Dystopia Ladies: The Selection Series
Within months, The Hunger Games film series will come to a close with Mockingjay Part II — and filmmakers are already in search of the next blockbuster in the dystopia genre. One studio is one step ahead in the YA book-to-film process. Last April, Warner Bros. had already made their move in purchasing the rights to global best-selling series The Selection by Kiera Cass. It’s easy to see why Warner Bros. is eager to snatch up the series; the books have sold 3.2 million copies worldwide and Cass has signed on for two more books.
The series follows America Singer and 34 other teenaged girls as they are randomly chosen to compete for the crown prince’s heart and the throne. America, who is less well-off than other competitors, has no interest in the Selection. Participating means leaving her family and secret boyfriend behind to live in the palace, which is constantly threatened by the rebels.
Of course the series has the trademarks of YA — a love triangle and a protagonist that suffers from “not like other girls” syndrome — but what makes the series stand out from others in the dystopia genre is the combination of fairy tale elements such as a commoner becoming a princess and a romantic prince. The Selection serves as a quasi-feminist fairy tale where the heroine not only marries her true love for a happy ending, but evolves into a political figure.
Cass makes a small effort to establish the novel’s world as dystopia, with vague mentions of whippings and hunger, but in reality Illéa is a reflection of old society. In the novel, there’s an eight tier caste system vaguely similar to the rigid Victorian-era classes, that determine one’s career and quality of life. The caste a citizen is born into — whether they’re the royal Ones or the undesirable Eights — provides them with little chance to move up. Men can buy their way up or enlist in the army and become a Two. Women only have the chance to rise through marriage. (However, the intermarriage culture could have changed in the sequel series The Heir, since the premise focuses on a Selection for men. I can’t say for sure since the book came out this May and I have yet to read it.)
The only aspect of Illéa that fits the dystopia genre is taking suppression of women into law. It’s quite obvious that women are valued for only how they can serve their families or their marriage prospects. America herself fixates on her cooking skills and the money she earns to prove to her boyfriend Aspen that she is ready for marriage. Whatever money she does earn as a Five — a musician — is given to her parents to feed her family. In later books, ideal partners for Prince Maxon are all mentioned by in light of what they could offer — whether it’s wealthy connections, sex appeal, or the approval of the people.
The cultural idea that marriage is a woman’s greatest achievement is even indoctrinated at an early age.
Ideally, if a woman marries up, she will “not forget her family” and help them out with finances. If possible, girls are home-schooled, or, if there’s enough money, they are taught by tutors within small groups, thus isolating them from any contact that isn’t appropriate. Even America is isolated from everyone that isn’t her family; her mother explicitly mentions that she “shoo[s] away” any suitors in their class since her “girls are too pretty to marry Fives.”
To make matters worse, it’s also illegal to have sex before marriage — and birth control is only available to the elite. Disturbingly, people can be jailed for having sex and the text only mentioned that pregnant teenage girls are imprisoned, never men.
America is blatantly introduced as a the supposed feminist of the story. Instead of complying to the female-dystopia, she wants to marry a man a caste below her for love. She often says that she is quite content in her life — despite being hungry in winter months — and accepts the sexual abstinence laws as a way to protect the nation from diseases. It’s as if America’s choice of love over security is a political choice, yet those who fight for a better life like the other 34 girls are denounced as social climbers. In a world where just marrying and supporting their families is the absolute most they can hope for, of course these young ladies will be excited to have an opportunity. There is no room for female friendships when they are all fighting for the same goal: a place as an untouchable One.
The Selection itself is a fun read for its light romance with Bachelor-style drama and Maxon is a realistic prince charming. However, the series putters with the reintroduction of America’s love triangle between Maxon and Aspen in The Elite, the second book of the series. It’s not until the final pages of The Elite and the entirety of the final book The One that the series drops the love triangle and plays with conventional feminism.
When the remaining contestants are required to present a philanthropic project on national television — sort of an homage to real-life princess’ projects — America decides to throw herself publicly behind the dismantling of the caste system. Specifically, after this moment it becomes clear how little power the current Queen does have. She is in charge of arranging events for foreign royals and her own project to keep mentally and physically handicapped people out of the gutter, but she does very little. Notably, the Queen sits and waits for her husband to come home while she is oblivious to how he treats their son.
America, on the other hand, takes more of an active role. Not only does she tell the sheltered Maxon the truth of living in a low caste, she also forms alliances with rebel factions and other countries. She also uses her pop culture status to inspire Illéa citizens to fight back when their country is attacked. While she lacks the political grace to implement changes in society, her partnership with Maxon will be able to show her a more tactful way of achieving her ends.
In the end, it becomes clear that America was never trapped between two boys. The fairy tale journey was never about a nobody coming to the castle and charming the prince. It was about a young girl accepting that there were responsibilities for every choice she made — and that her romance could change the world. In this light romance and ball-gown trilogy, Cass shows that not only can an ordinary girl can be a man’s princess — she can become the queen of a nation.
P.S. Feminist interpretation aside, I also think it’s worth noting that these books have a very controversial reputation in YA circles. The short verison is that a reviewer on Goodreads left a negative review of the first book when it first got published, and Cass’s agent refered to the reviewer as a nasty name.
I believe we should be aware of how authors and books are being presented or advertised to us, as books are open to interpenetration. Within the YA genre, the trickier aspect is that these books are being advertised to children/teenagers. Informed readers are happy readers!