Romance or Dystopia? A Rumination…

War. Death. Despair. Oppression. Environmental ruin and… Romance?

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When it comes to demoralizing literature, dystopian novels have it all, and that’s why we love them! However, more recently, as in The Hunger Games (and before) there has been a trend (quickly transitioning into tradition) of the Young Adult dystopia to include a romantic plot that plays heavily throughout the story. Indeed, the romance in these YA dystopian texts is counter-dystopia-intuitive in many ways as it offers a respite from the dystopia – young love becomes the utopian hope in a dystopian world.

But, how do we feel about that? To me it rings of a longing for the re-emergence of the baby-boomer period. Young love in these texts is encourage, it is often flaunted as the dystopian act of rebellion (see: Marie Lu’s Legend and Ally Condie’s Matched). But is it? Really?

Traditionally a dystopian reality comes with incredibly high stakes, and traditionally the protagonist slowly awakens to the dystopia and either becomes revolutionary or briefly brushes against the machine and is squashed out (poor Winston of 1984, Titus and Viola of Feed, and in many ways, Miranda from the more recent Life as We Knew It). Government oppression, corruption, surveillance, war, forced conformity, religious (or other) fanaticism, and our heroes must face odds that are incredible to the point of hopelessness – one great, which I will not go into because I’m always saying how awesome it is Unwind by Shusterman. Dystopian heroes typically suffer more than ordinary heroes, and not all of them make it out alive or whole, but, even if only in their realization, they all resist. I think I love dystopian texts because resistance is never futile. In a dystopian system, even the briefest moments of awareness can kindle resistance and, what sparks the awakening awareness is what is so intriguing! However, recently, the prime ingredients of a dystopia is a clever premise that typically involves destruction, oppressive societies, and love triangles. Along the way, many of the dystopian worlds fall short, they are undeveloped beyond a single facet of their premise which begs the question, are they dystopia or are they romance?

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Romance plays the part of awakening agent in does in Marie Lu’s Legend – where (SPOILERS) the age old plot of a rich girl falling for a guy on the wrong side of the tracks has June, the rich and honoured daughter of the Republic, fall for Day independent agent of resistance. Her eyes are opened to the systemic oppression that even she, in the elite upper class, is subject too and Day realizes that the Republic is a lot more repulsive than he ever though – and the resistance faction is, of course (like The Hunger Games’ District 13) not much better. Lu’s writing is beautifully nuanced and, where other YA dystopias fail to construct a fully realized dystopian system (Matched, Divergent, Shipbreaker) she manages to construct a full-fledged dystopia that continues to tick as the protagonists June and Day fall in love. What I love about this particular series is that despite the characters wanting to take a break and bask in each other’s company, they just can’t and it doesn’t feel contrived.

Interesting then that the dystopian plot in many ways mirrors the coming of age plot. The turmoil of the dystopia (or the teen angst) is happening simultaneous to the love story. In Lu’s series it works, or it did in the first two books – I have yet to read Champion.

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An example of a less dystopian YA dystopia is Veronica Roth’s Divergent. Now I have only read the first one so I’ll only comment on the first one – and I know many love this series – I just didn’t find the first one particularly dystopian and stopped reading. I think it’s because Tris, well, she has choice. Generally, in a dystopia you do not have choice, it is a freedom disallowed by the regime. Anyway, we are led to believe that she is resisting by choosing to leave her conservative Abnegation home for the chaotic and brave Dauntless. So, really she is simply not succumbing to peer and family pressure in this instance. The system allows her to choose – alright, they are allowing her to choose only one characteristic, which means she’ll never be able to be selfless again (oh, but wait since she is given a choice and she doesn’t choose to be selfless, which is resisting being selfless in the first place..? oh, but she’s divergent, so, not to worry…). The dystopian system here is a little flawed though it does loosely mirror teen peer groups and pressures (you know, the nerds over there (Erudite) and the jocks over there(Dauntless)), and it unravels further once we realize that all the cool people are divergent and so can be more than one character trait at once.

The system tries to squash this out but the system at this point is so one dimensional – everyone must only be one character trait. Well, it’s not quite enough. We learn that this system used to work, that the one character trait ‘brave’ used to mean more than just reckless, but has now come to mean only ruthlessness. So if, within a one-word identity multiple characteristics can be accomplished… then the dystopia is a little cracked, just sayin’. Especially considering the amount of characters we learn about who don’t embrace the system as it stands. Rebellion is too obviously a solution and it is too obvious a contrivance to have our teens be the heroes. It’s just so darn… typical. We know it’s going to happen and that the rebellion will probably win out. Everything in between is just plot contrivances and – Romance. So, here the dystopia, which mirrors teen peer groups and pressures, becomes not being in a teen heterosexual relationship.

(SPOLERS)

But then Tris has sex. Now, I have only been told about this and haven’t read the books, but this strikes me as interesting considering the ending of the series, which I also know about. Tris then, has pre-marital sex but then doesn’t survive the story because she sacrifices herself. Pre-marital sex = self-sacrifice… not the most hopeful of narratives. Interesting that Tris’ hope is lost along with her virginity, in a way then the utopian state offered by Romance can only be had in innocent love relationships.

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And I have to admit, as much as I love The Hunger Games the same Romance conundrum is true of Collins’ series. For all the attention that the series gives to Katniss’ rebellion, to inversion of gender roles and the survival of independence and individuality – The Hunger Games series is still significantly a love story. In each of the books it is Peeta that defines their relationship and Katniss (though she resists a little) inevitably succumbs to that definition. They are the star-crossed lovers in book 1 where they act out the love story that blossoms into a true narrative. In book 2 he says that she is pregnant and they become married, and once again they strive to play the games to save one another. The romance, the love between Katniss and Peeta, is what inevitably pushes Katniss into action in Mockingjay which makes me wonder if Katniss really would have fought for her own independence from District 13 and then from the Capitol, if she didn’t have to fight for Peeta and his love. Not only, then, is it Peeta that defines Katniss but they wait for 13 some years before any sexual activity is mentioned (they have kids, sexual activity with a purpose at that!). Again, like Lu’s Legend the world continues to turn around Katniss and everyone is playing their own game, the stakes are high, but at their core these stories are romance, without the sex of course. These are teen reads after-all.

It is true that the popularity of certain kinds of fiction directly relates to reality — and the allure of fiction has always had roots in escapism. Therefore, as our own reality becomes darker, so does our fiction. But is it the Romance genre that is becoming darker or is it truly a resurgence of dystopia that we are seeing? I would argue, much to my own chagrin and not without exception, that in truth it is in fact Romance which is receiving the make-over. Furthermore, there is an air of censorship about these teen Romance stories that is a little unsettling and has an air of dystopic control that reaches into reality, for not only are they mostly heteronormative relationships, only non-sex relationships are safe, heroic and offer a utopian hope.