Saturday, March 29, 2014

the age of feminist messianism

Young-adult fiction, also known as "YA fiction," seems to follow a reliable formula. Especially in recent years, the formula seems to be this:

(1) Be a female author who
(2) writes about a girl
(3) with one or more boyfriends
(4) who lives in a dystopia and
(5) overturns the system.

Themes of female empowerment are important in these stories, whether we're talking about Bella in the Twilight tetralogy, or Katniss in The Hunger Games trilogy, or Tris in the Divergent stories. What makes the protagonists messianic, though, is their social role as agents of radical upheaval. The Jewish notion of the mashiach wasn't as cosmicized as the Christian messianic vision: the mashiach was the bringer of a new terrestrial political order, a "new earth" governed by a temporal authority, albeit supported (and perhaps impelled into existence) by the divine. The messiah was the agent of revolution, herald of a new age. The women in these new, fem-centric stories cleave more closely to the Jewish paradigm than to the Christian one: they're unrepentantly earthbound, mortal, and human.

Today's popular YA novels all seem to follow this same feminist-messianic pattern. As statements of empowerment go, such stories take women about as far as it's possible to take them: what could conceivably lie beyond messianism, unless it's actual apotheosis? What I find interesting, though, is that this current wave follows hard on the heels of the fantasy/adventure wave introduced by JK Rowling and her Harry Potter heptalogy. In that previous wave, we had the Artemis Fowl books, the Percy Jackson adventures, and the Eragon stories. Such books were about cleverness, grit, loyalty, and purpose. The new wave is about finding transcendence through the combating of misery and oppression, the destruction of the old order, and the establishment of something better.

What might have prompted this sea change in YA themes, this feminization? Rowling's adventures were muscular, focused on outright war, and her three protagonists, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, all embodied traditionally masculine virtues, as mentioned above: courage, loyalty, and purpose—but also nobility, excellence, and self-sacrifice. The Artemis Fowl and Percy Jackson novels were boy-centered as well, and they were just as focused on masculine virtues (the very word virtue contains the Latin word for "man," implying manly qualities). The new wave of feminist messianism could be seen as a response to, or even a refutation of, the previous wave: more feminine virtues like insight and compassion come into play in The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Divergent sagas. Katniss Everdeen, for example, may strike readers as a hardened, almost masculine, warrior, but it's her insight that leads her to murder President Coin in Mockingjay because Katniss can see, like an oracle, that history is about to repeat itself if Coin lives. Of course, the reasons behind the popularity of certain forms of fiction are complex and not easily reducible to a mere back-and-forth conflict of ideas. Flavors of the month change; perhaps the readership is in the mood for a good, rollicking feminist adventure. Perhaps feminist messianism is simply an idea whose time has come.

How many more copycat YA authors can we expect? What prompted my musings on this topic was the sheer number of filmic adaptations of YA novels out there. The bombardment, which continues with a promised slew of Divergent films, shows no signs of stopping, as The Maze Runner (another YA dystopia series—but by a male author and featuring a male protagonist) will soon be at bat.


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