In the wake of the election, many, including myself, may find themselves needing to disengage periodically and practice self-care. So the issue is: how can we engage in deconstructing the current geopolitical climate when we feel burned-out or powerless? Further, how can we help others, including kids, begin to understand the oppression of vulnerable groups in the U.S. and elsewhere? If these questions sound familiar, fiction, particularly dystopian, may be a good starting place.
It may seem odd to suggest that dystopian works, which by their very nature are reflections on systems of oppression, can be effective coping strategies. However, they afford us the opportunity to both escape and understand our present realities. Instead of being overwhelmed by deep-dives into news stories, think pieces, or social theories, we can use mediums we already know and love to start thinking critically about the world around us. The potential duality of dystopian works can be an important step in combating something called compassion fatigue.
While that phrase is most commonly used in caregiver professions (nurses, therapists, doctors, etc.), its applications are far broader. What is it? In essence, compassion fatigue (also called secondary traumatic stress/STS and “vicarious traumatization”) is a sense of indifference or apathy experienced by those who advocate or engage, either directly or indirectly, with issues of oppression and trauma. It can manifest as both physical and mental symptoms, and its impacts can ripple through our social and professional lives. The good news is that self-care can be a critical tool in combating it. Enter dystopian genre.
It’s important for me to say here that I am going to use the term dystopian in a broad sense—so don’t come at me with pitchforks for providing examples that you may not consider part of the dystopian genre. The beauty of the genre lies in its ability to tell a diverse array of contemplative stories set in an alternate or future world. As Meg Elison wrote a while back, they are cautionary tales that we hope to avoid.
With more recent works, we’re given insight into the real-world inspirations behind these tales: Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games (reality T.V. and Greek mythology); George Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four (rise of totalitarian police states); Margaret Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale (policies aimed at controlling women’s bodies); Alan Moore and V for Vendetta (the battle between anarchy and fascism); Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann and The Last of Us (disintegrating humanity and sacrifice). While we may have these starting points for analysis, the meaning can shift depending on the individual’s worldview.
Take, for example, The Hunger Games. When I first read the series, I was working on my M.A. thesis on genocide and visual representations of trauma. The majority of my days were spent immersing myself in pictures of genocides across the world—propaganda used to dehumanize and justify extermination campaigns—and movies and documentaries from WWII through the present. When I read The Hunger Games, I read it through these themes of propaganda and portrayals of violence.
Depending on whom Katniss is representing, she is asked to talk about the violence of the arena, the glory and mercy of the Capitol, the bombing of the District 8 hospital, and so on. As readers we have an understanding of the conflicting emotions Katniss is processing in her mind, but to the citizens of Panem, she is nonetheless used as a tool for propaganda and the perpetuation of violence and oppression. Peeta and Finnick are used in similar ways, though for vastly different ends. My worldview changed the way I engaged with this work and others, and further deepened my connection to other topics I am passionate about.
What if we read The Handmaid’s Tale through the lens of international human rights responses? Nineteen Eighty-Four from a LGBTQA standpoint? V for Vendetta in the context of the Egyptian Revolution? Or, The Last of Us as an analysis of U.S. military deployment in response to the Ebola virus?
There is power in the ability of dystopian works to explore themes that are relevant to our individual and collective lived experiences. At the individual level, they necessitate immersing ourselves in another world and empathizing with the struggles faced by the characters. At the collective level, they open avenues for political, social, and cultural dialogues about their themes and relevance to our lives.
I am not suggesting that we forfeit difficult conversations and negative feelings in order to prioritize dystopian works. Alone, they are not enough. However, if the momentary escape allows us to gain enough distance to remain engaged while not compromising our well-being, then we need to remain open to non-traditional forms of engagement. When we take the time to approach works through different perspectives, we are learning to identify different narratives of oppression and connect them to real world issues. In certain instances, these works can act as platforms to inspire a call-to-action and education. In others, they serve as valuable entry points for difficult conversations surrounding oppression and violence.
Tiffany Parisi is a Latina anthropologist and public health professional residing in Jacksonville, FL. Her research centers on issues of racism, genocide, violence, and community reconciliation. She currently teaches as an adjunct professor.
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