2017 was supposed to be the year of the dystopia. And it is, but not quite in the way that dystopias dominated the cultural conversation just a few years ago.
In the early 2010s, young adult dystopias were so prevalent as to be a cliché. They were major best-sellers, and the basis of major film franchises. The Hunger Games made Jennifer Lawrence a household name.
Those are not the stories that are making waves now. After the election of Donald Trump, as 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale climbed the best-seller lists, the emerging consensus was that the American people craved fiction about the destruction of the world to help them express the terror and uncertainty they felt about the future. But YA dystopias — the books that just a few years ago appeared to grant publishers a license to print money — have not experienced the same sort of sales bump. And no new YA dystopias have emerged to take the place of old stalwarts like Divergent and The Hunger Games.
Instead, a new kind of story is filling the niche in pop culture that YA dystopias used to occupy: the teen suicide story. Throughout this year, a new obsession has formed around books and TV shows like 13 Reasons Why, and stories about the spread of the (likely fictional) Russian game Blue Whale. The fatalism and self-destructive fantasies that our culture once expressed in teen dystopias have begun to come out in teen suicide narratives.
But the YA dystopias of a few years ago came with a hero. They were cathartic and ultimately optimistic. The destruction that happened wasn’t personal, nor was it any one person’s fault — it was everyone’s fault, because society was what was messed up, and that gave the destruction a pleasant distance. And in the end, a hero came along and made everything better.
That’s not the case with suicide stories. The suicide stories of today are about personal failures and self-destructions. And the destruction they describe is final. In the end, nothing seems to get better.
That difference is crucial for understanding how America’s feelings about itself have changed since the height of the YA dystopian wave. Not all that long ago, America liked to tell itself stories about heroes making everything better. Now it seems to be shifting its focus to stories about ending it all.
Please note that the story below contains discussion of suicidal ideation.
The last wave of YA dystopias was written to process the trauma of 9/11. That makes them feel less relevant now.
“We’re seeing a lot of interest in dystopias and post-apocalyptic fiction right now,” a publicist who works on children’s books told me in January. “Which is funny, because a few months ago, dystopias were dead.”
The most recent wave of dystopian YA fiction began just after 9/11, with innovative books like M.T. Anderson’s 2002 novel Feed. It then chugged steadily along on the power of solid midlist titles like Scott Westerfeld’s 2005 Uglies, and ultimately exploded into popularity in 2008 with the publication of The Hunger Games. Most of the YA dystopias hitting the marketplace in 2017 are the last remnants of that wave, and they were written as a way to process the fears of the cultural moment that 9/11 kicked off.
If pop culture is America’s subconscious, then pop culture that’s aimed at teens is the purest distillation of that subconscious. Pop culture aimed at teens is simultaneously didactic and escapist: We want to pass good moral lessons to our youth, but we also often equate teen with trashy, and use the media we ostensibly create for teens as a way for adults to escape the pressures of post-teen life. On any given cultural issue, a look at the pop culture we make for teens will tell you both how we as a society think we should feel about the world and how we actually feel about the world.
When dystopian fiction ruled the YA marketplace, we felt afraid. We also felt safe enough to enjoy the fear.
The post-9/11 YA dystopian wave began as a way to express American anxiety over what had happened, and expanded over time to express American anxiety over income inequality and global climate change. The resulting works typically featured pampered enclaves of consumerism-obsessed one-percenters, whose avant-garde fashion and style choices infused their stories with dark comedy.
Outside these enclaves, the rest of the world would struggle for survival in a wasteland that offered both freedom and scarcity; this wasteland was generally either redemptive or another dystopia in disguise. Usually there was also a war, and a discussion of what is morally acceptable in wartime. Almost always, the calamity that created the dystopia was an environmental crisis caused by climate change, and a teenage girl almost always saved the world.
These narrative arcs are deeply rooted in the Bush and Occupy eras. Inspired by 9/11 and the 2008 economic collapse, they reflect anxieties about what it means to be a superpower under attack, about what it means to live in a time of constant war, about what it means to live in poverty in an obscenely wealthy country.
