Why 'Divergent' And Other Dystopian Stories Aren't Such A Fantasy
It seems as though every few years, a new dystopian novel suddenly becomes trendy, everyone reads it, and then it’s a movie with big box office stars — we’re looking at you Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, etc. And the newest horror-story-turned-fad-turned-blockbuster is here: The Southern Reach Trilogy. Set to be released in 2017 with an all-star cast, the trilogy is just the latest addition to the trend. While the books are more insidious and less action-based than the aforementioned young adult thrillers, the main premise stays the same: in the near, near future, things turn to shit.
Why do we love dystopian novels?
Historically, our culture has always loved stories about the worst possible situation. Back in the day, Aldous Huxleys Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 were best-sellers — in fact, they’re still required reading for many a college curriculum. Escaping into sci-fi like Star Trek and Star Wars makes sense, but dystopian futures? It’s a perverse escapism into the worst facets of our society.
And ironically — particularly in film adaptations — we like to explore these facets with white people, despite the fact that the vast majority of people who are actually impacted by things like surveillance, internment, and unfair jail sentences are people of color. Even the Southern Reach movies are set to star Natalie Portman as the explicitly part-Asian biologist — although the supporting cast is as diverse as the novel describes so far.
What does this tell us about our society? While it’s probably a symptom of Hollywood still having a horrific racial bias, it also shows a fundamental misreading of the text. A dystopian novel is a warning, a warning to pay attention. The Hunger Games warns us about the dangers of mass media and their shrouding of the truth; our society turns it into a love story with a theme park. Isn’t this exactly what they’re warning against?
“Countless other dystopias… star pretty white girls who have the problems that come with having long, flowing hair and yet being physically strong and adorably unaware that everyone is in love with them,” writes Sarah Hannah Gómez, in a blog post called “Where Are the People of Color in Dystopias?” “Not only is this a tired trope overall, but often these pretty girls are living the dystopian problems of actual teens today–just not white teens—so it seems a missed opportunity to do what dystopia does best: safely explore and criticize a contemporary problem in a made-up place.”
Instead, we’re romanticizing them.
Perhaps what we’ve turned dystopian novels into — and what we’re about to turn the Southern Reach trilogy into — is distracting from what exactly each story is trying to tell us, and who exactly their warnings are impacting. We might be watching a bunch of white people go through horrible shit in sorta-realistic future, instead of looking at the fact that this “dystopia” has historically been a reality for people of color in American society. Hopefully, we can do both: enjoy and take heed of the warning. But in many ways it seems like our fascination with dystopias — and turning them into pure entertainment — is distracting from the actual dystopia people are experiencing.
Stay tuned to Milk for more dystopian scariness.