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The Rise of YA Dystopia: How Did Katniss Revolutionise a Genre?

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Nottingham chapter.

Alice delves into the rise of YA during the 2010s and the re-emergence of dystopia in popularity, both commercially and with audiences. This article is part of a series over the next coming weeks (1/3)


I’m sure you remember it, it’s 2012, Imagine Dragons dominate radio, Tumblr is thriving and the newest Hunger Games film is gracing the screens. It’s the middle of the YA fiction boom and dystopia is hot stuff. 


The Origins of Dystopia


Whilst the concept of dystopia isn’t new, with its origins in Thomas Moore’s 1516 Utopia, some of the most critically acclaimed post-war works have been dystopic. A dictionary definition of ‘dystopia’ would place its meaning as opposite to ‘utopia’, originating from Moore’s work. But it’s not as cut and dry as that. When it comes to the literary genre, dystopia has a certain nuance. The imperfect societies depicted in 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale aren’t just plucked from obscurity, they are direct responses to the contemporary situations of each author.


This is speculative fiction, just like sci-fi presenting whacky visions (speculations if you will) of the future. The writers of dystopian speculative fiction take current issues such as the excessive regulation of female bodily autonomy, rampant government censorship or the rapidly increasing climate crisis and create stories where these issues play out to an extreme. This is what makes dystopia so compelling and poignant— it acts as a mirror on society.


Missing Perfection


Furthermore, the concept of a Utopia is crucial to a believable, visceral Dystopian world. Moore’s work was commentary/criticism on 16th C Europe, depicting an island where a ‘perfect’ society exists, yet the paradise is hollower upon further inspection. This is what drives successful Dystopia— the society in question will always, in some way, be aiming for a form of perfection, however warped that may be.


In the case of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale there is a line that encapsulates this— ‘Freedom to and freedom from’. Women are completely controlled by the government, as by forcing women to sacrifice their freedom to (to own property, vote, financial independence etc) they are apparently protecting women from harassment and sexual exploitation. So, to reach this warped vision of freedom, the government of Gilead enforce strict regulations on women’s clothes, speech and sexual exploits.


Essentially, Dystopia relies on the road to perfection going wrong along the way, with many novels focussing on individuals navigating this oppressive, imperfect society.


Genre Redefined


So, this is all true for young adult dystopia, a more modern genre that found its footing in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, but there is something that separates YA from the regular programming. Orwell’s 1984 is a classic whilst Hunger Games is simply popular culture. What about the grumpy, thoughtless teenager defines the genre? Why did the Hunger Games take the literary world and silver screen by storm?


Obviously, this has a lot to do with demographic and age, but I’d argue that there’s something specific to do with the teenage condition that defines YA dystopian fiction and sets it apart. Teenagers are caught between idealistic childhood and realistic adulthood, seeing both sides of the coin and are often framed as moody because they’re disillusioned with the world but powerless to make change. YA flipped this and instead focused on being old enough to recognise injustice but young enough to hope for change.


Whilst adult dystopia often ends pessimistically, YA fiction relies on a sense of hope. Rather than grimly predicting what could happen to the world, it ignites a fire for change through the guise of an entertaining story. If Katniss had been existing in Orwell’s Hunger Games, she would have been tired and middle-aged, fighting the system but ultimately failing, leaving the elitism of the capitol and harsh class system fully intact.


But she doesn’t exist in that Hunger Games, she exists in a world where she can stand up against the government and, ultimately, becomes the face of a rebellion that revolutionises Panem. Katniss faces a world defined by classism, elitism, media control and extreme reality television that is all used by a government to maintain a level of order (sound familiar?) but instead of submitting to the capitol, she rebels.


Angry Author

Okay, the dystopian genre has been rewritten to appeal to teens, so what? Why was this so compelling around 2008-2014ish?


1984 followed the end of WWII so was mostly concerned with authoritarianism and government censorship. The Handmaid’s Tale was written at the tail end of second-wave feminism (the tv series lining up with the current fourth wave) so focused on gender politics and bodily autonomy.


But then what was Collins so concerned about? There’s been no war, no recent feminist revolution. What was going on in 2008?


It’s the new Millennium, 911 fresh in the minds of the American people and the financial crash has just hit the globe. Class inequality is rife, exacerbating already existing poverty and oppression, so Collins wrote about a racially ambiguous teen from the poorest district. She wrote about how the wealth gap and racial inequality dehumanises entire sections of society.


The 2000s also saw an exponential rise of reality TV and media takeover so by the time the movies were in full swing, everything was about spectacle and virality. So, Collins wrote about a future where reality television is used to control the Panem population.


Yet, what truly solidified the books as international best-sellers was that Collins knew exactly who she was writing for and what they could handle. The world was getting smaller and society couldn’t pretend that teens weren’t clever or interested enough to understand world events.


Hunger Games is YA fiction that respects its readership


Thus, we have the elements of a successful dystopia; real, current concerns projected onto a fictional society, an angry author who has something to say and an audience begging for something grittier and reflective of the world around them.


But overall, it is the essential, ever-growing hope which explains why The Hunger Games began one of the biggest trends of this century. People finally had a taste of something they were missing; they begged for more and the genre exploded.  


Alice Chamings

Nottingham '21

Final year English with Creative Writing Student. Big fan of a cuppa and a cheeky cake ?