But part of what made the YA dystopias that addressed these anxieties so popular was that the stories established a sense of distance between the anxieties themselves and reality. That made them safe and pleasurable: Books like The Hunger Games worked because they amplified cultural fears about capitalism and imperialism and celebrity culture and the sensationalism of violence to an enormous degree, and then shot arrows at them.
It was cathartic to watch Katniss overcome our greatest cultural horrors, and it was luxurious to wallow in them from a safe distance. No one seriously believed that anything like The Hunger Games was actually going to happen anytime soon. Everyone understood that it was a metaphor, a way of thinking about our existence without getting too literal. And in the end, the fantasy had a bright side: Katniss helps create a better world. We haven’t passed the point of no return. There is hope.
Gradually, the dystopian YA trend met the same fate as every other publishing trend: It got tired. It became the home of cheap cash grabs that didn’t understand what made the dystopian fantasy compelling in the first place. It oversaturated its market.
By 2016, the dystopian trend had been pronounced dead. Americans were tired of thinking about how terrible and doomed they were, the general wisdom went. Soon Hillary Clinton would be president, the terrible, anxiety-producing election season would be over, and we could all move on from this darkness.
But then Donald Trump became president. And America turned its attention to dystopias in earnest.
Brave New World became a best-seller. So did 1984. So did The Handmaid’s Tale. So did It Can’t Happen Here.
In the early months of the year, the classic dystopias, the perennial high school English class all-stars that were written to express Americans’ fears about World War II and the Cold War, experienced a massive resurgence in popularity. It seemed perfectly plausible that a renewed appreciation for YA dystopias would follow shortly thereafter — indeed, according to the dozens of publicists who contacted me with breathless pitches, such a future was inevitable.
What remained of the great post-9/11 YA dystopian wave — the books trickling out into publication more than a decade later, in 2017 — would take on new resonance and meaning, people seemed to believe, and an oversaturated market would be reborn.
But that’s not what came to pass. The new YA dystopias that have come out this year — even the really good ones, like M.T. Anderson’s Landscape With Invisible Hand — have faded quietly into oblivion. No one is talking about them. None of them have become major best-sellers. And the old YA dystopias, your Hunger Games and your Divergents, have experienced no major resurgence.
But it’s not because no one cares about YA books from the mid-2000s. In fact, one of the biggest conversation starters this year has been Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher’s 2007 novel of the same title.
The teen stories that have monopolized the spotlight this year are about teen suicide
13 Reasons Why centers on Hannah Baker, a 17-year-old girl who kills herself and leaves behind a series of cassette tapes directed at the 13 people she blames for her death, telling each one exactly what role they played in it. Most of the conversation surrounding the show since its release has revolved around how socially irresponsible it is to depict Hannah’s suicide in graphic, gory detail, a move that suicide prevention experts are fairly certain will lead to suicide contagion. (There has been at least one reported copycat death, and a recent study demonstrates that internet searches on how to commit suicide spiked following its release.)
Nevertheless, 13 Reasons Why is a hit. It earned a string of good reviews (including one from me). Netflix doesn’t release viewership numbers for any of its programming, but the company has already begun filming a second season. And the show inspired an unsettling Snapchat game called 13 Reasons Why, in which teenagers tell each other whether they would “get a tape”; in other words, whether Teen A would blame Teen B if she were to commit suicide.
That’s not the only suicide game for teens that’s traveled the worried-parent think-piece circuit this year. In February, stories about the Russian game Blue Whale began to circulate in the US. Allegedly, Blue Whale players are assigned a “master” who sets them various tasks, often revolving around self-harm. The tasks steadily escalate over the course of 50 days, and the final task requires the player to kill him or herself.
