Warning the First: The following views are those of a disgruntled person. Long-term conclusions may be more moderate with hindsight.

Warning the Second: Spoilers for All The Things.  

Internets, I have finally snapped on the subject of YA dystopias.

Half an hour ago, I ran myself a bath and settled in with Fever, the sequel to Lauren DeStefano’s Wither, which I read last year and particularly enjoyed. Rather than recap the story so far, I’ll refer you to Goodreads should you require a detailed plot summary, but in brief, the setting is a romantic/sexual dystopia, and at the end of Wither, protagonist-narrator Rhine had just escaped her forced marriage with the help of her love-interest Gabriel. Fever picks up their story immediately after this point, with our two young lovers scrambling out of the ocean to – they imagine – freedom. Heading inland, they encounter a carnival and are quick-smart captured by Madame, the proprietor, for whom this title is also a job description. Within about ten seconds, Madame has given Rhine a new name – Goldenrod – and taken her up in the still-operational Ferris wheel to talk about becoming one of her girls, where, despite her fear, Rhine can’t help but marvel at the beauty of the world seen from on high:

The seat rocks a little as I settle into it. Madame sits beside me and pulls the overhead bar down so that it locks us in. We start to move, and I’m breathless for an instant as we ascend forward and into the sky.

The earth gets father and farther away. The tents look like bright round candles. The girls move about them, shadows.

I can’t help myself; I lean forward, astounded. This wheel is five, ten, fifteen times taller than the lighthouse I climbed in the hurricane. Higher even than the fence that kept me trapped as Linden’s bride…

Even my brother, who is all practicality, would have his breath taken away by this height, these lights, the clarity of this night sky.

And that’s when I stopped reading.*

Because all of a sudden, it hit me: I’d seen this device before. In the opening scenes of Carrie Ryan’s The Dead-Tossed Waves, the second volume in her YA zombie dystopia series, protagonist Gabry and her love-interest Catcher defy the rules to enter a zombie-infested amusement park. Not unsurprisingly, things go wrong pretty quickly; nonetheless, there’s still time for some opening nostalgia about carnivals:

The story goes that even after the Return they tried to keep the roller coasters going. They said it reminded them of the before time. When they didn’t have to worry about people rising from the dead, when they didn’t have to build fences and walls and barriers to protect themselves…

Even after the Forest was shut off, one last gasp at sequestering the infection and containing the Mudo, the carousel kept turning, the coasters kept rumbling, the teacups kept spinning. Though my town of Vista was far away from the core of the Protectorate, they hoped people would come fly along the coasters. Would still want to forget.

More recently still, a decaying carnival appeared in Veronica Roth’s Divergent, another YA dystopia about which I had very mixed feelings. Midway through, heroine Tris and her love-interest Four climb an abandoned Ferris wheel to use it as a vantage point during a wargame:

Four sits down on the edge of the carousel, leaning against a plastic horse’s foot. His eyes lift to the sky, where there are no stars, only a round moon peeking through a thin layer of clouds…

When I stare up at the Ferris wheel from the ground, my throat feels tighter. It is taller than I thought, so tall I can barely see the cars swinging at the top. The only good thing about its height is that it is built to support weight. If I climb it, it won’t collapse beneath me…

When I look at the city again, the building isn’t in my way. I’m high enough to see the skyline. Most of the buildings are black against a navy sky, but the red lights at the top of the Hub are lit up. They blink half as fast as my heartbeat.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with three separate YA dystopias all including amusement parks. After all, they’re dystopias! It makes sense that the characters would encounter the ruined edifices of modern times, and from an aesthetic point of view, there’s something particularly powerful and haunting about the imagery of an abandoned Ferris wheel. But what jerked me out of Fever was less the presence of a repeated motif than what its usage seemed to represent: the romanticising of our present, and therefore a softening of the pertinent social criticism that ought to be an inherent part of dystopian fiction.

That’s a big claim, I know. But before I go on to defend it, I’d like to present a fourth except in contrast to the previous three, taken from yet another YA dystopia: Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies. Here, protagonist Tally and her friend Shay are hoverboarding along the tracks of an old roller coaster – something Shay has done before, but which Tally has not.

