Over the past several years, the combination of YA (young adult) fiction with a dystopian premise has seen a tremendous leap in popularity. Starting with the 2010 novel The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and continuing with other book-to-film series such as Divergent and The Maze Runner, YA dystopias perform well because they speak to the feelings of isolation and alienation that teenagers typically feel as they grow up. However, there are some specific issues many in their adolescent age experience that are hardly ever represented in these films and are therefore often ignored.
A common theme among YA fiction is the suppression of budding sexual feelings. Protagonists acknowledge their desire to form intimate relationships while realizing that those relationships may be inappropriate for the current situation. This allows teenage readers to identify with the hero's feelings and identify with the confusion and insecurity that often accompanies young love. One example of this is in The Hunger Games in which Katniss seems to struggle with her relationships with both Peeta and Gale in a time of war and government surveillance. Given the world she lives in, however, she seems to solely focus on her priorities as the Mockingjay. Another recurring theme is the disillusionment and mistrust with respect to authority figures and organizations. Teenagers at a rebellious age will certainly identify with the impulse to question the decisions and motivations of those in power, and to take a stand against actions by ruling or governing bodies that are they are morally or ethically opposed to. This is very obviously represented in Divergent and Insurgent in which teenagers are forced to choose separate factions to live in when they get to a certain age and if they don’t belong to any of them, their existence is deemed detrimental to society as a whole.
Unfortunately, some of the issues that would likely be present in a true dystopian society are simply not addressed in modern YA fiction. Racism, which has been a prevalent issue in actual dystopian societies like Nazi Germany and South Africa during apartheid, and is currently a huge social and political topic in the United States, is largely ignored in contemporary YA fiction, where both the heroes and oppressors are typically white. Divergent and Insurgent, both available on Vudu and cable TV, are based on segregation according to personality types, but somehow author Veronica Roth fails to highlight the obvious metaphor to race relations. In fact, the film predominantly features white people even in the backgrounds. In the case of The Hunger Games, many readers didn't even realize that two major characters were black until the movie adaptation was released, which caused a large backlash on Twitter. The absence of people of color in film is nothing new. However, one would think that in dystopian societies, they would be negatively impacted as much as white people.
Sexism, another prominent issue in many cultures throughout history, is also rarely addressed in YA dystopian films and novels. Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games shows little femininity beyond her affections for love interests Peeta and Gale, and there's no discussion of how her gender affects her performance in the Games or the way people perceive her. In The Maze Runner, there is only one girl among the 7 or 8 primary characters, and Ender's Game addresses no sex or gender issues despite the fact that most of it takes place at a co-ed military academy full of teenagers. There definitely are many strong female characters in these films, such as Katniss and Beatrice, but it seems that many of their actions are based on men. This is a common real-life problem many young women face but the message that you should base your decisions on men shouldn’t be something we need to enforce.
To tackle sexism and racism in a respectful and thoughtful manner could open up the readership for YA dystopian fiction beyond its current audience. Young females may respond well to the strength exhibited by their counterparts in these stories, but a narrative that directly addresses gender inequality could provide more emotional resonance. Likewise, a novel or film that actually addresses the practice of racism and/or segregation that would be likely to occur in a dystopian society could have a broader appeal to a demographic that stretches across all types of ethnicities.
To prevent the YA dystopia subgenre from becoming stale, authors must exhibit the courage and willingness to take on these controversial topics, and infuse their stories with parallels to real world issues beyond simple teenage identity crises. Then, the current fad would have the potential to grow into something much more meaningful: a platform for discussion that can lead to positive change and a movement towards equality.