It’s unclear how real and how prevalent Blue Whale really is. Early reports linked the game to the death of almost 100 Russian teens. Those reports have since been questioned, and a possible link between the game and the July death of a Texas teenager remains unverified. What’s clear, however, is that the idea of a suicide game for teenagers has grabbed hold of the public imagination. The game may or may not be fake, but the story is extremely real, and prevalent.
Meanwhile, on Broadway, the biggest hit of the season was the Tony-winning Dear Evan Hansen, about two teenage boys struggling with suicidal ideation. October — traditionally the month devoted to publishing’s splashiest books, the way most Oscar-bait movies come out in December — saw the launch of the new YA novel Things I’m Seeing Without You, about a teenage girl struggling to move on in the wake of her boyfriend’s death by suicide. On the radio, Logic’s “1-800-273-8255,” featuring Alessia Cara and Khalid, and named after the number for the suicide prevention hotline, went double platinum.
Old dystopian narratives are turning into suicide stories too. The CW’s The 100, adapted from a series of YA post-apocalyptic novels by Kass Morgan, has always had a streak of interest in suicide — the show’s first season included a lengthy discussion of whether it was right for a group of 300 people to sacrifice their lives to save the rest of humanity — but this year, suicide has become its central focus. It devoted its most recent season to having its teenage cast debate whether they wanted to go on living in the unbearably painful world in which they found themselves. Multiple main characters decided that they didn’t, and killed themselves.
In the pop cultural moment that so many people assumed would be obsessed with teen dystopias, we’re directing our attention to stories of teen suicide instead. So if the culture we create and distribute to teens expresses America’s subconscious, it’s currently a subconscious that has transformed the social self-destruction of dystopian fiction into something much more personal.
It’s also something final. When Hannah dies in 13 Reasons Why, she is dead forever. No one can save her, and no one can bring her back. There is no hope and no redemption at the end of the suicide story.
If the dystopian narrative was pessimistic, the suicide narrative is downright nihilistic. It wallows in feelings of despair and self-loathing. It cannot imagine the world ever getting any better. It’s a story that fits an era in which young people are inheriting a broken economy and a climate that may rapidly render the Earth uninhabitable, and in which the state frequently seems more likely to hasten the end than to make anything better.
In this era, it’s hard to imagine a brave teenage girl fixing everything. So we imagine the brave teenage girl killing herself instead.
The popularity of suicide stories suggests that America has started to lose interest in stories where a hero rescues everyone in the end
To be clear, suicide stories and dystopian stories are not exact equivalents. Suicide stories are dangerous in a way dystopian stories are not, because they invite their audience to identify with someone who is suicidal, and to vicariously experience that person’s suffering and self-destructive impulses. For some readers and viewers, that is a cathartic act, but for many who are already struggling with suicidal ideation — especially teenagers — it may make suicide feel closer, more inevitable, and ever more attractive. Peer-reviewed studies suggest that fictional depictions of suicide may lead to an increase in suicide attempts.
But it does seem clear that teen suicide stories are starting to fill the place in the pop culture landscape that until very recently was taken up with stories of teen dystopias: a place that wants to think about how we are probably destroying ourselves. And now, our self-inflicted destruction is personal and deliberate and immediate and final, where it used to be the result of mass social systems beyond any individual’s control, pleasantly distant, and tempered by an undercurrent of hope. It is inescapable, where we used to have the possibility of a redemptive hero to save us from ourselves.
That’s not a change that can be directly attributed to the events of November 8, 2016 — most of the stories we’re seeing now were already in production back when so many people were sure that Hillary Clinton would win — but the shift seems to have occurred over the course of that astonishingly long presidential campaign season. As the white supremacists of the self-described alt-right rose and became a major political force, the escapist fantasy of the plucky teen hero who can save us all became less and less appealing. What took its place was the despairing, nihilistic fantasy of the plucky teen committing suicide.
American pop culture has been interested in self-destruction for a very long time. But today, the stories it’s telling about self-destruction are growing ever more pointed and more deliberate.
“America is over,” a State Department officer told the Atlantic this March. America’s subconscious seems to agree.
If you or a loved one needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).