It was like a hoverboard course made solid, complete with tight, banked turns, sharp climbs followed by long drops, even loops that took Tally upside down, her crash bracelets activating to keep her on board. It was amazing what good shape it was in. The Rusties must have built it out of something special, just as Shay had said…

Tally followed at top speed, rocketing up the spindly track. She could see the ruins in the distance: broken, black spires against the trees. And behind them, a moonlight glimmer that might have been the sea. This really was high!…

Suddenly, the board dropped out from under her. It simply fell away from her feet, leaving her flying through midair. The track below her had disappeared…

Then Tally saw the framework of the roller coaster ahead. Only a short segment was missing… Her momentum had carried her to the other side of the gap! The board must have sailed along with her, just below her feet for those terrifying seconds of free fall.

She found herself cruising down the track, to where Shay was waiting at the bottom. “You’re insane!” she shouted.

“Pretty cool, huh?”

“No!” Tally yelled. “Why didn’t you tell me it was broken?”

Shay shrugged. “More fun that way?”

“More fun?” Her heart was beating fast, her vision strangely clear. She was full of anger and relief and… joy. “Well, kind of. But you suck!”

At first glance, it might seem fairly arbitrary as to why I’ve chosen this final scene as a contrast to the others. All four excerpts show female protagonists either experiencing or thinking about the decaying rides of modern-day theme parks; all four mention the height and the view – which is understandable – and all four ladies are in places they shouldn’t be: Rhine has been captured by Madame for trespassing, Gabry is going into a forbidden area, Tris is risking her neck to climb a rickety structure and Tally is breaking multiple laws to follow Shay’s lead. Stylistically, there’s an obvious divide in that DeStefano, Ryan and Roth are all writing in the immediate first person, while Westerfeld uses omniscient third, but that’s vastly less important than the subtext of each scene. Neither is it divided along romantic lines. True, Tally is the only one not thinking about or travelling with a boy, but that’s only because she hasn’t met her love-interest yet, and this is a long-game point.

No: it’s that Westerfeld’s characters are the only ones to find a new use for their carnival, and whose appropriation therefore makes us critique its original purpose. Tally and Shay are the only ones having fun.

Rhine rides her wheel passively – she’s been forced onto it, after all – but takes the chance to reflect on how carefree our world used to be, before it broke into hers. Gabry’s thoughts run down similar paths, despite the fact that she never actually makes it onto a ride. Tris and Four turn their own wheel into a vantage point, true, and there’s a moment prior to their ascension when another character jokes about what a present-day version would entail – “A Dauntless Ferris wheel wouldn’t have cars. You would just hang on tight with your hands, and good luck to you.” – but this introspection ultimately goes nowhere: the scene is about Tris’s bravery and her relationship with Four, not a commentary on funfairs, and though their climb is dangerous, the Ferris wheel is not forbidden territory.

But in Uglies, there’s a double subversion to Shay and Tally’s scene. Not only have they broken the rules by visiting the ruin, but their use of the tracks as a hoverboard route is much more dangerous than if they’d found and ridden a still-functional roller coaster. Where the original ride was safety masquerading as danger, Shay turns the tables on Tally, tricking her into doing something genuinely risky: jumping an unknown gap. And while Tally’s first reaction is anger, she’s also a bit elated, too – her success is thrilling, empowering, and all the more so because the threat of mishap was real. While DeStefano and Ryan invoke a deliberate nostalgia for the present day through the inner thoughts of their characters, and where Roth’s narration makes us consider the image of a decaying past without offering hope for the future, Westerfeld makes his audience realise that, compared to Shay and Tally’s world, our own is safe – but perhaps, in some fundamental way, less satisfying because of it.

