It’s hard to imagine the word “dystopia” coming up in conversation or in very much writing just ten years ago. How things have changed. Dystopia is everywhere, and is an especially hot theme in film and fiction. The Hunger Games may be the best known example, but as Laurie Penny reminds us in her thought provoking article in The New Republic, dystopia has become a robust genre. Penny believes that dystopian films and books resonate with youth because it is the reality they are living. This art even cuts to the essence romantic angst:
Today’s teen protagonists are worried about how the people they love will manage in the meathook future. They want to know if romance and adventure will still be possible.
This analysis seems mostly true to me. I watched the Hunger Games with my 12 year-old son. For me, the movie was disturbing, but he was interested. I’m not surprised that young people are captivated by art that portrays young people as capable, heroic, and rebellious. Such fantasies have always belonged to the feeling of youth. This is the stuff that informs the private fantasies that go on during reading and movie watching. Conversely, I feel much less accepting of the makers of these myths. Artists always have a choice about how to reflect a culture. The current zeitgeist for all things dystopic seems exploitative to me; a genre more interested in taking advantage of fear and depression, than in transforming it. As a parent and a psychologist I am eager for art that points a way through despair. Life becomes what you pay attention to. Like many others, I’m relieved to access nature as some relief from the tension and worry of daily life, but i’m greedy for same relief in contemporary art. What good is truth that only reinforces the inertia of the moment?
About the same time that The Hunger Games premiered, another movie featuring a girl heroine also appeared – Beasts of the Southern Wild. In this film, as in The Hunger Games, a child is confronted with life changing disaster. She is poor and desperate, and faced with painful, unthinkable loss. Yet, at the very least, those in her community do not derive their entertainment from delighting in the character’s despair, as Suzanne Collins does in conjuring the dismal evil off The Hunger games. Beasts of the Southern Wild teaches us that in the midst of anxiety, pain, and loss, there is a way through. In no small part, that path relies on the persistence of love and belief in others. I suppose that’s the opposite of dystopian, but is it any less true of our condition?