Violence and Dystopia

Today I’m talking about violence in dystopia.  If you would like to read more of my thoughts (and some insightful comments) on the dystopian genre: check out my posts about the present popularity of dystopia and the role of the strong female hero in dystopia.

**As a warning, I have to use a couple spoilers in order to actually talk about this, so beware if you are concerned with spoilers about The Hunger Games, Divergent, Partials, or the Chaos Walking series.**

Dystopia is a fairly violent genre and that violence in dystopian lit seems to span a range of cultural notions about violence.  Since this post would be out of control if I talked about all of them, I want to focus on the relationship between violence and government in dystopias.

First, we see governments using violence as a means of social control.  In The Hunger Games, for example, the Capitol pits its citizens against one another in a fight to the death in order to retain its tenuous control over the districts.  Having the districts direct their violence towards one another serves to prevent the districts from turning their superior manpower and resources into violence against the Capitol.  In Divergent, the Erudite and Dauntless leaders conspire together to turn the Dauntless into a mind-controlled army who will kill off any resistance.  This allows the Erudite to rebel against the established order without getting their own hands dirty and also gives them access to the best, most obedient soldiers.  Can’t get much more social control than mind control.  In Partials (which I am about 3/4 of the way through), the Senate launches “rebel” attacks on their own town.  By doing so, the government tries to scare their populace into unity (and thus compliance with unpopular fertility measures) by creating a shared enemy.

These pictures of government-sanctioned violence shouldn’t come as much surprise, since we have seen plenty of violent governments in recent history.  What is interesting is that these examples do not (initially) involve the government directly inflicting violence on its own people, mainly because no one dares to rebel against the government’s order in these societies.  Rather, the government requires/forces/prods its citizens killing one another to distract from their actual discontent with the government.  This sort of violence seems to serve the purpose of reinforcing how corrupt, unjust, and dystopian these societies actually are and to justify the next government-related type of violence– war or revolution.

The Hunger Games trilogy and the Chaos Walking trilogy both feature all-out revolutions/wars (I am leaving off books in incomplete series because the wars haven’t started yet).  This is probably the closest that dystopian violence gets to being regenerative… in that it is used to regenerate society and set it on the path to a new, more peaceful and just order.  At the same time, however, the individual characters suffer tremendous loss and personal suffering as a result of war violence.  Katniss may gain the hope of a new future without famine and the games, but only at the cost of losing her sister, her spirit, and Peeta’s sanity.  Todd and Viola may save the New World from self-destruction, but Todd ends up in a coma, tons of innocent people and Spackle are killed, and perhaps worst of all, Todd is forced to lose his innocence through killing another person.  The price of violence is incredibly high in dystopian societies and often it is incredibly senseless.  I can’t think of a better incident of senseless violence than when Aaron kills Manchee in The Knife of Never Letting Go.  In the end, though, we are given the message that this violence is justified and worthwhile because it results in the ousting of a unjust (and often violent) regime.

The ultimate message, then, seems to be that violence is both contextual and costly.  Violence for no reason or for means of social control is bad, but violence in support of revolution is ok… though either way people will die, lives will be changed, and not necessarily for the better.

Feel free to share your thoughts on dystopian violence in the comments!

More thoughts on dystopia: The Strong Female Hero

My thoughts on the popularity of dystopia are here.

In grad school, I took a course where we tried to answer the question of why cowboys and the American West were so prominent in 20th century American culture.  One of the most convincing answers was that the cowboy gave boys a template of masculinity in an era where masculinity was put to the test by industrialization and women’s entry in the so-called public sphere.  In West of Everything, (check that out if the Western is of particular interest to you) Jane Tompkins claims that girls like herself identified with cowboys because pop culture of the 20th century (until probably the 80s or 90s, at least) didn’t offer an equivalent female hero.  The women in most Westerns are either virginal brides or prostitutes; they are there to either save or serve the men.

All that to say that I find it pretty remarkable that dystopias, as a new cultural phenomenon, often feature strong female heroes that both boys and girls can identify with.  Heroes like Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games or Tris from Divergent seem to embody a more modern idea of femininity which encompasses success in both romantic and interpersonal relationships and in a career or other non-familial/romantic areas.  If being a woman in today’s culture means “doing it all,” then we certainly see a girl like Katniss living up to that ideal.  She is able to juggle the more traditional female roles of a romantic relationship and caretaking of her sister and mother with the more modern female (or perhaps even masculine) roles of breadwinning and fighting a war.  She best displays this “doing it all” femininity when she is in the first games– she takes care of a sick Peeta while in the midst of fighting the other tributes and struggling for survival.  She is caring and compassionate and strong and violent all at the same time.  I can’t even express how awesome I think it is that kickass, complex, do-it-all female hero is this popular in today’s culture.

