Hurts So Good: Why We Love YA Dystopias

With the holiday release of Catching Fire, the second installment in the Hunger Games franchise, it's clear that YA dystopias still rule not only the bookshelves, but the box office, too. Up next is Divergent, another series seeking to cash in while the gravy—er, gruel?—train is still in town.

Dystopias are nothing new: Ray Bradbury, George Orwell and H.G. Wells were churning them out long before 25-year-old Divergent author Veronica Roth was a twinkle in her parents’ eyes. Even YA dystopias have been around for a while. John Christopher’s bleak Tripods Trilogy, first published in the Orwellian year of 1984, continues to haunt me as an adult years after I first read it in elementary school.

Film has long loved a bleak future culled from the literary world. A Clockwork Orange, The Warriors, Blade Runner, Children of Men, I Am Legend. Insert your favorite here.

With the rise of the YA Dystopia, its fire lit by Suzanne Collins, now even classics are getting some love from Hollywood. Enter Z for Zachariah, Robert C. O’Brien’s atmospheric and utterly creepy story of survival and obsession in post-holocaust America. Published in 1974 after the author’s death, the film (starring Chris Pine of Star Trek fame) is due to be released in 2015.

So what’s changed? Why is Hollywood—and by extension, why are we—suddenly so smitten with the dark and distant future?

Pretty Young Things

We love to see sweet young things suffer. Let’s take another look at that earlier list. What’s missing (with the minor exception of Children of Men)? Women. The old vanguard of Hollywood dystopias is chock-a-block full of scruffy, testosterone-fuelled antiheroes. Malcolm McDowell, Harrison Ford, Clive Owen: manly, dirty, devious, depraved, and probably not smelling so fresh.

These girls are tough as glass: break them, and they will cut you.

This new brand of dystopia offers a dramatic change in the form of the young heroine. Sure, Katniss is surviving off bread allotments and rabbits, but that doesn’t mean she can’t be pretty. Beatrice may be, well, divergent when it comes to personality, but with Shailene Woodley onscreen I suspect she’ll be right up most people’s dark alleys. Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, now in development, gives us a whole rotten world full of hotties.

I’d argue that Lori Petty’s Tank Girl adaptation was the first film to break the mold, but she doesn’t quite fit into the current craze. A bit too old. A bit too silly. A bit too interested in...kangaroos.

No, we like our heroines young, with perfect skin and unquestionable morals, ready to toss that fantastic hair over one shoulder and do what needs to be done.

And that ain’t pretty. These girls are going to be talked down to, stalked, held captive, and beaten within an inch of their lives. There will be hair pulling and mudslinging and blood and tears.

The New Yorker recently ran a column on the YA ingénue phenomenon. I disagree with the trickster concept, and think the new YA heroines are more delicate than that. We the viewers want the delicate, we want to see tears. It underscores everything else when they rise up and kick ass. These girls are tough as glass: break them, and they will cut you.

The lure of the fragile-but-fighting girl is universal. It turns men on, tapping into the Neanderthal centers of the brain which crave hair-pulling and crying. And it empowers women: you can’t beat us down, no matter how small and insignificant you might think us to be. Young women are stronger now than they’ve ever been, taking charge of their bodies and minds. You may as well give away tickets to Divergent with the HPV vaccine.

The Real World is Just As Bad

We need hope. In the grand tradition of dystopias, hope is, if not nonexistent, an elusive and fleeting thing. Not so when a plucky young thing is at the helm.

Gone is the lonesome protagonist’s death at the hands of society/monsters/aliens. Gone is the moral decay that will never be scrubbed clean. These fresh-faced ladies will not be going quietly into that good night, but stomping their society to pieces in the hopes of creating something new from the rubble.

And let’s face it, the here-and-now isn’t such a great thing. We don’t have money, or jobs, or reasonable healthcare. A lot of free America isn’t so secure in its freedom. The US is indebted to China and doing nothing to polish its bully image. Obama’s Between Two Ferns appearance was funny and refreshing, yes, but felt a bit too much like something you’d see on the Panem newsreels.  There’s not much out there that gives us a glimmer of hope as to how this will all shake out in five, ten years.

So, let’s revel in the badness. Let’s bring the future here in all its decrepit glory and see if we can’t imagine the worst to make room for the best. Let’s go to the movies.

Ah, Youth

We want to be young again. Sixteen stinks, but how many of us would trade what we have as working professionals of a more advanced age, to have that sense of newness again, if just for a moment? I can tell you that there are days where the burden of saving the world looks far more appealing than that of a career, retirement plan, and mortgage.

