Sharyl Sandberg was right, y’all. In the future, we’re all gonna lean in, and when the world goes to shit, it’s the white ladies that come out on top. A study that shows boys’ numbers lagging behind girls’ in reading might explain the reason for women having to constantly take up the mantle around all these inept future-dudes. But it might better explain the new demographic for the YA (young adult) dystopian novel, which is popularly read by girls and young women. This is neat, considering the sci-fi canon is often thought to belong to male authors and narratives about men, but YA has cornered its niche market by creating tons of female characters for young readers to see themselves reflected in. And even though it’ll take a miracle to get YA to be taken seriously, it’s still a step in the right direction.
But not so fast, have you seen a lot of these books? Like I mentioned above, most of them feature white women, and the majority of those are brunettes. A few characters stray from the tradition, but it seems novelists have found their Tom Cruise of dystopia, their Nathan Drake of YA. Stories with female characters, even stories that aren’t dystopias, rarely stray from this demographic. Just look here:
Brunettes are popular in YA, and often in dystopian novels. Blondes still have all this baggage of being “too pretty” that the reader possibly can’t project onto them. And redheads have that goofy “fiery redhead” stereotype going on like Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series. Anytime a redhead is passionate or ticked off, people are bound to read into it. But a brunette is a weird neutral balance that doesn’t strike anyone one way or the other, except for maybe the fact that brunettes are generally perceived as smarter.
Even if it’s not the author’s intention to buy into stereotypes, the fact remains that hair color carries too many connotations, and when you need a no-nonsense, get-shit-done, clever, and resourceful leader of future dystopia, with a cool name like Sloane or Tris or Rhine, authors think of a white girl with dark hair. One who’s “pretty but not model pretty.” If you are an author who wants to include themes of female empowerment in your novels, while still wanting your novel to be saleable and have broad appeal, a young white brunette is what you need. Victoria Law of Bitch Magazine notes the lack of diversity on the YA shelf:
To be sure, there seem to be more books with young women of color now compared to a couple of decades ago. But these don’t seem to extend into the dystopian and speculative fiction novels that my daughter brings home. Most still have White girls in the starring roles. Many still have no characters of color; the handful that do seem to cast them as minor (and forgettable) characters. – Do Girls of Color Survive Dystopia?
I’d like to make a note that sometimes authors purposely make their characters racially ambiguous, such as Katniss in the Hunger Games trilogy who is described as having “olive” skin, gray eyes and black hair, or as in Moira Young’s Dust Lands series whose character also has dark hair, and the more “ethnic” name of Saba. However, this matters little. Partly because even when an author makes a distinction of a non-white character, readers are apt to think that character is white, anyway. The other reason is as soon as the movie rights are sold, you can Kat-kiss that racial ambiguity goodbye because the directors are more or less going to cast a non-ambiguously white girl as their heroine, effectively whitewashing her. Blood Red Road has already been sold to Ridley Scott, and I’d be pleasantly surprised if it ended up any other way.
Lastly, be on the lookout for novels that whitewash their covers, This is often a decision of a racist publisher who purposely chooses to misrepresnt a book for sales, even for esteemed writers who are guaranteed to sell, as seen here:
This kind of thing happens again, and again, and again in young adult fiction, of all genres. If you’re looking for a set of diverse dystopian young adult novels, be it for yourself, or for a young person of color who has never seen themselves in a gritty narrative, the blog Diversity in YA has got you covered with these 10 recommendations. YA is actually a tremendously advantageous genre for introducing diverse characters to readers, and while dystopian fiction has gotten on board with engaging female protagonists, it’s still timid and safe to keep picking the same visual archetype. We have been rethinking what a hero looks like. We have to keep rethinking it.