringing us to Uglies.
In my view, when viewed through the romantic narrative lens that Broad used, Tally actually initially has a lot of regressive traits, rather than progressive. While the Tally/Shay BFF relationship is awesome, Tally spends three books being driven between ideologies by David or Zane. David drives Tally's first revolutionary act, to defy Cutter and protect the Smoke. Then, as Broad points out, Tally agrees to undergo the Pretty surgery and essentially go undercover only after David tells her she is beautiful without the surgery. Of course, the surgery is very successful and Tally forgets herself, essentially becoming a Pretty damsel in distress. It's Zane, and his drive to be Bubbly, that "enables Tally's revolutionary tendencies."

So, in my view, it's only in the latter half of Pretties that Tally becomes an empowered hero, when she starts to think her way out of being a Bubblehead. And not only does she think her way out, she realizes that while kissing new people and being in love is one way to stay Bubbly, other things like her trek through the woods can produce the same response. As Broad says, romance doesn't equal personal transformation. Tally ends up embracing change on her own, even if it was inspired by a boy.

At the end of Specials, Tally creates a revolutionary place for herself, not just in the context of her world, but in the context of ours as well. And while she is out there in the wilderness with David, it's not a romantic getaway for them, and she even made the decision before re-connecting with David. Broad states that Tally "asserts a place for herself defined by actions, not gender."

In conclusion, when examining YA dystopian fiction, readers should look at how the fiction imagines the results of adolescents striving to be something more and do something different. Do these rebellious characters get to keep that streak even as they grow up? In a setting that relies on traditional gender roles, how does the hero react against them? In Katniss, we see someone who lost her rebellious streak and falls into very traditional gender roles. Tally on the other hand is going to be a rebel of some kind for the forseeable future, in an action hero role that ultimately defies most feminine literary tropes.

There's one final upcoming post, covering questions and my own reactions to Broad's presentation! Check out part three!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Event: Girlpower? Teenage Heroines in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction (Part 1)

I forget when or where exactly I ran across the press release for this event, but on Tuesday the New York Public Library presented a lecture from the  Wertheim Study, titled Girlpower?: Teenage Heroines in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction.

I pretty much loved every word of that. It was like it was made just for me! So I took a long, late lunch break from work to listen to Katherine Broad present this lecture, based on part of her PhD dissertation about the romance trope in feminist Utopian literature.


Now, this talk was so interesting and exciting that I kind of got ahead of myself and created one huge massive post. So in the interest of not breaking anyone, this is going to be divided into three parts - first, some background on the genre and the title Broad chose for the presentation. Second will be her dissection of the texts, and the third will be the questions from the audience and my thoughts!

The audience definitely skewed older for this talk - looking around the room I was almost the youngest there. There were a trio of people in the back row that looked like they might have been on the upper-end of the teenage spectrum, and then someone brought their six year old along. It's always so weird to still find myself as the youngest in the room so often.


Broad focused on two of my favorite dystopian works ever, Uglies and The Hunger Games, so I had a lot to chew on as she breezed through her presentation (in fact, that would be my biggest critique of the whole thing - I'm betting Broad had a time limit and wanted to make sure she fit in all of the fascinating bits of her paper into the presentation so at times she just sped through the lecture, making note taking very difficult at times). Another interesting demographic note - Broad polled the audience briefly to see who had read the two series, or at least seen the movie of The Hunger Games. I wasn't surprised that only a fraction of the audience had read Uglies, but the answer wasn't even close to unanimous for readers/viewers of The Hunger Games. There are people interested enough in YA to sit through a scholarly discussion of it on a sunny Tuesday afternoon but haven't read The Hunger Games? My mind boggled.

Broad came out of the gate with fighting words, noting that both Katniss and Tally have been celebrated as feminist heroines, but in fact Katniss ends up with a pretty conservative plotline overall, as she grows up, settles down, marries and has children. Tally is actually the one with far more potential as a strong feminist role model.

I would never argue against Tally as a feminist role model, but to say Katniss isn't one?! Whoa. I needed to know more.

The presentation started with some interesting insights into the origination of Utopian and dystopian genres. For example, did you know that Utopian stories do not require the society to be perfect? Just has to be better than our current society is, and is often concerned with the process and outcome of progressive social change. Dystopias, of course, are the flip side of the coin - but may not be as different as they seem at first glance. After all, most Dystopian stories (especially those aimed at the YA reader), end with a Utopian setting, as social change has been implemented (or is in the process of being implemented), and the dystopian society won't merely be better than it was before, but will clearly be better than our contemporary society. Both Mockingjay and Specials demonstrate this (and we see more of it in Extras, the fourth Uglies book).

The dissection of Utopia/dystopia was followed by a dissection of Broad's choice of title for the presentation: Girlpower. As someone who spent her formative years in the 90s, I definitely remember the girl power movement, and even at a tender age it didn't sit entirely right with me. Yeah, it sounds awesome, you can't argue with the idea that girls should have more power and be recognized for their awesomeness, but I really didn't want to be a Spice Girl when I grew up. And in fact, Broad cited an article that mentions the Spice Girls by name, noting that the girlpower movement grew out of Riot Grrrl music, and co-opted the idea of feminine power into something non-threatening: like the Spice Girls. So, that's the question of the title: Katniss and Tally are both held up as role models of female power, but are they truly powerful or have they been de-fanged and dressing up the idea of "powerful women" in the same-old packaging?

Come back on Monday to see part 2, digging into the texts of The Hunger Games and Uglies!
Related Posts with Thumbnails