The heroines in these stories are innocent, fragile, and the perfect vehicle for ourselves. We feel their pain, we sympathize with them, and in turn they let us walk a mile in their size-six boots. Yes, they may be fighting an impossible evil. They’re frequently close to death. But there’s also something untouchable there, that feeling of invincibility that only comes with being young. Two misfits find each other in these bleak worlds, and the rush of first love is ours again after being long forgotten and buried under all those things that come with capital-L Life.

Even with great responsibility, there is a freedom at work in these stories. Katniss takes responsibility for her family, her sister; it’s not forced on her, as it might have been were she older. She has that choice. Z for Zachariah’s Ann takes responsibility for stranger John Loomis when the world (and to some unspoken degree, Loomis himself) is telling her to look out for herself first. The older we get, the less say we have in our responsibilities. How sweet the freedom to choose seems, looking back.

YA Dystopias comfort us by showing us the world can get infinitely worse, yet that it’s possible to  make it so much better. They give us a heretofore unheard of protagonist—the sweet young thing—and, in doing so, show that presupposed “weaklings” can actually wield more power than mighty societies. And they’re a time machine for our own weary psyches, letting us remember what it is to be young, with a whole world—no matter how bleak—in front of us for the changing.

So, are you on the dystopia train to nowhere? What draws you to (or repulses you from) them?

Emma McMorran Clark

Column by Emma McMorran Clark

Emma Clark is assistant class director and columnist at LitReactor.

She studied Japanese at the University of Texas, then went on to study chemistry just for fun. Along the way she has worked as a buyer for a retail furniture chain, veterinary technician, bouncer, publicist, artist's model, and figure skating coach.

Her speculative short fiction has appeared in Devilfish Quarterly and Pantheon Magazine, and will be published in an upcoming anthology on women's bodies. She is currently staring daggers at a manuscript.

Emma loves single malt scotch, animals, travel, and auto racing. She lives on a ranch just north of Los Angeles.

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leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. March 21, 2014 - 9:57am

Nicely done, Emma! I agree with a friend of mine, author S.K. Falls, who says that although publishers aren't necessarily buying dystopians anymore...readers still want MORE! This is a good recap of why!!

Lauren Bethany Gowing's picture
Lauren Bethany ... March 21, 2014 - 11:21am

I think there is a lot more to it then what is mentioned above.  It's not just a need for young girls to prove their worth, although that is a part of it.  It's not just a vehicle to show that women can be important in a male dominated society, althought that is a huge aspect of it too.  I think, above everything else, we like to read and watch great acts of bravery.  The world is an immensly terrifying place, everything about it is scary and unknown.  We don't know how or when we'll die, we don't know how good or bad our lives will be, we don't know anything that's in store for us past each second.  Everyone in this world is afraid, some more than others, and some more willing to admit it than others.  However, it's in these novels that these young girls, who we usually read as being cute and unabashed, show us instead, girls being brave and courageous and doing everything that, in reality, most of us would never be able to do. 

And it's not even just in Dystopian novels, it's everywhere in YA.  Harry Potter values the brave and courageous of Gryffindor over the intelligence of Ravenclaws, just as Dauntless' bravery is valued over Erudite intelligence.  It ends up, in a world where intelligence is extremely important, and made out to be the biggest factor in how your life will be as you get older, that all these authors instead want to focus on is the importance on Courageousness in the wake of fear.  They tell us to overcome our fear of the unknown and jump head first into that which terrifies us.  It is only in those moments that these brave girls become truly alive.

Mess_Jess's picture
Mess_Jess from Sydney, Australia, living in Toronto, Canada is reading Perfect by Rachael Joyce March 21, 2014 - 12:11pm

I've wondered on several occasions why publishers don't want more dystopian novels when readers still seem so eager for more in the genre.

Great article, emma!

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal March 21, 2014 - 12:29pm

funny thing is, the real world isn't just as bad, we only think it is.

in actuality, comparitively speaking we do have money, jobs, and- for the moment- good healthcare.  and by comparitively speaking, i mean compaerd with the entire rest of the world.

what we don't have is hope for progress, and everyone wants it better, no matter how good it is. we're wealthier now than in, say, the 80s, but in the 80s we were consistently improving our situations.  things were booming.  that kind of hope (can you hear donald sutherland's voice yet?) is what's missing in our lives, because we're at the precipice of inevitable, long-term decline.  in fact, we may have already passed our peaking point.  that makes our perception such that we think we have nothing even when we have still have quite a bit of something.  it's not that we don't have jobs, money, healthcare, it's that jobs are getting worse, our money is buying less, and healthcare, well, my premiums literally doubled a couple months ago, how about yours?

but these dystopia stories are always about a change in the corrupted system, not unlike our own, but taken to the fictional extreme.  so a big, romantic, earth-shatterig change feels really good against that evil system.  these YA stories are steeped in that kind of hope.  combine that with a cute young girl that the other girls relate to, and the guys want to... and a compelling enough adverturing story line, and you found yourself a blockbuster.  

