With our federal government currently suffering record levels of disapproval, political pundits are starting to look to the future. Millenials are quickly aging into a vital role in our national culture, but their politics are hard to parse. Many pundits have assumed them to be liberal, based on the instrumental role they played in Obama’s ascendance in 2008, but recent evidence suggests the picture is not so clear. Last month, an article at The Atlantic commented smugly on this phenomenon, arguing that the politics of Millennials don’t make any sense. “Millennials don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to economics,” the author wrote. “Forty-two percent…think socialism is preferable to capitalism, but only 16 percent…could accurately define socialism in the survey.”
But if politics is downstream of culture, maybe the movies, which count young Americans as their most prized demographic, can tell us more about the ascending generation’s complicated political values. As a case study, look at Hollywood’s hottest genre: the dystopian young adult adaptation. These films – such as The Hunger Games, Divergent, and the just-released The Giver – are hyper-political. They reflect our dissatisfaction with government and address the need for political revolution, but their politics are not radical, and their calls for change are increasingly uninspired. In fact, the evolution of the genre suggests that Millennials – to which these films are most heavily marketed – may be far more ready to abandon traditional liberalism that most pundits have suggested.
Let’s start with The Hunger Games, which kicked off the trend. It is the most radical of the group, but even its partisan politics are hard to grasp. The films cast a wide political net, criticizing centralized power, income inequality, and celebrity culture. None of those are the purview of any single political party, but that hasn’t stopped partisans from trying. When the first film in the franchise was released in 2012, pundits on the left and right scrambled to claim it as their own. Fox News called it a “a furious critique of our political system, in which the central government grows rich from the toil of the masses,” while Think Progress saw it as a parable about climate change, noting that global warming “is the cause of the great societal collapse that led to the totalitarian society of Panem.” Despite its sheen on non-partisanship, the film clung tightly to the language of the political left, identifying income inequality as one of Panem’s greatest evils (an issue Republicans care little about) and using the imagery of the civil rights movement for historical context.
Divergent was the next dystopian YA adaptation out of the gate, and it marked a clear turn to the right. Just like The Hunger Games, Divergent told of an oppressive dystopian future, but without any political context, it came off as a simplistic screed against conformity and government control. Worse still, Divergent engages in a startling anti-intellectualism; its story hinges on a plot by its society’s most learned members – a group known in the film as Erudite – to overthrow the government. Their intelligence is never shown to be a virtue; instead,Divergent lazily and dangerously equates intellectualism with fascism. Images that recall the Holocaust are too casually trotted out in the film’s final third, and Kate Winslet even went ahead and dyed her hair blonde to play the main villain. Combining themes of anti-intellectualism with implicit messaging about the dangers of government control, it is a wonder Divergent was not a favorite of the Tea Party.
Finally, we have The Giver, which is akin to a libertarian fantasy. Although it shares many elements with the other YA adaptations, (dystopian future, controlling government, attractive teenaged protagonist yearning to be free), its political values fall firmly on the conservative side of the spectrum. The film argues – at times, literally – that the greatest danger to our society is a government that takes away our freedoms in the name of order. Unlike in Divergent, the citizens of this community do not get to choose their place in life; here, a council of learned elders chooses for them. Our hero, Jonas, is selected to be the Receiver of Memories, which means that he will be the only citizen who knows what the human experience was like before it was re-structured into the big government dystopia depicted in the film.
In other words, he learns about all the horrible things humans have done over the course of history – war and animal cruelty factor are prominent in this section – and he decides that humans were better with all of that misery than they are living in a world with no freedoms. When he chooses to release those memories back to the people in the film’s final scenes, he presumably returns his community to something that more resembles our present state of affairs. In this way, the film is cleverly making an argument in favor of the status quo, justifying our current dysfunctional existence by knocking down a totalitarian straw man. Ayn Rand would be so proud.
Of course, there is nothing new about a film that depicts humans struggling under a totalitarian state. Many of the great sci-fi works in film history have depicted this very scenario. What’s telling here is the trajectory, particularly in how the characters in these films resolve the conflict and “fix” the problem of big government. The Hunger Games proposed a revolution, but the young protagonists of Divergent and The Giver (and, presumably, the upcoming The Maze Runner) heal their wounded societies by simply running away. The former’s final scene finds Tris and her friends traveling outside the city’s boundaries for the first time (we’ll find out what lies there in the sequel), while Jonas’s challenge is to escape his community and pass the “Boundary of Memory” without being spotted by his government’s surveillance drones. You can learn a lot about a film’s values by how it chooses to resolve its conflict, and the YA adaptations are increasingly arguing that government is simply something to be escaped.
Taken as a whole, these films paint a picture of the political character of Millennials that is skeptical of the very institution of government. Maybe that’s what the poll cited earlier was getting at. Some will have read it as warning about a woefully misinformed generation that will soon be holding important positions in our society. But maybe they’re not misinformed. Maybe they recognize the inherent hypocrisies in our current political system and, like the heroes of their favorite films, are rejecting them in favor of something else. We may not know what the new system will look like, but given how deeply mistrustful of the government most Americans are these days, it’s hard to argue against running away.