I read somewhere that ‘movies are like the modern version of the campfire’ and I think what that means is they have become a way of telling stories about ourselves. Books do this of course but the visual aural spectacle of watching something on the big screen (and in 3D if you don’t get motion sick like me) is probably how a lot of people come across powerful themes like dystopia.
If you’re not familiar with the term, dystopia is the opposite of utopia or living in a ‘perfect world’. Typical features of dystopia are totalitarian governments with severe or extreme forms of control that are often dehumanising or degrading in some way, and sometimes include a version of environmental disaster (natural or unnatural). Dystopian themed literature exploded in the 1930’s and 40’s perhaps in response to world events at the time with some real classics emerging such as Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley and my all time favourite 1984 by George Orwell (written in 1949..clearly didn’t predict the true horror of 80’s fashion).
With The Hunger Games, Delirium and Divergent arriving to push dystopic themes into the ‘hearts’ (fluttering?) and minds of young people, it is probably important to look beyond the visuals of these productions to some of the important messages they potentially have.
I saw Divergent recently and putting aside the romantic under/overtones the messages around how societies might re-organise themselves after an apocalypse of some kind follows a familiar pattern. The first is the idea of social structures changing especially government and law. In Divergent society is organised into faction based on roles performed by people. Once you reach a certain age you are tested to see what faction your personal qualities best suit. You then get the choice to go with that or stay with your faction of birth. The risk is if you choose another faction you say goodbye to your family. The second idea is of revolution and where that comes from is resistance. In Divergent, if you are someone who’s skills, qualities and abilities fit multiple factions you get an ‘inconclusive’ result meaning you are divergent and this is a threat to the governing social structure. Divergents hide and do what they can to stay hidden as they are hunted down.
I liked the idea of some following their hearts rather than the test result, breaking free of family tradition. The idea of ‘fitting in’ versus belonging runs strongly through Divergent. It reminded me of schools in many ways and how quickly they test you to see where you fit. The factions in this case could be generalised stereotypes of ‘sporty’ ‘sciency, mathsy (geeky)’ ‘languagy’ ‘arty’ you get the idea. Gradually the lines between the factions appear to strengthen as the expectation to choose your future pathway draws nearer. Psychological tests are beginning to appear in schools as a tool to help young people ‘choose’ where they fit. Teachers and parents sit eagerly awaiting your decision, they know you, your potential but here you are secretly ‘divergent’ screaming on the inside ‘yes I’m good at sport but I love literature and chemistry, why do I have to choose?’ It isn’t an extreme leap to notice as well that families have certain hopes and expectations for where their children should belong. Walking away from that to follow what deep down you know is important to you can feel like being exiled or disowned.
We not only label people by looks we have drawn imaginary lines around knowledge and skills and forced young people to ‘fit’ and for me this resembles a socially acceptable form of dystopia. I like divergent ways of being and want to reassure any others hiding out there that you are not alone and your place is everywhere and anywhere.
Really the only difference between the topias is ‘dys-u’ how strange language is at times.
When you go to the supermarket to buy stuff, you expect to read labels. I mean if you want shampoo it makes good sense to have shampoo bottles labelled so you don’t accidentally put toilet cleaner or dish washing liquid in your lovely locks.
There has been both a move toward creating more labels for people and resisting labels and trying to ‘unstick’ some that have become old, worn and perhaps not so helpful in understanding what is behind the packaging. In particular the language around sexual diversity has exploded, (I’ve already done something on ice-cream but this is slightly different). The supermarket equivalent could be breakfast cereal or chips. Back in the day there were only 3 flavours of chip – plain, chicken and salt n vinegar…don’t ask me how chicken got in there, still a mystery. Gender and sexuality for years were pretty simple packets. Two flavours of gender and two of sexuality – three if you were in a sophisticated supermarket, I mean environment. Someone who might best represent a label free upbringing is iO Tillett Wright. Functional diversity has followed a bit of the same journey with disabled and ‘normal’ being the limits of language in the past. I like more options to define ourselves but I’m not convinced that infinite labels are the way to go.
People are not consumer products, although maybe some might want to stick warning labels on at times. But whether we like it or not labels for people exist. Pretending we don’t notice people based on certain characteristics is sort of like saying all cats are the same…try bringing home a full grown tiger and pretend you got it from the SPCA! Anyway, my point is noticing difference is fine, it’s absolutely normal and natural to observe things that ‘stand out’. Our eyes or other senses are drawn to this so if we are in an environment where everything is the same then the slightest difference will stand out.
For example, if you are at a ‘single sex’ school, with all girls wearing skirts or boys wearing shorts then people might naturally start to notice alternative forms of diversity. Probably the most common thing we notice is ethnicity but what then? Well I suggest our ideas about what that could mean might start filtering assumptions, beliefs or ideas about whether this person is someone ‘like me’. Sometimes it might be hard to know but at some level we’ve probably already put some knowledge into motion to assess if this other human being could be someone I can relate to, communicate with, have a laugh with, feel safe with?
What I wonder about is the role of communication in all of this. If someone looks ‘foreign’ either because of their ethnicity OR because they function differently (e.g. in a wheelchair with a different kind of communication device) our first instinct is probably related to ‘how will we communicate?’ So I think enough of the labelling, or trying to label more things about people – I’m already confused but talk to me about bikes, lego, sport and science fiction and I don’t care what planet you are from you are one of my kind!