Dystopian novels are a cliché in their own right at this point. While dystopian literature isn’t new, it’s certainly had a huge boost in popularity over the years. In fact, if you were an avid reader of dystopian novels about a decade or so ago, you might have heard of the series “Uglies” by Scott Westerfeld, published in 2005.
The series was set 300 years into the future, where everyone at the age of 16 would receive plastic surgery that would change their appearance so they would fit the beauty standards of the society. The plot twist is that the surgery did not just make them pretty, but ‘pretty-minded’— otherwise docile citizens that would not question the world around them. It’s an interesting idea in theory, so it’s unfortunate that the book series itself was unimpressive and, quite frankly, a little shallow.
Netflix decided that this fit their brand entirely, and on Sept. 29, they announced that they were going to be working on an Uglies movie, starring Joey King, an actress from The Kissing Booth, another Netflix Original. Already, this is a perfect examination of today’s beauty standards: casting a conventionally attractive White woman as the main character and calling her ugly. The movie could have taken a different approach than the books had, examining how ideas of beauty, especially Eurocentric beauty standards, are harmful and look into the social ramifications it has. This is something that can leave a lasting impact, and is relevant to topics today.
Of course, something like that would be far too deep for Netflix. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t already an eye-roll-inducing project. In today’s current political climate, it honestly just feels taxing to see another ‘dystopian’ novel tell us the same story, but this time, with hot teenagers (who still aren’t even played by teenagers).
I had considered Scott Westerfeld a good author before I read his “Uglies” series—but the truth is, compared to most modern dystopian novels today, it seems to fall into a very ‘typical’ universe for dystopian novels. This is not to say that dystopian novels are bad; that is far from the case. Novels such as Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and Brave New World (dystopian novels I refer to as ‘The Big Three’) are best-selling and controversial for a reason. All three of them highlight what society could turn into — controlled by the government, our privacy and rights stripped away, and everyone mindlessly going with what they are told instead of thinking critically for themselves.
Dystopian books like these are meant to be warnings on what to avoid, and exactly what to stand up against. While this trend has certainly extended to present day, some concepts have aged better than others. These are novels that are designed to make people think about the world they are living in and to be critical of what is going on around them. These are meant to be taboo topics — why else would they have been banned?
Novels like The Hunger Games focus on the brutality of the government and being forced to go along with a media stunt for survival — but it’s hardly interesting to read about when the main character in this and similar books like Divergent are too hung up on their relationship problems when trying to save the world. Why would we want to see what happens in post-war America when the reader can engage with an elaborate dating game in The Selection? This is the same kind of logic with “Uglies” — who wants to focus on another bland YA dystopian novel discussing what is shallow about society, when there are so many other horrors to focus on? With America’s politics becoming more unsteady, and more injustices coming up, it’s hard not to see parallels between the sources of entertainment we have seen and grown up with and the society we live with today.
It is impossible to deny that we live in a surveillance state, ‘Big Brother’ style, something that George Orwell predicted a long time ago. In fact, sales for 1984 shot up when Donald Trump was first elected president. These past few months, we have seen hundreds of videos of police brutalizing protestors, which has been compared to scenes from The Watchmen of police terrorizing innocent people. Discussions of repealing Roe. V Wade and criminalizing abortion will strip women of their right to choose, and their bodies being controlled by the government, similar to “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s Supreme Court Justice nominee, has been under fire for her Catholic group, People of Praise, having their women leaders referred to as ‘handmaidens’ and for supposedly inspiring the book, though this has turned out to be false. The society actually dropped the name ‘handmaid’ when the show began to air. These are only a handful of examples of bleak scenes from fictional novels, and there are countless more (largely from these same ‘beware of government’ style novels).
These kinds of novels are still important, not to mention popular. There are warnings that must be heeded and depressing developments that the general public were warned about decades before they came to pass. With so many of the same novels telling us to beware, to fear our circumstances, it becomes exhausting to watch and engage with this kind of content. It is especially insulting when dystopian stories’ such as “Uglies” biggest conflict is how people are too obsessed with their looks. This is not to say that examining superficiality in our society isn’t important, but rather, why is it something to focus on as the world seems to burn around us? Dystopian novels are important, yes, but when our current reality feels like one, it’s hard not to get burnt out.
Featured Photo: Courtesy of Kate Coffin