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!
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