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.

(Swoon)

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.

Anyway.

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!

1 comment:

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