Female Protagonists Dominate Dystopian Fiction by Elizabeth Eckhart

Elizabeth Eckhart is BACK, this time with a thought provoking discussion about female sheroes in dystopian fiction.  I confess, this is the ONLY reason I’ve developed any interest in this genre–dystopian, as a whole, so often feels like it’s entirely hopeless and violent (and we all know I like my happy, fluffy, hopeful romances), but the last decade has seen a serious influx of shero leads that has pulled this romance lover in–at least on the big screen.  Let’s hear what Elizabeth has to say.


Though dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction has been around for a long time, it is only in the last decade or so that it has really seen a rise in popularity as content for young adult novels and movies. Trilogies like The Hunger Games and Divergent have not only been bestselling books, but they’ve made the leap to successful film series as well. Their main characters, teenage girls with warrior instincts who end up thrown into wars they aren’t sure they can survive, have given a generation of young women heroes to relate to and believe in. But though these books feature strong female leads and seek to tackle some important issues in society, there are others – such as racism and sexism – that they seem to gloss over or bypass entirely.


Dystopian fiction has become increasingly popular over the years in a multitude of formats, from novels to comic books to television series. Young adult fiction especially has seen a large number of these kinds of stories being released on a regular basis. Readers seem to love the idea of worlds ravaged by war or disease or nuclear events, and then forced to rebuild themselves from the ground up. Especially when they are discovering these worlds through the eyes of teenage characters they can relate to and imagine themselves as. What would you do if the world as you know it had ended and now you were forced to survive in a new world with a harsh government that sought to control every move you made and thought you had? The characters of these books – such as The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, and The Giver – experience these worlds and have to fight to survive in them, and following along on their journeys is a riveting experience.


Watching female characters lead these fights is especially exciting, as for so long girls were relegated to love interests and sidekicks in action-adventure type stories. Valentine Wiggin of the science fiction classic Ender’s Game is a genius in her own right but she is not chosen to lead the war against the alien bugs, her little brother is. And while she works to bring about change back on Earth, it is at the direction of her older brother and not so much her idea. She’s an important part of the story, but not the main character and often times overlooked as other characters take precedence.


The dynamic is flipped for these newer novels. In The Hunger Games it is Katniss Everdeen that takes center stage. She hunts to keep her family fed, she volunteers as Tribute to protect her sister, she tries to take care of Rue in the Arena, she nurses Peeta back to health, and she finds a way to survive the Games. Later on in the series she is used as much as a figurehead and a pawn by both sides of the war as she is used as a warrior, but she is still the lead of the story and it is still told through her experiences. And the two main male characters of the books, Peeta and Gale, are placed in the atypical roles of love interests and sidekicks for once.


There are a lot of issues in modern society that are touched on in dystopian fiction, such as class divisions and abuse of power by the government. But other issues are mentioned only briefly or skipped over entirely. In the film version of The Hunger Games (streaming info here) it is made very obvious that issues of race are still a factor in Katniss’ world, but only because you can see the people in Rue’s District and recognize that they are different than the people in other Districts. Were they segregated on purpose? The issue is never really discussed – but the decision to cast African American actors in these roles in the first place has long been a topic of discussion among fans.


Dystopian stories give readers complex, dark, interesting worlds to focus on. These new young adult series with strong female leads help shine a light on just how capable girls can be in the roles of heroes. They can be hunters and fighters as well as scholars and girlfriends. They can fight for their families and their friends just as well as any male character can. Hopefully as time goes on and it becomes commonplace to see female leads in these works of fiction, authors will begin tackling other important issues in them as well.


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