What do you think of when you hear “young woman protagonist in a YA dystopian novel?” Do you think of Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, not terribly ladylike, bowhunting for meat and enemies, reluctantly leading revolutions in a gray or black uniform? Or maybe Tris Pryor from Divergent, learning to fight and getting tattoos to blend into an aggressive, military-esque faction in her divided society, despite her more gentle nature? Although their worlds are different, these characters have some similarities, primarily in the challenges they face: they need to run, jump, fight, shoot, and participate in other activities that wouldn’t be too far out of place in military boot camp.
But there’s another breed of dystopian women, whose battlefields are bedrooms and boardrooms, whose strengths are in flirting, networking, and perhaps even…. birthing? I’m talking about women like America Singer from The Selection, Mare Barrow from Red Queen, and twins Harmony and Melody from Bumped. Obviously, there are some overlaps: Katniss and Tris do have romantic moments, and Mare has some action sequences, but distilled to the books’ elevator pitches, there do seem to be at least two types of dystopian women: the fighters and the talkers. It’s more of a spectrum than a binary, but all dystopian women must be flexible in a world that is changing around and against them.
Please note: this post may feature minor spoilers from the series listed above, though I will try to keep them about overarching themes rather than specific events.
According to Wikipedia, dystopian fiction is “the portrayal of a setting that completely disagrees with the author’s ethos and is portrayed as having various attributes that readers often find to be characteristic of that which they would like to avoid in reality,” and a dystopia is “an alternate society characterized by a focus on that which is contrary to the author’s ethos, portraying it as mass poverty, public mistrust and suspicion, police state, and/or oppression.”
The worlds in The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Selection, Red Queen, and Bumped are certainly disagreeable and have many of the problems listed: massively unequal worlds where small groups hold all the power and the rest are pawns thrust into games where the house always wins, worlds where teenagers have to pick which sect of society will control the rest of their lives, and worlds where young people shoulder a heavy burden like bearing children for others or engaging in political marriages against their will. As all of these worlds are different (though some have several similarities) the characters, though all young and slightly rebellious or ‘different’ women, develop different strengths to survive.
Katniss, while not known for her femininity, does have ‘beauty queen’ moments. Most notably, when she is forced into the Hunger Games for the first time, she undergoes a makeover to improve her image for the Capitol. This isn’t by choice, and is an example of how the Capitol controls the lives of its subjects. Despite this, she gains affection for her stylist, Cinna, and appreciates the thoughtfulness and functionality he puts into her outfits. Tris, too, grapples with her image, having been raised in the modest and colorless Abnegation faction, when transferred to the leather-and-tattoos Dauntless. Like Katniss, her struggles have more to do with physical survival than fashion, popularity, and romance.
On the other side of the line, we have Melody from Bumped. Living in a society where teenagers are encouraged to get pregnant and adopt/sell the babies to adults (who are all sterile because of a virus), Melody fully buys into the ‘pregnancy is cool’ marketing scheme. We even meet her trying on artificial pregnant stomachs at “Babiez R U,” and mocking her long-lost twin Harmony for ascribing to her religion’s modest dress code. Melody’s life isn’t at risk, but her social standing and income is, if she doesn’t become pregnant before her ‘expiration date.’ Melody and Katniss share a lot of personality traits, but their worlds could not be more different: fight to the death, or produce children for the highest bidder. Even so, both face challenges that they become uniquely equipped to overcome.
Then we have America in The Selection and Mare in Red Queen. These worlds are not as reproduction-obsessed as Bumped, but the women are both essentially forced into “Bachelor”-like dating situations. They must play the part and try to win the Prince’s hand or they and their families will face dire consequences. This is a completely different type of dystopia from the ones faced by Katniss and Tris, and most likely one unique to stories with women protagonists. (Side note: the only situation I have read where a handsome lower-class man is forced to socialize with foul nobles and flirt with princesses, lest his family and girlfriend back home starve, is a side character in The Hunger Games. I have NEVER read this plot with a man protagonist). Anyways, America and Mare’s challenges don’t often involve running and jumping, they generally involve looking good for cameras, besting mean-girl rivals, charming nobles, and trying to pretend they didn’t spend most of their lives in poverty. There’s a supernatural twist with Mare, and she is more of a fighter than America, but the two women’s worlds are still more similar than not. A different type of challenge than Katniss and Tris, but who knows? Maybe these will be the struggles people will face in some economically collapsed and rebuilt future!
Most likely, if it came down to a fistfight, team Katniss and Tris could beat team America, Harmony, and Melody. (Mare is a bit of a wild card in this scenario due to Reasons — see, I’m avoiding spoilers!) But if it came down to flirting with someone, making contact with an influential figure, or negotiating politics with more delicacy than violence… America, Harmony, and Melody would come out on top. Katniss would try to punch someone in the face, and Tris isn’t all that delicate, either. Mare would also be the wild card in this situation — certainly more outspoken than America, she might end up going the ‘punch in face’ route, too.
Finally, what post about women in dystopias would be complete without a shoutout to The Handmaid’s Tale? Like Katniss, Mare, and America, Offred is of a lower caste; like Tris and Mare, peoples’ jobs and status in society is dictated by the colors they wear; like Harmony and Melody, Offred’s job is to bear children for people with more power; like all of the above she becomes involved in an underground rebellion. The only difference is that Offred is an adult, whereas the characters mentioned in this post are teens. If you have read or enjoyed any dystopian novel with a woman character, The Handmaid’s Tale should absolutely be on your reading list. It is dark, but so are Divergent and Red Queen. I suspect that all these books owe a huge thanks to Margaret Atwood.
Womens’ roles in books are growing and changing: they are no longer simply objects of romantic affection or young girls learning about the world in coming-of-age stories. But they don’t have to be a hard-as-rocks character written as male but with the pronouns swapped out, either. Women can be anything, especially in a screwed up dystopian world: an action hero, a beauty queen, a superhero, a mother, a revolutionary, or all of the above.
Readers, do you read dystopian fiction? Who is your favorite woman protagonist?
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Header image is from Hypable.