At the same, however, it is really interesting that while the strong female hero is gaining popularity in dystopian novels and movies, some government officials are working to restrict access to reproductive control for women.  Some dystopian lit actually deals directly with the restriction of women’s rights (The Handmaid’s Tale and When She Woke are notable examples which come to mind), but I have yet to read any of those so I can’t comment on them.  Is the strong female hero we see a response to these threats to restrict women’s rights?  Probably in some cases, but I think it is also likely a representation of the plurality of feminine identities in modern society.  After all, Katniss is popular in the same time and space as Bella Swan, a female lead derided by some for her lack of strength, personal convictions, and individual identity, as well as her deference to the men in her life.

What are your thoughts?  Why do we see the rise of a strong female hero with dystopia?  How do you think the strong female hero relates to gender roles and issues in contemporary society?

Divergent- Veronica Roth

Divergent was a great read.  I have been big into the dystopian thing lately, so was really excited to find this book.  In Roth’s dystopian Chicago, there are 5 factions– Amity, Candor, Erudite, Dauntless, and Abnegation.  Each person chooses one faction when they are sixteen years old.  One’s faction determines their career, their family and friends, and their personality.  Supposedly keeping people in factions based on their best traits will eliminate the evil traits in human beings and end war and misery.  The faction-choosing reminded me a bit of the career-assignment in The Giver.  Except that in Roth’s book the kids had at least the appearance of free choice in picking their faction.

Our main character is Beatrice AKA Tris, a born-and-raised Abnegation.  She takes the faction assessment given to kids before they get to the choosing ceremony and finds out that she doesn’t fit into any faction– she is Divergent.  Divergence is dangerous and Tris is told to hide her results from everyone, even her parents.  She makes the difficult decision of going Dauntless and this book covers her training and initiation into the Dauntless faction and the dangers of Divergence.

There were several things I really liked about this book.  The first is Tris.  While she is way more of a daredevil than I’ll ever be, I felt myself relating to her in some ways.  She is skilled in more than one way- she is a bit Dauntless, a bit Abnegation, and a bit Erudite- and while being well-rounded sounds like a great thing, it makes it really difficult for her to choose one path or to fit in easily in any one faction.  (Side note: I always felt that way when I was choosing a major in college… so I ended up choosing a liberal arts degree with multiple concentrations- history, literature, philosophy, foreign languages, and then rounded out my electives with math, science, and social sciences.  Same thing in grad school, where I ended up specializing in the history of medicine with a focus on women and gender.  I can’t pick just one thing, apparently.)  She is also incredibly smart and cares deeply about her family…

…which brings me to the second thing I really liked about this book.  I loved how important Tris’s family was to her and how much her parents were willing to sacrifice for her.  I sometimes feel like YA characters exist in this weird universe where teenagers are free of parents and siblings.  (I love John Green, but his characters are frequently only children.  Which drives me bonkers.)  And if they actually have families, there is often not much love involved.  (I know, I know, characters are so much more FUN without the tethers of families.)  So, thank you Veronica Roth, for giving me a teenager who loves her family members, misses them when she leaves them, and recognizes that her family members are multidimensional people who have their own personal struggles.

And the third thing I liked about this book was the romance between Tris and her Dauntless instructor, Four.  Four sort of reminded me of Mr. Rochester as he was all brooding and moody and jerky, but you can still tell he totally digs Tris.  In the end, though, my Mr. Rochester comparison falls apart because Mr. Rochester was actually a pompous jerk and Four seems to be playacting that role to hide his feelings/keep Tris safe.  But anyways, Four was cool because he was okay with being weaker than Tris and was very open and vulnerable around her.  I really love the cool-exterior-but-soft-interior man trope, as horrible as that may be.

Anyways, I enjoyed this book and I think it has a little bit of something for everyone- dystopia, romance, action.  I am eagerly awaiting book numero dos, Insurgent, which comes out in May!

TGIF: Books for the Ride

I am headed out to Arizona (my former home) for the weekend to enjoy a little whole lotta sunshine and visit with some of my most favorite people on the planet.  This will probably involve great food, too much wine, lots of laughter, and some time in the out-of-doors (I miss the mountains and the desert!).  Hopefully I can squeeze in some reading time when I am on the airplane.  That is, if I don’t fall asleep from the Dramamine.

So here is what I am taking with me:


Divergent by Veronica Roth

I started this a couple of days ago and so far I am falling hard for this book.  Oh dystopias I love you so.

Also I learned after I checked it out that it’s on the Lone Star List.  I am beginning to think I need to challenge myself to read all of those books.  What do you think?  Have you read others on the list and loved them?  Would anyone want to do a group challenge on this?  Texan or not, if you are a YA fan, it might be fun!

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

I know this is probably the least loved of Green’s books, but it was actually on the shelves at my library and that is sort of hard to come by when it comes to John Green books.  I live in the youth-filled burbs where all the popular and new YA has a long hold list.

It’s not a particularly long flight (and I fear that I really will crash out due to the Dramamine) so I think these two books will more than suffice.  What will you be reading this weekend?