Women and girls in dystopian fiction

I am so excited to be participating in Dystopian Survival Week. I have been enjoying dystopian fiction since long before I knew it was a genre. I remember watching the TV movie based on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when I was too young to really get it – and yet I was enthralled and terrified by the idea of these women being entrapped not in some historical society, but in some possible future.

When I had to choose a theme for my blog post and challenge this week, there was no question. It had to be related to the role of women and girls in dystopian fiction.

A look at dystopian novels throughout the years shows they were dominated by men(written by and about) for the most part until approximately 10 years ago. (This is nowhere near a complete list, but arguably representative). But all of a sudden, women are writing dystopia about women and for women. And not even for women as much as for girls. And it is working. Why?

Personally, I am constantly amazed by the strong female characters I see in dystopian novels. Does the setting allow authors to create a strong and independent character easier than other contemporary settings? Is it more acceptable to readers that a woman/girl would shun romantic ideals and fight for herself only if the world has been turned upside-down? And if so… what does that really say about our society?

So my challenge to you is twofold:

1. Tell me why you think dystopian fiction features so many kick-ass female characters.

2. Tell me who your favourite female dystopian hero is, and why she is awesome.

oh and …

3. Do it all in 100 words or less.

Leave your answer in the comments below Contest is open to residents of the US and Canada, and runs until midnight (AST) on Monday, April 30.

The randomly selected winner gets a copy of Blood Red Road by Moira Young – which features my favourite female dystopian star: Saba.

Saba amazed me. Strong, stubborn and proud. Selfish, and even cruel. But in her struggle to save her twin brother Lugh, she learns valuable lessons, including how to open herself up to others and how to ask for and accept help.

After you’ve entered here, be sure to check out the other participants in Dystopian Survival Week, and enter their contests as well.

Seeing Night Reviews – Will host the Dystopian Image Scramble Challenge (Giving away: Insurgent)

EM Castellan – Guess that Quote Challenge (Giveaway: The Knife of Never Letting Go)

YA Book – Government System in Dystopian Novels (Giving away Various Dystopian Novels)

Ali’s Bookshelf – Would you make it through the Maze Challenge (Giving away The Maze Runner)
Pretty Deadly Reviews – Hunger Games Theme (Giving away Hunger Games + Swag)

Breath of Life Book Reviews – Article 5 Theme (Giving away Article 5 + Post Card)

Book Lovin Mamas – Surviving the Caves Challenge (Giving away The Host)

Sharon Loves Books and Cats – The Hunt Challenge (Giveaway: The Hunt)


17 thoughts on “Women and girls in dystopian fiction

  1. I still very much like my male dystopian protagonists in classic dystopians (1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451.) As for girls, I always think of them as whiny, weak, and useless damsel in distresses (is this even a word?) And they always seem to end up being self conscious, and see themselves as ugly compared to other girls. Honestly, I think the whole kick-ass female characters thing was sparked by my favorite female heroine, Katniss Everdeen (I wish I had a less cliche answer…) The YA market is just saturated with female-guided dystopians right now. I guess Katniss can’t compare herself beauty-wise since everyone in The Seam was basically starving anyway. But she is a fighter, and she knows that skill needs practice and hard work, not to mention she is also cunning and not afraid to kill (though to her credit, she does feel remorse). Is this less than 100 characters? =)

    Lilian @ A Novel Toybox

    • Thanks Lilian. I also loved Katniss, but for a classic version of the kick-ass female in dystopia, I suggest you check out Offred, in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale too!

  2. I think that dystopian books feature so many great female characters because dystopia is awesome. And most YA books seem to be narrated by girls. So if you put two and two together you are bound to get great female leads. Plus the dystopian authors are so amazing!

    My favorite female dystopian character is probably Katniss (the Hunger Games). She is strong right from the start (hunting and providing for her family). But as soon as she is forced to enter the Hunger Games she turns on her survival mode. She is a wonderful and fierce character!

  3. 1. Survival of the fittest? Maternal instinct? Smart authors? 🙂

    2. The first dystopian heroine who stands out in my mind is Offred, from The Handmaid’s Tale. While she isn’t a physical force, as is Katniss, she knew things had to change. She made a concerted effort to disobey the rules knowing full well that she may find her end at any moment (quick hanging vs being declared “unwoman”). Offred added her two cents to the MayDay rebellion and in the end had the strength to have hope, not knowing what her final fate would be. My vote: Offred.

