Monday, March 17, 2014

Abuse Narratives in young adult dystopian fiction

Since graduating, I have taken to reading a lot of fiction.  I have a bit of an obsession for young adult dystopian fiction and sometimes read a bit of zombie/magic/fantasy and, on occasion, even vampire fiction.  I started to notice some disturbing trends in the literature and made a spreadsheet to confirm these tropes.

In case you aren't familiar with this language, a trope is a common pattern in a story or recognizable attribute in a character that conveys information to the audience. Tropes often perpetuate stereotypes.  For more information on tropes, see tropes vs. women

Currently, there are 71 books on my spreadsheet.  The stats person in me feels the need to say that these are in no way selected randomly; they represent what is available in mostly ebook and audiobook from the two public libraries I can access.  However, I did try to borrow from the top selling books tagged as "young adult" and "dystopian" on Goodreads as a rough guide to indicate that these are largely what youth are reading at the moment.

The most disturbing trend, and the one I am going to discuss in this post, is what seems to happen when a female author writes about a female protagonist (46 of the books in my spreadsheet).  Here is the story that played out more often than not...

1. Girl in mid to late teens gets rescued by a cute but mysterious boy early in the story (even in Hunger Games, although we don't know it until a bit later in the story)

2. Girl is conflicted between two potential dating partners.

3. One of the dating partners is abusive in some way - emotionally or physically, often both (one of the book jackets actually said "he loves her, he wants to kill her")

4. It is deemed to be "not his fault" because ... (he was brainwashed by the capital, he is fighting a transformation into a supernatural being of some sort, he is a supernatural being of some sort and it is in his nature to bite/kill, he was raised in another area where this was how things work and doesn't know any better).

5. Love interest #2 treats her like a human being (88.2% of love triangles or 68% total books)

6. Girl somehow survives everything  (often because of a girl-power awesome piece, but sometimes because one of the two love interests fixes everything for her) 

7. Girl lives happily ever after with abusive asshole, who is now a nice guy

The most disturbing part for me is with respect to #4.  In many real abusive relationships, the abuse is explained away as not the fault of the abusive partner - he is just under a lot of stress right now, he is not acting like himself, etc.

Some of the behavior in these books is scary.  In Twilight, Edward watches Bella sleep by sneaking into her room and everyone is ok with this?!?  If someone snuck into my room to watch me sleep, I would call the police, not date them.  In so many of these books, the love interest tries to kill the protagonist (even in The Hunger Games) and we are all ok with this because it is not his fault.  Sometimes, instead of being physically abusive, love interest #1 is merely hostile, rude, secretive, mean, spiteful, or otherwise an ass not worthy of her time.

I think it is also important that most of these girls kick ass.  It can seem empowering to watch Katniss survive the games twice and take down the capital, often saving Peetah in the process, or watching any other female character use her intelligence and physical strength to take down whatever demon / faerie / vampire / soldier / government / etc is in her way (reminiscent of Buffy), BUT, even though she is a strong and independent character, she is still in an abusive relationship with love interest #1.  Also, thank you Divergent for not doing any of this (not my favorite series, but notable in that the whole love triangle / abuse thing is barely there).

I get that this is fiction and it isn't telling young girls to go date vampires who are going to beat the crap out of them the night they lose their virginity, but when such a high percentage of the relationships that girls are reading about and watching on television excuses abuse, it can definitely lead to a situation where abusive behaviors seem relatively normalized much in the same way that study after study has shown that watching programming that incorporates rape myths make teens and college-aged adults more likely to believe in rape myths.  

Other issues with these books;

Number of books/series with at least one non-white character; 31% 

Number of books/series with at least one LGBT character; 23% (this is artificially high - there were a total of 3 series with LGBT characters;  Revived had a trans character, Adaptation had 3 queer characters including 
main characters, and the Sweep series had at least 5 LGBT characters, so I read 9 of the 14 books, HOWEVER none of these are actually dystopian despite being tagged as such).

Number of books where female protagonist stays single; 0
Number of books where male protagonist stays single;12%

Average number of female characters (non-protagonist) that have any real character development; 1.68 per book

Don't get me wrong - these books are not all bad.  There is also a lot of positive commentary coming from them, which is why I like them and continue to read them.  Most of them provide some kind of insight into the world; ideas of good and evil as shades of grey and not just black and white, issues with censorship, obedience, government/social control, war, better ways to organize socially and politically, what constitutes freedom and choice, is there such a thing as "human nature" and what does it look like, ethical issues with science and genetics, environmental sustainability, beauty ideals, racism, social class, poverty, Indigenous issues, religion, the importance of art, linking militarism to sexual violence against women... I could write several posts on these aspects alone!

In the next few weeks, I would like to write about tropes with other gender groupings for author/protagonist. 

Also, please continue to recommend books and series that you particularly liked!

No comments:

Post a Comment