As a subgenre, dystopia has its roots in social criticism. The big adult classics – Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – all end bleakly for the protagonists: their purported futures are warnings, and at least part of their purpose is to make us wonder what horrors our own bad, real-world decisions could ultimately engender. This is not to say that all adult dystopias are concerned with social what-ifs: Cormac McCarthy’s award-winning The Road is unremittingly bleak, devoid of human society – an apocalyptic vision more than a twisted take on human folly – while William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a study of children breaking down into violence, barbarism and anarchy in the absence of any higher moral guidance. By contrast, the archetypal YA dystopia – Lois Lowry’s The Giver – ends on an ambiguous note, leaving its young protagonist, Jonas, hovering somewhere between death and salvation; either way, though, he is free. While Orwell’s Winston is crushed into conformity, Huxley’s savage driven to suicide and McCarthy’s nameless father murdered, Jonas’s story ends on a vision of hope. The closest comparison is with Atwood’s Offred – we don’t see whether her escape succeeds, though the epilogue assures us of her world’s eventual recuperation – but even then, this knowledge is divorced from Offred’s voice. If the job of adult dystopia is to caution, therefore, it seems fair to suggest that the role of YA dystopia is to reassure: not, to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, because they tell us that broken societies are survivable, but because they tell us broken societies can be changed.

Which tradition is now upheld by Fever, The Dead-Tossed Waves, Divergent and Uglies alike: even in the case of any as-yet incomplete series, the narrative arc is such that progress is definitely on the agenda. And yet, for all that, there’s a maddening dearth of danger and consequence both in the bulk of YA dystopias – danger, which is here distinct from action, and consequence, which is here distinct from loss. Battle scenes and dead companions are staples of YA dystopia, and yet they tend to feel like punches pulled, potential roundhouse blows swerving away from successive protagonists and into their nearest and dearest. Loss is the moment when Divergent’s Tris loses both her parents and keeps on fighting; consequence, though, is where Katniss Everdeen – the battle-scarred heroine of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy – is left to live with PTSD, irrevocably haunted by the catastrophe of war. Loss, to draw a comparison with another recent bugbear of mine, hints at romanticised damage; consequence does not. Similarly, action is successive protagonists being thrown into battles where the stakes are either death, which seldom afflicts main characters, or the sort of coercion that leaves no marks (and which, when combined with loss, is typified by an absence of psychological scarring). Danger is when the risks involve actual physical and/or mental change – and when the protagonist doesn’t emerge unscathed.

For reasons which are complex and fascinating enough to merit an essay of their own, a staggering number of YA dystopias with female protagonists are concerned with sexuality and romance. In these stories, partners are chosen by higher powers (Matched and Crossed, Ally Condie), love is branded a disease (Delirium and Pandemonium, Lauren Oliver), teenage pregnancy is a way of life (Bumped and Thumped, Megan McCafferty), and brides are stolen freely (Wither and Fever, Lauren DeStefano). At the other end of the scale are female warriors: gladiators-turned-revolutionaries (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins), questing cage-fighters (Blood Red Road,   Moira Young), face-changing dissidents (Uglies, Pretties, Specials and Extras, Scott Westerfeld), soldiers-in-training (Divergent and Insurgent, Veronica Roth) and zombie-fighting survivors (The Forest of Hands and Teeth, The Dead-Tossed Waves and The Dark and Hollow Places, Carrie Ryan). All of these books provoke questions about identity and agency; all of them, too, relate to ongoing political discourse about the role of women in society, whether in terms of sexual freedom or women as front line fighters. But while some of them actively embrace this critical aspect – seeking, in the spirit of dystopia, to make us question both the real world and the fictional – others instead provoke only a sense of gratitude for our distance from their settings. They might still be reflective of current issues, but they shy away from making us make the connection, because their ultimate purpose isn’t to encourage questions.

And this, to return to my opening statement, is why I’ve finally snapped. It’s the Ferris wheel effect: a nostalgia for the present day rooted in being grateful for what we have, rather than in asking where we’re headed. It’s dystopia with the safeties on – and that is, to me, an alarming inversion of how the genre should work. I have nothing against stories being written purely for escapist purposes, but dystopia is not the ideal genre for it. Of course, as in all things, your mileage may vary, in which case you’re wholly entitled to disagree. Yet I’d ask that you ask yourself: what, exactly, is escapist about an uncritical dystopia? While critical protagonists set out to change society, allowing us the fantasy of  being world-altering revolutionaries, uncritical protagonists remain wrapped up in themselves, dealing with immediate, personal obstacles rather than tackling their root causes. Such characters can still change the world, of course – or rather, be instrumental in its change – but the difference is one of intention: their rebellion stems from a desire to be left alone, not to combat injustice, and this difference shows in how the story treats them. They are kept safer than their critical counterparts – exposed to action and loss, rather than danger and consequence – because if something sufficiently bad were to happen or be realistically threatened, then their stories would no longer stand as purely escapist fictions: the audience would no longer want to share in their experiences.

