Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Free to Be…What, Exactly?

In June 2011, an article published in The Wall Street Journal sparked robust debate about the appropriateness of the themes proffered by current YA fiction, which ultimately culminated in a virtual discussion identified by “#YASaves,” on the social messaging service Twitter. Although some of the themes mentioned in the #YASaves discussion like self-harm, eating disorders, and abuse seem outside the scope of YA dystopia (in that they are not always elements in the genre), the larger issue of concern over youth’s exposure to “darkness” speaks to an overarching perception of children derived from views prevalent in Romanticism.

Consistent with the Romantic idolization of nature, children were heralded as pure symbols of the future who had not yet conformed to the mores of society. Building upon this model and undoubtedly bolstered by the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s, YA fiction increasingly began to shoulder youth with the responsibility and expectation of overthrowing the generations that had come prior while simultaneously delegitimizing the state of adolescence through trajectories that necessitated the psychological growth of protagonists. In order to save the world, teenage protagonists must inevitably sacrifice their innocence and thus become emblematic of the very institution they sought to oppose.

If we accept that this underlying tendency may exist in the minds of YA authors, the question then becomes one of impact: How do the attitudes of adult authors shape the text of YA fiction and, consequentially, influence the ways in which youth view themselves?

For one, a position informed by the Romantic tradition presupposes the legitimacy of children’s perspectives, privileging them over those of more traditional authorities. This stance suggests that teenage protagonists are largely not responsible for understanding the intricacies of how their environments operate, expecting the salvaged world to instead align with their personal vision. Illustrating the potential pitfall of this practice, we need only look back a few years to the exclusive utopian vision promoted by President George W. Bush; dystopian for everyone who did not share his view, Bush’s “utopia” legitimized only one version of the truth (his). Although discontent may be an integral part of the impetus to change, we begin to glimpse elements of narcissism and indignation as protagonists develop a moral imperative for their actions.

This is, of course, not to say that utopianism—or, in the case of dystopia, the hope for a world that is better—isn’t beneficial and potentially necessary as a theoretical construct. On the contrary, the mere existence of the idea provides hope for humanity, and losing this relegates us to assured failure. However, as Lyman Tower Sargent notes, utopia tends to become static as we come to view it as nothing more than a system of beliefs, turning into dystopia as we become complacent and passive participants in the maintenance of a construct that has lost its verve.

And yet, even if the teenage protagonists of YA dystopian fiction represent those select few who transcend the impulse to do nothing, are they ultimately reactionary and thusly not truly empowered? An initial reading of most YA dystopian fiction might suggest that readers can extract philosophical lenses or skills through their identification with protagonists who struggle not only to survive but to thrive. However, further rumination causes one to question the accessibility of the supposed themes of empowerment at play: although characters in dystopian fiction provide value by suggesting that hegemonic forces can be challenged, the trajectories of these extraordinary figures rarely do much to actively cultivate or encourage the enactment or development of similar abilities in the real world. In essence, young readers are exposed to the ideals, but not realistic actionable steps. Furthermore, although Roberta Seelinger Trites correctly cites power and powerlessness as integral issues in YA dystopia, one is left to question whether true power is a result of internal struggle and achievement or is instead conferred upon the protagonist through some external force. Perhaps a product of a youth mindset that tends to focus on the self, teenage protagonists often fail to recognize (and thus comment on) the role of external factors that aid their quests; Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, for example, routinely fails to mention (or seemingly appreciate) the ways in which her success are intimately connected to those who bestow gifts of various kinds upon her. Further challenging notions of empowerment, although Katniss develops throughout the course of the trilogy, she gives no indication that she would have become involved in rebellion had she not been forced (i.e., chosen) into a situation that she could not escape.

Echoing this idea, Lara Cain-Gray sees similar trends in the dystopian tendencies of teen realist fiction. In her analysis of Sonya Hartnett’s Butterfly, Cain-Gray argues that the protagonist, Plum, longs for some measure of extraordinariness—a saving grace from a dystopian world born out of banality. Here again we see that agency is ascribed to an external source as characters yearn for salvation; individuals long for someone to save them because they have not yet learned how to save themselves. Regardless of later strides made by Plum, a lack of scaffolding means that her model remains inaccessible to readers unless they have also received a jump start. If we refer back to the idea that utopia and dystopia inherently contain political elements, it seems to follow that encouraging a wider recognition of, and sensitivity to, existing social structures might address gaps in the developmental process and help youth to become more active in real life, while combatting the adult-imposed label of apathy that is currently in vogue.

