Gran Torino and the Apocalypse

Last night, I gave up on yet another recommended dystopian YA novel. It begins, as many of them do, with the female mc doing something thoughtless that could be putting her community of survivors in danger. She is sixteen, she has a protective big brother and the novel is written in the first person. So far, not so very original. The heroine was a child at the time of the catastrophe so has received no education, has known no other human beings apart from the shining lights of her community, and according to her over-bearing brother, isn’t much use for anything. Again, pretty standard. I stopped reading after the episode in which the leaders of the scattered bands of survivors, all Clint Eastwood clones, have a confab and decide to give an extremely important mission to—guess who?—the daft girl nobody takes seriously.

I happen not to like the Clint Eastwood types. I don’t find them admirable and I certainly wouldn’t want to be stuck in a dystopian bunker with one. What I dislike most of all about this particular trope is that it seems so improbable. Not that the Clint Eastwoods of this world would use their sophisticated arsenals and limited ideas to take over. I think that is only too probable. What doesn’t convince me is that the gun-slinging, unwashed, macho leaders of a militaristic, patriarchal community would listen to a sixteen-year-old girl and give her the important, dangerous jobs to do. It doesn’t make sense. No doubt it panders to the self-image of millions of fifteen-year-old girls, but it doesn’t make for credible plot, and I can’t imagine many fifteen-year-old boys getting much fun out of it either.

Credibility is what’s lacking in so much of this type of fiction. How can you have people living like the backwoodsmen, huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ when the apocalypse has roasted all the vegetation to a crisp and most of the animals have died off? When the only other female characters are the weeping and wailing women in the background who the men have to protect and keep corralled in the kitchen, how come it’s a girl who calls all the shots? That kind of scenario I would swallow if her father happens to be king, but in this instance, her father is the community drunk.

As in all post-apocalyptic dramas, nothing is left of our society. There is no school, no education, no farming, no crops, no creation of anything. Yet ten years down the line the survivors are still somehow living on supermarket style produce, wearing factory produced clothes and shoes and have enough munitions to start a war. How? I’m getting tired of reading the same incredible story, put together like a Playmobile Surivors of the Apocalypse kit, with interchangeable hairdos, costumes and accessories.

The female lead is getting irksome too. I’d like to think the world of the near future would have achieved greater equality than we have today, but often the societies portrayed in these novels are no more progressive than the conservative, misogynist societies we are familiar with. If a female is doing the leading, the author has to explain how, not dump a kid in the leading role with a supporting cast of Rambo, Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Captain Kirk and the Incredible Hulk and expect us to believe that they would do anything except laugh at her, squash her, or sexually abuse her.

I know the heroine of The Green Woman is sixteen. I know she is expected to give the world a big shake up. But she doesn’t want the job and doubts she is capable of doing it. In the end, she is incapable of influencing those who don’t want to hear her message, and even in her own camp, many who follow what she stands for are only waiting for the right moment to jump on ‘the girl’ and push her out of the picture. That’s life, unfortunately. Women, and even more so girls, have a hard time making their voices heard, and it isn’t by simply writing them into the starring role that an author can make that starring role convincing. Let’s have some realistic heroines coping with realistic problems, like sexist condescension, physical aggression and the simple fact that men with big guns and conservative ideas don’t generally take girls very seriously.


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Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

25 thoughts on “Gran Torino and the Apocalypse”

      1. It’s the kind of stuff that sells until the next fad comes along. The problem with this kind of writing is that it has no merit other than following a trend. But while it’s trending, you can make money, I imagine.

      2. It’s a funny thing, writing to formula – it’s been hugely successful for some big name writers, but it must feel like a straight jacket too, having to churn out the same story over and over.
        And riding on the coat tails of fashion is a dangerous path to follow as these things change. By the time most of us who write part-time have completed our boarding school-set, twinkly vampire, teen love triangle, dystopian death arena novel (with dragons) the public has moved on … 🙂

      3. Fashion is so fickle 🙂 Remember though, some authors don’t realise they’re writing to a formula and would be mortally offended if you suggested it, so they’re probably quite happy with the result.

      4. And some really do, don’t they? A certain big name thriller writer who collaborates with others more than writing alone springs to mind – more an industry than an author. It’s a tricky road to negotiate – a lot of readers basically want to read the same book from an author only very slightly different. Could prove frustrating if you want to write something outside your genre. Thought TBH I’d like the chance to slide into that strait jacket 🙂

      5. I hope that’ll happen for you Jane and hopefully very soon 🙂 For myself (and after another agency rejection) I’m trying to focus on enjoying the process of writing, which fortunately I absolutely do 🙂

      6. Thanks! Returning wishes and crossing fingers for you too 🙂 I’m going to try a different tactic with agents and blot out all those who are asking things like: Hey! Why doesn’t somebody write me the book about the planeload of lesbian princesses that crashes in the Amazonian jungle and the survivors are captured by a secret Aztec/Maya/Inca/whatever society and sacrificed to the goddess Popacatapetal unless they help bring back the emperor Montezuma from his thousand year sleep and take over the universe…

      7. Haha! Sounds brilliant – why don’t you write that? 🙂 Are there some who are really that specific? Ridiculous idea, asking for something like that when who knows what’s going to hit big? Some corkers slip through the net, only to be picked up through self pub and sometimes huge advances are paid for what turns out to be a run of the mill novel (not such a common occurence I know!) I sometimes wonder if the ‘gatekeepers’ know what they’re doing …

      8. Haha! Still, though, they are the gatekeepers and they make the rules we have to follow. Wish I’d been writing in the days of Austen and the Brontes – you just passed the MS onto a literary friend and got published if you were any good (or so it seems). Though, of course if you were a woman you also had to be a lonely spinster and die too young … 🙂

      9. You also had to pretend to be a man 🙂 The weird and wonderful story suggestions that some agents are dying to rep are confined to the US. UK agents are as a rule far too serious and straight-laced to offer suggestions 🙂

      10. I wonder if the suggestions work? Do they have a line of good novels produced to such specs? And if they’re so blessed keen to see stories like this, why don’t they write them? It’s an odd world

      11. My thoughts exactly. I don’t know why they think up these daft ideas, but they do. The time to write the book though, unless it’s something the author dashes off on her way to work over a couple of weeks, the agent is off with the fairies on a different fantasm.

      1. I like when there are female leads, but as you say, there has to be a reason . For example, I think Katniss in The Hunger Games works. She’s kind of thrust into the situation, and there is already a system where there are male and female tributes. With her bow and arrow, she’s a sort of Joan of Arc figure, though not mystical or saintly. 🙂

      2. I like female leads too. They can be central figures without having to be militaristic though. I get annoyed with this idea that there have to be big guns involved for a heroine to be a true heroine.
        I’m afraid Katniss doesn’t do it for me. I know I’m in a minority, but I don’t believe in her and I don’t believe in the set up either. Too many details that don’t add up.

  1. I agree with you completely. How come 16 year olds are the only ones to be wise enough to solve problems. My heroine is on a ship by 22 and is 33 when the dark adventures planetside occur. She’ll be in a book series that will make her gray, older but young at heart and still dealing with life’s challenges.

    I watch the mothers from Syria, the grandmothers who keep trying to find safety, never for just themselves but for families, communities, and their country. People would do well to look at what they are made of.

    1. You are so right! I’ll believe in anything if the author is able to make me, but just telling me that some ignorant sixteen year old is running things doesn’t make me believe in it. Much more realistic would be the people with experience. And I’d like to see voices raised against the usual gun lobby characters who are really running the show.

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