Over the last few years, young adult fiction has been dominated by dystopia. The trend is dying out now, although it lives on in movie adaptations, but for a few years, you couldn't pick up a popular or hyped book without it featuring an oppressive society, a futuristic world, and government-forbidden love. From the gritty military/criminal mashup of Legend to the pretty dresses and dating game-esque The Selection, societies were crumbling and oppressing everywhere you looked. I love a good dystopian novel, but the avalanche of dystopian romances surprised me. It's such a weirdly specific genre to become so popular. Why are we as readers fascinated by horrific, controlling societies? The answer, I believe, is that these books function as a kind of wish fulfilment; not as the life we wish we could live, but as the power and influence we wish we could have.
Because yes, these worlds suck. But in YA dystopia, they can also be changed. And teenage girls are the ones to change them.
These dystopian worlds serve as rather extreme metaphors of the teenage experience. These are worlds full of rules, where all choices are taken away. Individuality ranges from "frowned upon" to "punishable by death." Love is seen as a terrifying disease. These societies dictate everything about the protagonists' lives, from what they eat and wear to who they marry, how many kids they have, and what careers they pursue. It might seem extreme to say that this reflects life as a teenage girl, but combine the confusions of adolescence with the extreme pressures that our current society places on girls, and I think the connection is clear. Teenagers in general lack the power to entirely make their own decisions, and this powerlessness can range from insignificant things to the selection of colleges or career paths, depending on the people around them. And teenage girls particularly spend their lives being dictated to by society: they have to dress a certain way (and if they don't, they deserve whatever bad things happen to them). They must hide their true faces with makeup, but not let any see that they're actually wearing makeup. They must be smart, but not be a nerd, and certainly not be smarter than the boys. They must be thin. Food is an indulgence. But they mustn't be too superficial and obsessed with dieting. Romance is a girlish frippery, but they need a boyfriend to have worth.
The constant contradictions are incredibly stressful and repressive. Girls are told it's their responsibility not to misstep, but almost everything is a misstep. The world is constraining and stacked against them. Is it any wonder, then, that dystopian novels became some popular? Just as girls are not allowed to break all of these contradictory rules, they're also not allowed to criticize the rules. Conformity is everything. The extreme metaphors of dystopian fiction therefore create a space where female characters can rebel against the repressive rules of society, without directly criticizing or breaking the rules of our society. They can fight for their individuality, and for the right to love whoever they please.
And they can win. Over the course of their trilogies, these female protagonists go from completely trapped by society to being instrumental to tearing them down. They successfully fight to create new worlds, where individual choices matter. Where teenage girls have power. Where freedom is possible. We rarely see these worlds, because the books end on this note of optimism for the future rather than delving into the reality of social change, but they're full of possibility. There's even the possibility that they'll be better than the societies we live in now, that these girls will truly carve a place for themselves and be free of all the restrictions that have held them back thus far.
Paradoxically, dystopian YA fiction ultimately represents hope. A dark hope, the kind that exists in desperate situations, but hope none-the-less. It's hope that we will overcome the restrictions placed on us, tear down those who judge us or mistreat us, and find space to who we're actually meant to be. And that, I think, is a very powerful and valuable thing.