Trigger warning for this paragraph, because we’re going to talk about rape and sexual assault – which are, for me, the crashing, trumpeting elephants in the room in far too many dystopias. On the one hand: these are big issues that ought not be treated lightly. I can understand entirely why authors shy away from mentioning them. They are dark themes, frightening and raw, capable of completely transforming the tone and scope of a book. On the other hand, though: if you build a dystopian society based around the capture, sale and slavery of women – and particularly if the reason for this is tied to pregnancy – then you are automatically inviting this threat to exist. More, if your protagonist is female and she’s trying to escape this world, then you have guaranteed the relevance of this threat. This doesn’t mean your character must be assaulted. It does mean, however, that you need a convincing explanation as to why. Not mentioning it at all, even in passing, strikes me as a form of erasure; a denial of consequence, and a dismissal of the very real trauma suffered by millions of women. If the audience can reasonably infer that rape is a thing that happens in your dystopia, then you are doing a disservice both to us and to the intelligence of your heroine to keep it hidden. The real world has a vile enough culture of silencing without extending a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy to fiction, too.

To be absolutely, brutally clear: I am in no way saying that what YA dystopias need is for more teenage girls to be raped. I am saying that in instances where the plots of YA dystopias are heavily concerned with the control of women’s bodies and female sexuality, failing to even mention rape or assault as part of those societies is not only unrealistic, but an undermining of discourse.

In Delirium, Lauren Oliver does an excellent job of pointing out the perils of her society – all save one. In a world where everyone is effectively lobotomised at eighteen to ‘cure’ them of amor deliria nervosa – love – it makes perfect sense that kindness, hugging, casual touching, kissing and other such tactile displays of affection would all be taboo, reclassified as symptoms of the disease. She mentions, too, the reality of cured parents sometimes killing their children out of anger or exasperation, unable to form the usual parental bond, while married couples – forbidden to choose each other for emotional reasons – consent to be matched by the state. The book is beautifully written and world-built, exquisitely characterised and absolutely compelling. Yet there’s a hole in the heart of it, a question I can’t quite shake: the cure erases love, yes, but what about sexual desire? The two are not synonymous, and though there’s some overlap in which areas of the brain control them – both involve the anterior cingulate cortex, which is connected to the amygdala – sexual brain-mapping lights up multiple other regions. Which begs the question: in a world without love and greatly reduced compassion, where emotions are muted but where – we assume, given that people still reproduce the traditional way – human beings continue to experience sexual arousal, what sort of horrors go on behind closed doors?

Oliver’s world is totalitarian. Its military forces are cold and unyielding, freed from the usual human compassion for their charges. Love might be impossible among the populace, but as the story continually demonstrates, violence is not – and at least for me, that opens the door for a society rife with sexual abuse. Incorporating that possibility into the story, however, would have radically changed its scope. I understand why Oliver chose instead to tacitly infer that the cure, as well as erasing love, also eliminated rape. Delirium is still one of the best dystopias I’ve read in years, and a book I heartily recommend. For all that it doesn’t treat with societal sexuality, it nonetheless counts as a critical dystopia, commenting powerfully on freedom of choice, totalitarianism, propagandising, religion and individualism, inviting direct contrast with present day issues. Yet it, like far too many of its fellows, shrinks from discussing institutionalised misogyny and the specific issues of female oppression.

And this is a problem for me, because it seems to cut to the heart of a different discussion: the perennial questing after strong and varied female characters in SFF. I dislike the oft-floated image of YA books didactically Teaching Lessons To Teenagers; dislike, too, the inference that writing for young adults inherently entails a greater moral responsibility than writing for adults. The primary point of fiction – any fiction – is not preaching. But the lack of a moral burden is not the same as an absence of critical thought, and it strikes me that maybe one of the reasons we’re still having this conversation about the merits of various female characters is because, despite our best efforts, we’re still stuck in a mindset of gender protectiveness, particularly in YA. By which I mean: if you consider the image of a little boy hitting a little girl to be inherently worse than if he were hitting another boy, then we have a problem.

