Dystopian Tween Dramas and a Celebration of White Teen Angst
Franchises like The Hunger Games, the Divergent Series, and Maze Runner, as well as other one-off films like The Giver, may tell different stories, but the emotions of the protagonists are the same. Like real-life adolescents, these characters are fraught with confusion, insecurity, and budding individuality, desperate to find their unique place in a world in the midst of hormonal changes. Furthermore, their dystopia is heavily structured; people are stratified and defined by seemingly arbitrary characteristics of which they have no control, such as their station of birth (e.g., district), or another unyielding characteristic determined by a test (e.g., factions). In this world, concepts like fairness, individuality, and even free will are disregarded for the greater good.
The protagonist in the dystopian tween drama suffers from this stratification, either due to their lower status (e.g., The Hunger Games), their skill (e.g., The Giver), or their lack of adherence to the organized system (e.g., Divergent). We the audience watch and marvel as she acknowledges the system, dismisses her individual needs for the greater good, and fights this arbitrarily assigned disadvantage by any means necessary. However, even in this narrative of self-sacrifice, the protagonist is heralded and her individuality is reinforced at every level in order to progress the dystopian fairy tale.
The feelings of teen angst, or anxiety regarding one’s life or situation especially during adolescence, are palpable in these films. The need to overcome the dystopian world justifies the feelings of oppression present in all teens desperate to be their own person while still living in their parents’ house. These films give flesh to these feelings and teen angst is no longer irrational. The system is against me, and I deserve to be more than a cog in the machine.
However, these films are not just a manifestation and justification of teen angst, they are a celebration of White teen angst, one that is sensitized to specific dimensions of oppression and disadvantage, while actively blind to others.
Although many have discussed the feminist role of female protagonists in The Hunger Games and Divergent franchises, as well as Harry Potter and Twilight, it is important to note that all the protagonists are White, even in those films with diverse casts (The Maze Runner as a White Savior Trope). They live in a post-racial world, where race is not discussed and we are led to believe that the overarching organizational structure of this world is beyond race, despite the fact that characters of color continue to be secondary. However, these stories, and this future, are built on the same racist foundation as our present.
The emphasis on the extended White savior narrative, where the White protagonist leads a post-racial world to salvation, perpetuates one-dimensional conversations about oppression, thereby continuing the systematic annihilation of marginalized voices and the struggle of intersectional identities. Consider the juxtaposition of the audiences in the theater and the public discourse in similar real-world struggles: The audience empathizes with the experiences of the protagonist in these films, and comes to see the world as unjust; they too are oppressed and categorized by seemingly random assignment, which they also find frustrating, vexing, and downright intolerable.
We celebrate when the protagonist stands up for herself, disregards the stereotypes of her group, and dismantles the system. We despise the government officials who maintain the system. We become enraged as the media maligns our favorite revolutionary whose only goal is to reveal the corruption in the system. We leave the theater inspired by the story ofour protagonist, marveling in their indignation, bravery, and ability to take control of their world to make it better.
This is the story of marginalized youth (in America). Born into a race or socioeconomic status by no fault of their own, their circumstances cause them to be continuously stereotyped and dismissed; their opportunities to advance or simply live up to their potential are stymied by less-than-adequate schooling, nutritional options (i.e., food deserts), and other infrastructure (e.g., lead in the water; Flint, MI, Ithaca, NY, and almost 2000 water systems nationwide).
“Mockingjay”s eerie echoes of Ferguson: Our real dystopian nightmare (Sonia Saraiya via Salon): It’s hard not to look at this desolate fictional world and see a dark mirror of our own
But when these protagonists begin to protest the injustice in their system, we call them with rioters and “thugs,” and overly represent the few that are destroying property, fitting neatly into the stereotype of people born into their circumstances. We would never stand for this representation of Katniss!
Instead of telling the (apparently entertaining) story of their desire to overcome systems of injustice by personalizing their oppression and disenfranchisement, this reality is cloaked in “objective journalism,” where the “facts” are paramount, and the historical context or individual stories are secondary. However, the parallels are not lost on the protesters themselves; when 12YO Tamir Rice was killed by police less than 24 hours after the release of Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I, protesters spray painted, “If we burn, you burn with us,” on a public arch.
Inherent in the genre of tween dystopia is semi-woke White privilege. Not only do the protagonists realize that the world is unfair via their own personal struggles, the audience is not even encouraged to empathize with the current state of people on which this clichéd narrative is commenting. Much like non-intersectional feminism (or White Feminism), these films bolster outrage at the oppression of White characters and celebrate White characters’ ability to overcome the oppression, while actively disregarding the real world narratives occurring in Chicago, Baltimore, Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, and cities nationwide every day.
Having said that, I have seen all of these films and I’m fascinated with the genre. I just hope that the next tween dystopia franchise iteration embraces a character of color in order to disrupt the racial-empathy gap and encourage audiences to recognize the parallels between their favorite movie characters and the struggle of revolutionaries in real life. I want a spinoff of the Divergent series that focuses on Zoe Kravitz’ character, Christina, although her lack of a last name does not bode well.
More Reading: Why a Black Annie Is So Significant (Imran Siddiquee via The Atlantic): It’s still rare for a mass-market movie to put a person of color in the lead role, and it’s increasingly clear that Hollywood’s history of exclusion hurts everyone.