“Ending Dystopia: The Feminist Critique of Culture in Suzanne Collins’ _Hunger Games_ Trilogy” by Jane Beal

WorldsGoneAwry-EssaysonDystopianFictionMy chapter, “Ending Dystopia: The Feminist Critique of Culture in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy” now appears in Worlds Gone Awry: Essays on Dystopian Fiction, eds. John Han, C. Clark Triplett, and Ashley G. Anthony (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2018), 122-138.

EXCERPT:

More’s purpose in Utopia was not, of course, to inform his highly educated, Latinate, mostly male readers about a “good place,” a utopian country in the New World, but rather to critique a dystopian country in his own Old World: England.

Virtually all subsequent utopian/dystopian fiction in the western tradition is generically defined by elements found in More’s Utopia, and feminist utopian writings and contemporary feminist dystopian fiction are no exceptions. The later development of the genre branches out from its roots (Christian humanist satire), producing distinctly different fruit (literary works), because it hybridizes the tree (the genre). Whereas More’s Utopia, like Platonic dialogues, is a conversation between men, feminist dystopias expand the conversation that critiques culture by:

  • internalizing it in their female protagonists, where its very interiority can give women power to resist male-dominated cultural forces of violence, deception, manipulation, corruption, and destruction in the dystopian environment;
  • externalizing and articulating it between female as well as male characters;
  • making part of it solely between women in their texts;
  • focusing it on the human rights of women, especially the right to life, the right to freedom of the will, mind, heart, and body, and the right to self-determination in their relationships and roles in the world;
  • and emphasizing the importance of alliance between women and children, women and men, women and women, women and the environment, and women and sources of cultural power in their world.

Authors of feminist dystopian fiction frequently take as a given that the world their female protagonists live in is being represented to those women as utopian, as a “good place” that is culturally and politically organized for their benefit, but they emphasize in no uncertain terms that the world is in fact dystopian. They show that the male-dominated cultural forces in their fictions consistently seek to exploit women’s bodies, in violation of their will, at the expense of their minds and to the detriment of their emotional wellbeing.  They do not hesitate to show how some female characters living in dystopia accept these forces while others actually become perpetuators of them, and they may also highlight how male characters are not only oppressors but may be oppressed by the mechanisms of injustice in dystopia.

But in response to the “big lie” that women are living in utopia, when the actual conditions of their existence are mercilessly dystopian, authors send their female protagonists on a journey of personal and relational growth.  The journey inevitably includes acquisition of new knowledge, new strength, and new, previously unknown, and virtually unimaginable freedom.This trajectory is especially clear when reading the endings of feminist dystopian fictions.

Because feminist dystopian fiction is very much in keeping not only with utopian satire but also with the fairy-tale tradition, it engages the human psychological realities of hope and fear, but often—quite purposefully—without the consolation of a traditional “happy ending.”  This raises a key question:  since the endings are clearly not wish-fulfillment fantasies, intended for the temporary satisfaction of readers, what purposes are being accomplished by the endings of feminist dystopian fictions?  To explore the question, my chapter focuses on the ending of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010).  As we shall see, her fiction makes new use of the generic elements of the utopian satirical tradition—classical learning, Christian ethics, and the discovery of a new world—in a “bad place” where the development of the psychological complexity of her female protagonist on her journey drives the critique of the real dystopia: the postmodern world inhabited by the author and her readers at the turn of the twenty-first century.

 

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