To be clear: targeted physical violence against women is still as much of a global epidemic as sexual violence. It would be hypocritical to suggest that YA dystopias ought to tackle the latter but ignore the former, especially given their penchant for producing physically aggressive heroines who are just as strong or stronger than men, and seemingly without effort. Quite the opposite: I’m actually starting to wonder if, rather than representing an idealised physical equality, such warrior-heroines are really gifted with strength in order to keep them safe, in much the same way that their romance-seeking counterparts are protected from sexual violence by the pretense that it doesn’t exist. In both cases, it seems like the fictional solution to two of the biggest women’s issues going – our physical and sexual vulnerability – is not to confront them, but to erase the reason they exist. That’s what I mean by protectionism: we’re afraid to have our heroines suffer the same dangers as real-world women, and so we keep them safe, bestowing on them unnatural strength if they’re going to fight battles, or removing the threat of rape if they’re going to encounter sexual prejudice. This is by no means a problem exclusive to YA or even dystopia, but my suspicion is that this combination of genres in particular serves to magnify it.

Under such circumstances, then, is it any surprise that we’re still asking ourselves how best to write a wide and gorgeous range of women? It’s not that we don’t understand female versatility – it’s that deep down, we still shy away from having our female characters confront real danger and consequence. Fearful of writing victims, we pretend that victimisation doesn’t exist, and so disengage from the dialogue about how such victimisation might be halted; but of all genres, dystopia shouldn’t shrink from ugly truths – regardless of the age of the audience.

By the end of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, Tally Youngblood has undergone multiple transformations: from her natural self to a cosmetically enhanced Pretty, and last to a fearsome Special. Offered the chance to return to who she originally was, she refuses and finds herself imprisoned: her allies want to indoctrinate her into thinking such a reversal is for the best. But Tally is stubborn. As dangerous as she’s become, the only way forward is for her to rewire herself, alone: to become something new, no matter how uncomfortable her self-acceptance makes other people.

And if YA dystopias are serious about offering social criticism – if they really want to discuss the role of women in society – then they need to do the same.

* For now. I do plan to finish the book!

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Comments
  1. I love this post.

    Fearful of writing victims, we pretend that victimisation doesn’t exist, and so disengage from the dialogue about how such victimisation might be halted; but of all genres, dystopia shouldn’t shrink from ugly truths – regardless of the age of the audience.

    YES YES YES.

    A lot of fiction doesn’t actually engage with the realities of victimisation and oppression. I’m not feeling eloquent right now but suffice to say that I’d love to see authors actually, properly engage with this stuff and write much more real, nuanced books.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Thanks! I’ve had all these thoughts for a while, but last night they somehow magically coalesced into a coherent argument. I am just really tired of stories where the definition of a bad thing happening to the protagonist is almost always a horrific thing happening to someone else. I’m sick of the erasure of obstacles. If escapism is going to be meaningful as an artform rather than just indulgent, it needs to show us that being a different person, living a different life or building a different world has a real cost – but that it’s worth it.

  2. dolorosa12 says:

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been trying (and failing) to say similar things for years, but you managed to do so much more eloquently and coherently than I’d ever be able to do, so thank you!

    My other problem with a lot of the current crop of YA dystopian fiction is this: broadly speaking, dystopias take one of two forms: totalitarian or anarchic. (So on the one hand you have imagined futures where your every move is controlled, and on the other you have a sort of lawless frontier society where it’s every man for himself.) And for whatever reason, almost all of the YA dystopias coming out of the US seem to be of the first type – that is, set in a totalitarian future version of the US. And I just can’t see it happening (if anything, I can see the anarchic frontier society type of dystopia happening there), and the authors don’t work hard enough to convince me of how it could happen.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Agreed about the totalitarian states – it’d be really interesting to see a different vision of the future. Something I liked about Delirium was the religion, which was a freaky combination of science and Christianity, but an actual futuristic theocracy would be an interesting thing to read about!

  3. Brendan Podger says:

    This isn’t totally on point but I wonder if you have read “Waiting For the End of the World” by Lee Harding(1983)? This was my first YA Dystopia.