    3. Done!

  4. Dystopian fiction has a lot of female leads because they are mostly YA books which are written for the young female reader. Whether they are “kick-ass” female leads is debatable. I find many of them are made to appear strong and independent, but often are not. Katniss is the first one I really liked and found truly strong, but even she became weaker at the end of the series. Other leads I find are whiney, lack self-confidence, and are often depicted as “smart” but not “pretty” or “sexy”. Why does being one mean not being the other? Can’t you be smart and attractive and confident and kick-ass? Or do they have to downplay the attractiveness to appeal to the readers of this type of literature? And there is always a boy, and the most sexy, desireable boy too. Why does there have to be a love interest? Why not just a strong, smart, sexy woman who kicks ass and saves the world without a boy being involved?

    Although I enjoy dystopian literature, I find it is the same as other YA books and fiction: a romance just set in a different place. I really like the classic dystopian novels (1984, Farenheit 451, etc.) which are more a comment on society and our world and less on the romance. Perhaps the new YA dystopian fiction have to be more fluff and less commentary? I keep reading these books those and hope to someday find one that has a strong, smart, kick-ass female lead but is also a smart critique and commentary on our world and society. Maybe Blood Red Road?

    • “Why not just a strong, smart, sexy woman who kicks ass and saves the world without a boy being involved?”
      I totally agree. I can put up with some romance when it doesn’t take centre-stage – a story needs a side-plot or two to stay interesting after all. I think the Hunger Games did this reasonably well, but the romance (or lack thereof) takes over a bit too much in book 3.

  5. 1. Tell me why you think dystopian fiction features so many kick-ass female characters.
    Because it is something people can relate to. Everyone has felt down, used, and like they have felt hopeless. Combine that with some good ole’ sexual tension, and some “I don’t like what the government man” is doing, and almost everyone can find a bit of themselves in it. When we can see ourselves in something, we want to cheer them on. And who doesn’t love an underdog? Go girls, GO!

    2. Tell me who your favourite female dystopian hero is, and why she is awesome.
    Katniss from the Hunger Games. Because she is young, and doesn’t know that she is awesome. She is a fighter who is true to herself and her people, and don’t even know she is bringing down the house. She is just doing what she thinks needs to happen to survive and help her family, and isn’t looking to rock the boat. Until she does, then she is going to mess up all who mess with her people. She doesn’t start things, but she sure finishes them. I love her.

    oh and …

    3. Do it all in 100 words or less.
    Done. 🙂

  6. I realize I’m reading more dystopian literature lately. Historically, there’s been umpteen utopian stories with perfect, manly heroes. Dystopia demands more moral uncertainty, and a kind of persistent doggedness that seems to fit better with a female lead. Is it easier to write a complex female character? Not sure. More writers are trying.

    My favourite dystopian heroine so far has been Irene “Renie” Sulaweyo from Tad Williams’ Otherland Series. I’ve read the first book. She’s smart, unique, a South African engineering professor, never described as “sexy”; fighting to save her brother, not a love interest. She glides through alternate realities with all the bumps, weirded-out feelings and sensations you’d expect.

    110 words… sigh. I chopped it though. I did! And Helen — that’s 162 words. Ahem.

  7. 1. Tell me why you think dystopian fiction features so many kick-ass female characters.

    There are a lot of women today who live rather dystopian lives – women who can’t choose for themselves because of cultural or religious mores, and when you look at so called “civilized” countries who are trying to take away women’s choices as regards their own bodies…small wonder if we’re attracted to female characters who stand up for themselves.

    2. Tell me who your favourite female dystopian hero is, and why she is awesome.

    I like Tris in “Divergent”. She’s been told how to act, what to think, and what to want her whole life – and then she gets a chance to choose for herself on her 16th birthday. She chooses a life that is the polar opposite of the one she came from (like going from Amish to punk rock-esque warrior) and though it’s hard, it’s her choice and she makes the most of it.

  8. 1. So it’ll appeal to both male and female readers?

    2. I think my favorite dystopian female character would be Tally from Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy. She is so awesome because she feels so real to me. She makes mistakes. She is not always likeable, in fact, I hate her throughout most of the series. She stands up for what she believes in and follows through until the very end – even if she’s wrong. I think in a genre filled with these beautiful, perfect heroines, it’s nice to have one that’s a little bit “ugly”.

    3. 95 words – boom!

    • Ooh. I love characters that make me hate them — if that makes any sense. 🙂
      You have to be a good writer to make a character hate-able but keep the reader interested.
      As much as I hate the word ‘ugly’ being applied to anyone, I am intrigued.

      Also – interested how Meredith is annoyed by stronger characters not being described as pretty (as if they couldn’t be strong AND pretty) and you are annoyed that they are all pretty. Is that a matter of perspective, reading different books, or both?

  9. Thanks to all for your thoughtful entries.
    According to a random number generator at mathgoodies.com, the winner is commenter #6: Charlene. Congrats! I will contact you about collecting your prize.

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