The year is 2097 and society as we know it has been reduced to small, walled enclaves. Every aspect of life is strictly regulated by the government and misery abounds. But hidden within this society there is hope…in the form of a conventionally attractive cis-het white girl.
I’m not going to argue about whether or not the whitewashing of dystopian YA is a real thing (it is) since there are already plenty of articles that discuss the absence of People of Color, trans people, and members of the queer community in mainstream dystopias, complete with numerous examples. This is particularly true of PoC erasure. YA dystopias have been around long enough that activists have had plenty of time to note on how problematic it is to assume that in the future, everyone who’s anyone will be white.
What I am going to do is discuss why failures of representation are particularly dangerous in YA dystopias.
Part of the appeal of the YA dystopia is the fact that dystopias are the ideal place for teenagers to work through their transition into adulthood. In a dystopia, everything has gone wrong. All authority must be challenged. It gives teenagers an outlet to push boundaries and rebel while remaining in a safe space. They are able to act out their frustrations at the broken world that they stand to inherit and to play with the idea of assuming responsibility without opening themselves up to any actual risk.
However, part of this “safe space” often involves the exclusion of actual power structures. All of the major characters are white, and so racism isn’t dealt with so much as it’s erased. There can be a rigid caste system but the heroine always rises out of poverty by the end and never deals with classism. There’s also usually a love triangle in which she gets to choose between two boys because that way her relationships can feel complicated and forbidden while remaining heteronormative. She’s also usually skinny, cis, and neurotypical to boot.
In this, the world of the dystopia aims to give teenagers the experience of doing something subversive without actually subverting anything. It allows white, heterosexual, cisgender teenagers to step into the narrative of rebellion while refusing to address any sort of real-world social issues. That is to say, they can pretend to rebel but never be called on to challenge their own beliefs. These narratives allow them to identify themselves with the role of the oppressed without asking them to confront their role in the real world power structure.
But fixing things is hard. Can’t we just keep breaking stuff and see if it gets better on it’s own?
If anything, the whitewashed dystopia narrative suggests to teenagers that rebellion can occur without change. By erasing issues like race, class, and sexuality, it implies that these things do not need to change. These stories represent a changing of the guard, a passing of society from one set of white hands to another.
More so, they appropriate the rebellion narrative from actual marginalized groups. By stripping away racial/class/GSRM tensions, these stories divorce the narrative from the people who have shaped it. In turn, by not acknowledging the role of marginalized people in the rebellion narrative—by claiming rebellion as an essentially white story—dystopias invite readers to ignore their contributions to history and intellectual property.
Rather than teaching white and cishet teenagers to spot injustice and to be strong allies, dystopias aim to affirm that they are—and ought to be—the most important part of the rebellion. This sort of story isn’t about equality and it isn’t about overturning social structures. It’s about taking the struggle of marginalized people and twisting it around to put the most privileged people at the center.
This encourages the same lack of perspective that leads to white feminism, whitesplaining, mansplaining, and people who firmly believe that the A in LGBTQIA stands for ally (it doesn’t. It stands for asexual, another group that’s largely ignored by YA dystopias).
For the rest of us, it sends a different message. You can rise up and buck the system, if you’re white. You can find the sort of love that conquers all, if you’re straight. You can be yourself, if you meet western beauty standards. You can lead the rebellion, if and only if you don’t threaten the hegemonic power structure.
Inclusion is important in all genres, and particularly here. Our society is in sore need of change, and we’re not going to get it unless we stop trying to pacify teenagers and start teaching them how to revolt.