Battlefields and Birthing Rooms: Young Women in Dystopian Fiction

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Dorothy McQuaid
Showrunner for Pycera/Social Media for BWP
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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.

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The Case of the Fat, Ugly Heroines

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Rebecca Kordesh, Director
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Name a fantasy novel, particularly a fantasy novel with a female POV. Picture that female the way she is described in the story. She’s beautiful, isn’t she? Maybe she’s not as beautiful as other women in the story, but it’s okay because enough people find her beautiful that she gets to claim the epithet. Maybe she doesn’t find herself beautiful, but she’s lucky enough that other characters will make sure she knows they find her beautiful.

It’s easy enough to understand why this is: fantasy is fantasy. We have magical, magnificent worlds and we might as well fill them with pretty people. And by “pretty,” here, I’m referring to people who are described using adjectives such as “pretty,” “beautiful,” or “lovely.” What this looks like to authors varies considerably, but the important part is their use of those identifiers. No matter how else the character is described, when the author uses these adjectives, the assumption is that the character is objectively attractive.

What I find interesting is the persistence of characters identified as beautiful, even in modern fantasy where the genre has taken a dark turn. Worlds have become grotesque, often horrifying. Sometimes heroes aren’t heroes, sometimes stories are dark and tragic. And yet, despite this, beautiful women seem to persist in the vast majority of fantasy literature. So much so that when the main female character is described as “ugly” or (horror of horrors) “fat,” it stands out. So I’d like to take a moment to think about two such characters — Kelsea from the Tearling series and Elisa from The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy — and what I especially enjoyed about their portrayals.

Spoiler-warning

The discussion that follows will contain minor spoilers for these series. I will not include any plot spoilers or major story arc spoilers, but I will discuss a bit of character development, so if you have not read either of these series, proceed with caution.

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