  4. davidjfuller says:

    Fascinating, thought-provoking post.
    One thing that bugs me about post-apocalyptic settings in general is any bizarre nostalgia that characters born after said apocalypse feel for modern-day crap. It seems to hint that even the characters feel the old order of the world is what was right, and that the new order has to be returned to it.
    Whereas in a dystopia like John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, that nostalgia for an old world is presented as a real danger to anyone who wants to survive in the new one — things aren’t going to change back, and you have to deal with and thrive in the new reality. I think exploring this allows the author just as much freedom, if not more, to comment on what is good,or bad, about our world/society today.
    That said, this is a minor bugbear of mine and I haven’t read widely in the current crop of YA dystopia.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Nostalgia in dystopian settings just feels… weird. I mean, I can understand characters saying things like ‘Wow – printed books!’ and marvelling at the beauties of ages past, but that can’t be a wholly wistful action unless the character is meant to be naive; there has to be some awareness of the fact that, whatever the positives of our own society, it was this age that lead to the dystopian one.

      • davidjfuller says:

        I agree. It usually sounds too much like the author clinging to some kind of sentimentality. I still find it chilling to read H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, even though it’s by no means perfect, for the way the wonders of the British Empire, in fact all that we think of as civilization, has been utterly forgotten and relics which are barely preserved at all.

      • davidjfuller says:

        BTW, on the subject of one of your other comments, about writing a “broken bird” character that you feel is a cliche — have you ever read any of the writing books by Don Maass? If not, there are some writing tools he recommends that could help. I bet your novel is a lot stronger than your “it’s all going to be crap!” voice is telling you. I say that partly because I have to tell that voice to calm down constantly as I fix what it’s nagging me about.

  5. [...] From Foz Meadows, interesting post on YA dystopias: [...]

  6. batsy78 says:

    Hi Foz! I haven’t read YA dystopias before, but can see I’m missing out. I really enjoyed your essay – I came across it through Goodreads.

    I did wonder if there might be an inconsistency in your argument at one point. I wasn’t sure what you meant by: “despite our best efforts, we’re still stuck in a mindset of gender protectiveness, particularly in YA. By which I mean: if you consider the image of a little boy hitting a little girl to be inherently worse than if he were hitting another boy, then we have a problem.”

    Later you write about YA dystopias “penchant for producing physically aggressive heroines who are just as strong or stronger than men, and seemingly without effort.”

    I find the image of a little boy (let’s say it’s my little boy!) hitting a little girl to be worse than the other way round because I know he’s likely to grow up to be bigger and stronger than her. Sure, she will also have responsibility in how she uses her strength, but in general he will be bigger and stronger than more people in the world. In particular, I’m concerned for how he will treat the women he will come across in his life.

    So I guess I have a kind of gender protectiveness as a parent that is based on my assumption that a grown woman would, in general, come off worse in a physical fight with a grown man. If you agree with the assumption, how come you’re not a gender protectionist too?

    By the way, I’m a protectionist of both genders, as far as it’s helpful to classify people by that measure, and I’m a protectionist of a lot of other things too.

    I’m very interested in your point that fiction is putting out female heroines with an idealised physical strength that means they will never really be in danger. (Hope I haven’t lost your meaning in paraphrasing – your words were certainly more eloquent!)

    I agree with your point but it kind of depresses me to think about reading about those ‘consequences’ you talk about, if women were depicted with more realistic physical and mental resources. (I’m thinking of the PTSD example you give).

    I think a lot of people feel more comfortable giving a hopeful message in YA fiction. The idea being that physically strong female characters inspire women to be as strong as they can, and avoid high heels at all costs.

    Maybe I do have too much of an attitude that YA fiction is “educational”, because as in education I think the aim shouldn’t be to scare – which is what a frequent graphic description (if it’s well written) of the genuine dangers and genuine consequences of sexual or other assault might do – but to, well, educate. As in to help young women know how to navigate their world with confidence.

    I think I sound like a private school headmistress now. Maybe I’ve missed my calling!

    I think you’re going to think I’m a terrible sop for saying all this. I’m guessing you want young women to be angry rather than self-satisfied. But I’d like to hear your thoughts anyway :-)

    You’ve certainly made my brain work a bit harder than it’s used to these days :-) I’ll sign up to follow your blog… if I think I can handle all this extra mental stimulation.

