Why do Young Adult dystopias resonate with teenage audiences?

19 May 2016 BY Matthew Hall

9 mins
The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games

In recent years, so-called Young Adult (or YA) dystopian films have given a shot in the arm to both the teen and the science fiction genres, yielding some of the biggest box office takings of the decade. But why are these films (and the novels on which they are based) so popular?

One answer lies in the audience identifying with the protagonist's vulnerability - and also with their power.

The vulnerability of the heroes is one of the typical features of the sub-genre. Katniss in The Hunger Games, Triss in Divergent and Thomas in The Maze Runner are all members of oppressed groups, struggling to stay alive. They are also special in some way: chosen, or blessed with skills that threaten the status quo. The architects of that status quo - whether it be the shadowy WCKD organisation, corrupt Faction leaders, or Presidents Snow/Coin - wish to either neutralise the threat of the heroes' skills, or exploit them for their own ends.

Going beyond the usual fight-to-survive narrative familiar from other dystopias, in the YA genre the heroes must first find their own identity before they can properly fight back. Only once they know who they 'are', can the regimes against which they struggle be brought down. 

This mirrors young people's own political and psychological awakenings. The search for identity, and the rebellion against the restraints and mistakes of the adult world are typical of the teen movie genre, but in YA sci-fi this is transformed from the personal to the revolutionary.

So what are Katniss and co. rebelling against? On the surface these heroes are in a fight for survival, but at these films hearts, the revolutions depicted are actually against being classified - a resistance to being told who you are and how you should behave.

Years of standardised testing in schools has led to our children being categorised from an early age (students I speak to regularly refer to themselves as scientists, or as arty, sporty or outdoors-y types). And of course within the social milieu of high school, there are also peer-imposed hierarchies of popularity that young people must navigate. Similarly, the heroes of YA fiction must also identify strategies of conformity to fit in, or to disguise their uniqueness. 

We see Katniss walk around the training area in The Hunger Games, with each contestant sizing up the murderous skills of the others; the introduction to the denizens of the Glade in The Maze Runner; or the first day being Dauntless in Divergent. These moments all mirror the 'first day of school' scenes in US high school movies like HeathersClueless or Mean Girls, where the social rules and hierarchies are introduced. The pressure to conform for the approval of peers - all governed from afar by adults - is a shared vulnerability universal amongst young people.

Similarly, the fear of failure within the narratives of all three films is structured around formalised testing - some intensely violent or physically dangerous (the Games, the Maze) - and some more like a social game, where the rules are unwritten (passing as the appropriate Faction, the gameshow-meets-Nuremberg pomp surrounding the Hunger Games). In the era of league tables and OFSTED, the pressure is on children to perform and to achieve academically, with regular testing and assessment in lessons (similar to the daily scoreboards in Divergent). 

Meanwhile, social media has become a massive arena for young identities to form and be judged. In The Hunger Games series Katniss and Peter must play out a traditional romance narrative in order to win the hearts of a huge media audience to stand a chance of survival. Failure to pass the state or social tests in real young lives can also be devastating, since the smallest incident or misunderstanding online can be documented and shared. Failure in YA films may result in death - or at best being ostracised - but the fear of being unable to fit in or pass a test are a daily reality for many young people.

Perhaps a more optimistic explanation of why these YA dystopias resonate so profoundly with young audiences is that they also create a shared sense of empowerment. Teens and early twenty-somethings are digital natives: they have grown up with instantaneous access to the world-wide web and other communications technologies. They have access to more knowledge and a wider range of opinion than anyone in history. If the mainstream media doesn't supply them with the information they need - or if they distrust the media they are given - this generation will seek out alternatives. We can see this distrust of the media and its complicity with oppressive political parties explored in both sides of the conflict in The Hunger Games.

In the first half of the 20th century there was a 400% rise in high school enrolment in America, which gave birth to the early teen subcultures of the 1950s. In high school, young people had a place to gather and to interact; share hopes and fears and desires; to create a peer culture. Today, digital tools like mobile phones and social media have super-powered that peer culture. Young people use each other to gather and share information and bypass traditional media structures. Digital natives are not only able to access these new forms of media, but they also have the tools to create and distribute their own. When they tire of stereotypical representations of young people in the mainstream, adult-controlled media, young people simply turn to their peer networks, where 'YouTubers' like Zoella or PewDiePie have become celebrities by circumnavigating mainstream institutions (and the adult approval needed to work with them).

These 'new media celebrities' may only be commenting on games, toys or make-up, but their power and influence is vast: a Variety study in 2015 found audiences had seven times the emotional attachment with YouTubers as with mainstream celebrities. One reason for these YouTube stars' success is the way young audiences can identify with them - they aren't polished media professionals, they are silly, scrappy, and candid; their aesthetic is DIY; their words unscripted. They have a sense of authenticity. 

And we can see these qualities in the heroes of YA dystopias. Katniss, Thomas and Triss have found power through the back-door, and they are stridently not super-heroic. These characters have plenty of identifiable real-world personal issues: they suffer betrayal, sacrifice and grief; they fall in love, they question their feelings; they even question the victories they have won. Similarly, YouTube stars are celebrities that are relatable and candid human beings rather than ideals.

So when we look at the success of the various YA dystopian franchises and the conventions that link them together, we can also get an insight into the contemporary youth culture that forms their fanbase. We can see not just reflections of young people's vulnerabilities and fears, but also of their idealism and empowerment.

We cannot guarantee that all films discussed in this article are covered by the PVSL and are part of our catalogue, but where possible we aim to ensure that this is the case.

Head of Media-ICT at Seven Kings High School, Ilford.

Matthew Hall, Head of Media-ICT at Seven Kings High School, Ilford.

Matthew Hall is the Head of Media-ICT at Seven Kings High School, Ilford. He also lectures at the BFI on topics such as youth culture in cinema, British film and 'Web 2.0', and democracy.

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