Ding-ding-ding! Welcome to the bonus round!
I’m not a big dystopian fiction reader. I read The Giver by Lois Lowry in middle school and enjoyed it (well, except for that one scene with the little twin baby. I just about cried in class). I’ve read Rachelle Dekker’s The Choosing, which is sort of dystopia with a twist. And of course, I can’t ignore that dystopian fiction is huge among all audiences, but especially teens, young adults, and adults. Divergent. The Hunger Games. The entire Giver series (yeah, apparently it’s a series, who knew)? It’s everywhere.
As I said, I’m not too into the genre, because a lot of it feels and looks the same to me. The premises are engaging, but…well. That is, until I really paid attention to a certain YouTube ad. The ad is actually a trailer for a movie only available on YouTube Red, called The Thinning.
At first I was unsure why The Thinning intrigued me when similar offerings make me say, “Ho-hum, another one.” I thought it was because unlike in other offerings, intellectualism counts in the world of this movie. The year is 2039. The planet’s resources are completely drained, so the world must control population. In the United States, specifically Texas, the way to do this is through a single yearly standardized test. The test is given to first- through twelfth-graders. Those who pass, live. Those who don’t, are euthanized.
Being a brainy girl, I thought, okay. I can definitely relate to the pressure to keep up your brainpower. I’ve always hated standardized testing, so I like the fact that The Thinning is basically saying “Suck it” to that whole system. I might even pass the Thinning test were this real…and then I got really creeped out. (It didn’t help to watch a free clip where they show students getting the test results. Creepiest thing I’ve seen all week. I mean, a first-grade teacher even plays “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” to keep failing students calm as they are taken).
See, here’s the thing. I’m smart. I’ll be the first to admit it not because I want to show off but because I love using my brain. I was always picked first for spelling bees in school, and was the only freshman on a Quiz Bowl team of seniors and juniors. (The only girl too, so, go feminism). But, my visual and perceptual difficulties, tied to CP, gave me nightmarish problems with math. I have failed state math tests and had to take remediation to pass them. Math nearly kept me from getting a deserved scholarly distinction and could have kept me from earning a diploma. In other words, if the Thinning test contained math? Um, high possibility of dead woman walking.
And then I thought, what is up with that? Because in that scenario, the only reason I would fail would be because of a disability. Which then led me to this thought process:
-If I might have failed because of my difficulties, would students with intellectual disabilities automatically be “thinned?” (I’m using that term because I don’t want to write the E word again).
-Actually, persons with disabilities of any kind, including the elderly, are seldom mentioned in this or any other example of dystopian fiction. If they are mentioned, they’re usually the ones who get “thinned,” “released,” whatever euphemism you wanna use.
-What the heck is up with that? One, isn’t it just perpetuating the idea that PWDs are of lesser value and may in fact be better off dead? And two, why don’t characters with disabilities ever get a real chance to shine in dystopian fiction? (In any fiction really, but considering how huge the genre is…)
In brief answer to this: Yes. I do believe dystopian fiction, as it now exists, perpetuates the idea that disability = less. PWD = of lesser value (and that includes your elderly people, your severely injured veterans, etc.) I didn’t write this post to say, “Stop writing dystopian fiction, you bunch of ableist buttholes!” No. It’s a free country. Write what you want. In a world that so often doesn’t learn from its mistakes, I’d argue we need dystopian fiction to show us where we’re headed if we don’t shape up in a lot of ways. (Make of that, politically, religiously, and morally what you will; I just mean it in a general sense). But I do think that when it comes to PWDs, dystopian fiction is doing more harm than good.
I can hear some of you now: “The Thinning and those other examples aren’t real, so get over it.” Okay, I hear you. But I’m not going to “get over it” if what you mean is, don’t think about what dystopian fiction is saying. I just realized: part of the reason I don’t read it or watch it is because I know, in those environments, I would never have a chance. I’d never really be anyone. And, since the current world is so tough anyway, why do I want more of that? Why do I want a worse version of that? And what would happen if authors, directors–all those creative types who I so respect because we’re in the same line of work–tried to turn that around?
I mean, think about it. What would happen if we stopped saying disability is keeping us from living in a utopia? What if we actually privileged disability in some way? What if a PWD was actually a dystopian hero or heroine? I guess if you wanted to go really traditional, you could make him or her an escapee from the fate of death. But if you wanted to turn the genre on its head, how about:
-A PWD hero who lives in a world where disability is normal and able-bodied is freaky–working to save TAB people, including someone who bullied or tried to kill them?
-A world where only characters with disabilities exist, and a hierarchy is put in place based on that. You could even do a reverse hierarchy, where the most severely affected are the upper class, not the lower class, and the least affected are the lower class because they’re “too close” to TAB.
Or how about this one: A dystopian world that doesn’t turn on disability’s fulcrum, but where persons with disabilities actually get an equal shot to live? Where they take the lead in the missions and plot the schemes? Where they have the brains and brawn? Where–oh, wouldn’t this be different–someone with a disability might be a villain?
The possibilities are endless. To my fellow creatives, I say, you’ve got an imagination. Use it. Take characters with disabilities off fictional death row–because we’re in the fictional world just like the real one. When that world gets in trouble, we wanna kick some butt!