Maria Ramos is back with another interesting look at the world of dystopian sci-fi. This time around, she offers her insight on an issue that is often overlooked in the genre. Whether it is missing from the writing itself, or is overlooked in the course of adaptations and literary criticism, somehow the issue of race – whether it is the race of the characters or how it is dealt with in a fictional setting – seems to fall by the wayside. But I’ll let her explain it, she’s better at it!
Dystopian fiction has been around for decades, with notable examples including 1984 and Animal Farm. It’s not just in old books from English class, either. This is one genre that has never gone away. From The Matrix in the 90s to V For Vendetta in the aughts, every decade has had its stories. New blockbuster hits such as The Hunger Games and Divergent are the latest additions, and this time young adults are leading the dystopian charge. With The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 slated to carry the series past the 3 billion dollar mark and the books alone selling close to 20 million copies, it looks like this angsty genre has a rosy future.
While the technology that featured in previous variants is still visible, it is overbearing governments that have really become the boogeyman in the closet. It’s not surprising, considering the audience. Just when young adults are beginning to become more independent of their parents, they are also becoming more aware of the restrictions that society and governments place on all citizens. This can be a hard pill to swallow for anyone, but the first cut is the deepest. Governments acting as Big Brother – or like an overly controlling parent – are a pretty terrifying prospect for anyone feeling that first heady rush of freedom. Tellingly, despite the many other issues faced by society today, it is these pesky totalitarian governments that are the backbone of the modern genre.
In fact, totalitarian governments are viewed by many in this demographic as something to truly fear, both in fiction and in real life. This is evidenced by protests against police brutality, the NSA, and even against Wall Street, which are all founded in the same fear of a small elite class being able to suppress the majority of the population. On the other hand, racism and sexism, two other huge issues faced by modern society, are rarely addressed at all.
For example, in The Hunger Games there is no real mention of Katniss’ gender when she goes to fight to the death. Previous victors are shown as both male and female, and an equal number of each compete. There is no mention of the physical disadvantages women might have in a hand-to-hand battle, nor of the specific additional dangers they might face. Tris’ gender in Divergent and Insurgent (both of which are available now through Netflix, DirecTV, and Amazon) is treated the same way, though in both cases a romantic attachment is formed with a fellow warrior, offering some additional measure of protection and responsibility.
Likewise race is glossed over for the most part in The Hunger Games, though certain districts appear to be black and others white based on the tributes they have sent. This segregation is not seen as a problem in the film, nor is it a problem that the central characters are all young, attractive, and white. In both cases, racism and sexism are simply ignored, as if they do not exist. The demon of the movie is a heartless ruling class, and other issues just don’t seem to register.
This genre-wide silence in the face of such major issues is puzzling. Could it be that, rather than being non-topics, they are in fact so controversial that writers and directors are afraid to touch upon them? Or are they seen as relics of the past in a futuristic genre? Despite the huge impact these issues still have on citizens today, part of the battle activists face is even getting people to acknowledge that a problem still exists. Though these issues remain relevant, many today view racism and sexism as shrinking and government overreach as growing, possibly resulting in this void we see in the fiction.
In fact, there is also a combination of idealism and cynicism visible in many of these more recent stories – things became so terrible because people allowed them to, but eventually those same people fight back for change and improvement. It may be that same combination of naiveté and shrewdness that allows both the creators and fans to ignore issues they do not want to face. However, by refusing to address it they actually reflect it, as many of these movies and television series are overwhelming white. The main characters may often be female, but any additional struggle they face due to their gender is largely ignored. As valuable as today’s fiction is in shining a light in dark corners, it seems like right now a brighter flashlight is needed.