    Hope you and T are well and happy
    xx Aislinn

    • fozmeadows says:

      Hi Aislin!

      Glad you liked the post – and you’re not a terrible sop. You make some excellent points, and I’ll try to do them justice :)

      First off, while I agree that it’s definitely more important to teach little boys to manage their physical strength than it is little girls, precisely because, as you say, the boys will grow up to be stronger (and worse still, saturated with an overly masculine culture that says violence is OK), I chose the example of little children hitting one another because, at that age, there’s no real gender disparity to strength. In fact, if anything, given that girls grow faster than boys, there’s a brief window where a little girl may well be stronger than a boy her own age – certainly, she’s likely to be taller. So what I meant by that example (but perhaps didn’t describe very well) was that if, given a hypothetical situation where a boy and a girl are equal in strength and have yet to absorb all our social baggage about gender politics – and where gender is not the reason for hitting each other – the image of a boy hitting a girl should not be innately worse than if he were hitting another boy, because in that instance, gender and strength are equal. This is not a realistic yardstick for actual behaviour, obviously – it’s a hypothetical – so in the sense that I acknowledge the real life gender/strength disparity and the problems of domestic violence, yes, I am a gender protectionist. That being said, though, I don’t think gender protectionism either should or always will be necessary: to me, the problem isn’t that men are stronger (which, barring physical modification, will always be generally true) but that our culture sanctions male violence while telling girls they aren’t allowed to fight, along with a whole lot of other damaging messages. If the pathology of sexist violence was removed – if women were truly seen as equal to men, and treated accordingly – then I don’t think gender protectionism would be necessary any longer, because ultimately, sexist violence is about a lack of respect and a need for control, neither of which are problems when we view someone as our equal.

      In the context of narrative, though, it bugs me that the default solution to the problem of sexist violence and the gender/strength disparity is just to make the girl stronger, rather than to write a story where the people around her don’t see that lesser strength as an obstacle to equality. Not that I don’t like reading about physically capable or exceptional women – I do! – but when I say Magic Strength is a form of gender protectionism, I mean that it obviates the need to discuss what normal female strength would mean in that setting, and, crucially, how both genders would view female competence. Or, to put it another way: it suggests that the best way to eradicate sexist violence is to make women and men equally strong – an approach which, while narratively interesting, all to often completely ignores the question of sexist culture. Men don’t think less of women, exclude them from front line fighting, abuse, belittle or seek to protect them exclusively because we have less upper body strength – it’s a far deeper and more pervasive issue than that, and I’d really like to see YA fiction tackle it.

      Which leads in to what I mean about showing consequences. In the stories I’m talking about, the danger to women exists precisely because the authors have left sexist culture in tact, such that, in order to keep their heroines safe, they give them Get Out Of Jail Free cards – Plot Armour, protectionism, and lucky escapes – rather than dealing with what that culture actually *means*. And as that always strikes me as being narratively convenient (to say nothing of dodging an issue I care deeply about), I end up wanting to make it inconvenient. If you want to leave terrible cultures in tact, show me what those consequences are for the heroine! Or, if you don’t want the story to be that dark, write in some aspirational male characters with interesting, believable objections to the culture in which they’re raised! It’s insulting to both genders to play the All Men Except The Love Interest Are Beasts card while having the ladies constantly escape through deus ex machina: it’s a way of pussyfooting around the most important cultural discourse of our times, and it wearies me.

      Anyway! Hopefully that answers your questions? :)

      • batsy78 says:

        Yes, I do understand. Even as a reader who is probably more into the personal than the political, it’s annoying to be told that you have to be something you can’t be, in order to survive in a system that really should be different.

  7. [...] read for writers engaged in worldbuilding and character creation. Equally worthwhile is her post on female characters in dystopian narratives. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Posted by PetEditor in [...]

  8. [...] of its female characters on an equal level with its men. Very often in narrative (as I’ve previously mentioned), there’s a tendency to bestow gender-specific plot armor on women, so that tacitly, the [...]

  9. Thea Karan says:

    I love your article, I am constantly re-reading it and I absolutely agree with you. I just have one small note – Scott Westerfeld does not use OMNISCIENT third-person, he uses LIMITED third person, there is a difference. I am not trying to sound harsh or anything, it just bugs me when people confuse the two.

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