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.

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