Perhaps the problem lies in how we traditionally conceptualize youth as political agents (if at all). Although there are assuredly exceptions to this, the primary readership for YA dystopia—loosely bounded by an age demographic that includes individuals between 12-18 years of age—largely does not possess a type of political power commonly recognized in the United States. Prohibited from voting, a majority of the YA audience is often not formally encouraged to exercise any form of political voice; it is not until they near the age of adulthood that the process even begins to take shape with, at best, a course on Civics in high school. And, in absence of a structured educational process that promotes reflection, critical thinking, outreach, and activism, youth might be seen to cobble together their political knowledge from sources readily available to them. As author Jack Zipes suggests in his book Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter, youth seek out agency through literature like dystopian fiction. However, one might argue that what youth are really after is a sense of empowerment that they are unable to find elsewhere in meaningful quantities.

Elizabeth Braithwaite comments on one such example of the YA dystopia’s potential political influence and agency in her discussion of post-disaster fiction. Building upon work by Erich Fromm, Braithwaite notes the important difference between social orders labeled as “freedom from” and “freedom to”:

Fromm explains that the two types of freedom are very different: a person can be free of constraints, be they obviously negative or the ‘sweet bondage of paradise’, without necessarily being ‘free to govern himself, to realize his individuality.’

Although “freedom from” represents a necessary pre-condition, it would seem that a true(r) sense of agency is the province of “freedom to.” And yet much of the rhetoric surrounding the current state of politics seems to center around the former as we talk fervently about liberation from dictatorships in the Middle East during the spring of 2011 or freedom from oppressive government in the United States.

On a level arguably more immediately pressing for a teenage readership, however, let us revisit the issue of bullying. In line with the discussion surrounding forms of oppression elsewhere, much of the rhetoric present in this topic focuses on a removal of the negative—and admittedly quite caustic—influences of teenage aggressors. Prompted by a rash of high-profile suicides attributed to this phenomenon, New York Times columnist Dan Savage started a project entitled “It Gets Better.” Ostensibly designed to encourage youth to refrain from suicide (and, to a lesser extent, self-harm), “It Gets Better” seemed to effuse a position saturated with the ideology of “freedom from.” Although an admirable attempt, “It Gets Better” ultimately projects a hope for a static utopia free from bullying—which, as has been previously demonstrated, inevitably leads to a dystopia of one sort or another. By telling youth that things will get better someday (i.e., not now) we are ultimately choosing to withhold information about how to make it better. Intentional or not, we have begun to slide into a practice of knowledge containment that mirrors the regimes of dystopian societies as we fail to challenge youth to become active participants in the process of change. Propelled by thinking grounded in a stance of “freedom from,” we are, in indirect ways, in the name of protection or aid, stripping youth’s access to information that would act to empower them.

In marked contrast, we witness a different tonality in movements like those involved in the support of gay marriage or the Dream Act. Perhaps coincidentally, both efforts have embraced the notion of “coming out” and the liberation that this freedom of self-expression brings. “Freedom to,” it would seem, allows individuals in the modern age to effectively begin the process of challenging patriarchal and heteronormative stances—as any child of the 1970s and Marlo Thomas’ “Free to Be…You and Me” well knows.

Ultimately, I hope for a reevaluation of the role of youth’s relationship to information as a necessary structural support for the concept of “freedom to.” We must walk a narrow line, fighting our tendency to view modern youth as romanticized virtual wunderkind (i.e., “digital natives”) while respecting the demographic as one that is increasingly capable of digital media literacy. If our generation is to have any hope of disrupting the adversarial cycle so prevalent in YA dystopian fiction, we must take it upon ourselves to educate youth in a way that encourages their empowerment while remaining open to all that they have to teach us. It is only through this integration, and a more sophisticated flow of information, that we can hope to avoid the manufacture of a disenfranchised generation destined to suffer the ultimate indignity of being born into a dystopia.

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2 responses

  1. Akemi

    I loved Chris Crutcher’s response to the WSJ article. http://www.chriscrutcher.com/to-meghan-cox-gurdonwsj.html
    But, from what you’re saying, it sounds like both he and the #YASaves movement are just taking the first step – helping youth feel less alienated and alone. What the next step is seems to be the issue – do we tell youth to just sit on their hands and wait for things to get better, or do we show them how to empower themselves to make things better?

    Interestingly, you seem to be saying, “the truth will set you free,” but want it not to be a stifling truth that we impose upon youth. Instead, it sounds like you’re searching for a way to empower the next generation to find their own truths. “Freedom from” versus “freedom to;” phrases that sound so similar and yet carry such different meanings. We don’t want to give freedom to youth, we want to help them find their own freedom. I’m interested in learning more ways to cultivate and manage the above described “more sphisticated flow of information.”

    August 8, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    • “Instead, it sounds like you’re searching for a way to empower the next generation to find their own truths.”

      That’s all that it’s ever been about. It’s the hardest, most gratifying thing that I have ever done with my life and I’m still learning to be okay with the fact that the truths of youth may be radically different than my own. But simply, it’s a differentiation (for me, at least) of active vs. passive. I’m always an advocate of the former.

      August 9, 2011 at 1:08 am

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