Morgan West's picture
Morgan West March 21, 2014 - 4:43pm

Do you have a recent source saying the Uglies series is underway as a movie? I got my hopes way up, Googled it, and could only find that the movie rights had been bought but it's been in development since 2007 and has had pretty much nothing but delays since.

Overall great article, but maybe you should rephrase that bit so as not to break the hearts of fans of that series. (I've been patiently waiting for at least 4 or 5 years for that piece of news.) 

Emma C's picture
Class Facilitator
Emma C from Los Angeles is reading Black Spire by Delilah Dawson March 21, 2014 - 4:56pm

@Morgan My sources were Westerfeld's blog,, and IMDB. I say nothing more than it is "in development", which these all confirm.

Thanks for reading!

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami March 21, 2014 - 5:41pm

I was just thinking of Z For Zackariah. Why isn't that getting more love? Yet it was HG that started the trend, for whatever reason.

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On March 21, 2014 - 5:55pm

I've always been drawn to dystopias, and I'm sure it's because they force us to deal with our atavistic fear of death, and thus made stronger by its exposure. As Emma points out, it's usually been the purview of older men: Rick Deckart, Mad Max, Winston Smith, etc.--the continual exercise of strength via the masculine, especially during the worst of times. I feel that YA fiction has handed over the mantel to younger characters, especially females, so it can head off the dystopia before it happens. They're no longer about grizzled men surviving in spite of a fascist state, or of end-times; it's about the young--namely the female young--heading it off before it happens. To not view dystopias as inevitabilities. 

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal March 21, 2014 - 6:21pm


I don't know about that, the dystopias already exist, and are firmly entrenched, in both Divergent and Hunger Games.

Emma C's picture
Class Facilitator
Emma C from Los Angeles is reading Black Spire by Delilah Dawson March 21, 2014 - 6:59pm

Thanks for pointing out how I COMPLETELY forgot Mad Max, Dino. Aye.

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On March 21, 2014 - 7:03pm

I didn't mean that in terms of the stories themselves, but of the readers. In other words, making the dystopian novel accessible to the youth by being about youth empowerment, and thus preventing future dystopias. 

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On March 21, 2014 - 7:05pm

In your defense, Emma, most people have forgotten about Mel Gibson. 

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. March 22, 2014 - 6:03am

I FORCED myself to forget Mel Gibson. The ass.

(Though I still miss watching Brave Heart and Signs.)

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami March 23, 2014 - 7:55pm

I'd like to do one myself, though the cynical part of me thinks it will just be absorbed back into regular science fiction. (Which if your work is about theoretical social dynamics, than clearly what tech there is isn't all that and a bag of chips.)

Oh the exception to the odler men rule, Henry Dorsen Case from Gibson's Neuromancer. He is roughly my age. (That's as much as I will say.)

Also a proto New Adult novel.

It can be argued Cyberpunk isn't quite the same as Dystopia.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal March 23, 2014 - 9:24pm


Well, I don't know about preventing.  Some German philsopher named Hegel once pointed out:

We learn from history that we never learn from history

I really doubt fiction will be any different.

JulianDante's picture
JulianDante March 24, 2014 - 8:37pm

Great article Emma. It's been a great trend to see the rise of powerful female protagonists in popular fiction, I'm thinking not only of dystopic stories but characters like Lisbeth Salander, who faces her own sort of surreal reality.

I'm a great fan of dystopias and someday hope to write my own. I'm generally so enraptured by them because the best of them are a charicature of reality. They distort certain parts and make them larger to point out society's most damning flaws brought to a logical conclusion. They're furthest from reality, but still somehow among fiction's truest forms.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list March 24, 2014 - 11:52pm

Dystopian books are great, but aren't always done well. I'm not a big fan of a lot of the YA books. Though, I did like The Hunger Games. Those books sparked my interest in reading in that genre (though I read the Uglies books first). I tend to pick up adult titles more often: Anthem, 1984, Logan's Run, Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid's Tale (my favorite), A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, etc. I'm not sure if this is because I am getting old or if teaching has made me less interested in reading books about teenagers and their angst.

Andrewbee's picture
Andrewbee from Chicago is reading some YA book, most likely March 26, 2014 - 11:38am

I think there's a simple explanation: Hollywood's, and society's, obsession with girl power. Girls are powerful now - it's a sign of the times. I unconsciously did the same thing in Zara's Flight, my latest novel (as yet unpublished). Though not dystopian, the heroine fits the Katniss mold: reluctantly thrust into the fray, and taking up the call to arms. Had I written it 10 or 20 years ago, the hero would likely have been a boy.