My first experience with dystopian fiction, with a genre of novels that explore a future that is bleak, corrupt and almost without hope, was in High School when we read Z For Zachariah. I recall finding the main character Ann introspective and indecisive; there was much contemplating on loneliness and praying (as I attended a Catholic girl’s school I wondered at times whether they had chosen this novel as yet another way of attempting to convince us that talking to God would indeed come in handy one day – particularly if we found ourselves in a post nuclear wasteland).
How different the introspective Ann seems in comparison to today’s post-apocalyptic action heroines.
Perhaps as a backlash to our seemingly insatiable thirst for paranormal romance fiction which tended to feature beautiful and often passive damsels in distress in need of a charming Vamp to save them, we are now being bombarded with kick-butt, clad in-black, hair-tied back warrior girls ready to literally fight for freedom. The Hunger Game’s Katniss, Divergent’s “Tris”, Disruption’s Maggie and The Maze Runner Trilogy’s Brenda all out-kick, out-shoot and outsmart not only the boys around them, but society itself. Bam! Girl Power!
Or is it? Writer and Feminist Emily Maguire in her thoughtful “Letter to the Girls I misjudged”, published in Sincerely, an anthology of letters derived from the Women of Letters events, laments the fact that as a young girl she associated all things traditionally girly with weakness and took great pride in being seen as “one of the blokes”; “It was the most wonderful compliment I had ever received and [it was] reinforced every single day when I heard the things people said about girls … the simple, contemptuous way that almost everybody – kids, teachers, even members of my own family – used that word, ‘girl’, as the ultimate insult.”
Clementine Ford extends on this idea it in her post “Betraying Our Girlhood”; “Taking up arms against the demonisation of girlhood isn’t about reclaiming our right to love lipstick or dresses or have the occasional conversation about Ryan Gosling’s bottom – although those things are all perfectly fine. The fierce determination to distance ourselves from anything perceptibly “girlie” only furthers the stereotype that women who like “girlie” things are stupid and one-dimensional – and indeed that girlieness itself is stupid and one-dimensional. Some girls – like me – rejected boys’ toys entirely as children, loved pink and watched movies about high-school girls falling in love, yet they still grew up to be strident feminists. We’re all different.”
The Bechdel test was first introduced by Alison Bechdel’s in a comic strip titled “The Rule.” It is a guide that can be applied to works of fiction such as films and books to assess gender bias. It asks whether at least two women talk to each other about anything other than a man. This new era of female protagonists would pass this with flying (suitably dark and masculine) colours as they are rightly too busy in survival mode to gossip about boys. But it struck me that it would be also a speedy test to administer in many cases as these females tend to only really befriend boys and rarely confide in the few other female characters that appear. Apart from having males as their love interests, these girls also only have males as their “besties”; Katniss has Peeta, Tris has Will, Maggie has Gus, Brenda has Jorge. In perhaps the ultimate rejection of their gender, the female action figures seem to also only be able to relate to the fellers.
So despite the fact that I have devoured all of the books above as they are fabulously addictive reads, it is this seeming rejection of the feminine and of females that has begun to trouble me. I am troubled too that the power the future female fighters we’re presented with possess is very much a traditional male version of power. It’s all kick-boxing, weapons, sensible black pants, and fearlessness. Not that there’s anything wrong with this when one is in survival mode– but nor is there anything necessarily wrong with power that presents itself in other more traditional feminine ways – such as through the capacity to form social connections and form and nurture alliances.
There are many ways to be not only to be a girl, but to be a powerful person. Fiction that depicts this would indeed be truly futuristic and visionary.