Inside the dystopian genre: why are we so obsessed with the apocalyptic?


By Freya Parsons, Third Year Sociology and Social Policy

In the first episode of ‘Squid Game,’ we saw 255 people being brutally massacred by a large electronic doll within the first 45 minutes. ‘Squid Game’ also became the number one most-watched show on Netflix in 94 countries. So, what’s wrong with us? What’s wrong with dystopia? And where did this obsession with violence come from?

‘Oh you know it’s actually just a critique on our society?’ Yes, we know. From the dawn of time, we’ve delighted in gladiator games, public beheadings, and survival games, all of which being a product of their era. As our social systems become more complex, it seems that the frameworks that we apply to our entertainment follow suit. Although this can’t be the end of the story. There is plenty of media out there centred around real-world dystopian activity and systems of oppression that aren’t consumed anywhere near as much as ‘Squid Game.’

Credit: Netflix

Like the true narcissists we are, it’s hard not to be enthralled by film and TV that is framed as a take on our society, but it’s not really a true reflection, is it? One of the main issues I think we should take up with Dystopia as a genre is the way certain social issues are cherrypicked, and some are obviously neglected.

Yes, I’m talking about race. For a genre that tells us of worlds in which there are outrageous systems of oppression, is it not painfully ironic that the casting is nearly always predominantly white? As much as we love Jennifer Lawrence, she doesn’t quite match the black-haired, olive-skinned, brown-eyed Katniss that we read about.

It seems awfully convenient for the likes of Hollywood that the narrative can be based on the hope that we are living in a ‘post-racial’ society. In a world in which everything has apparently turned into mayhem, it’s pretty impressive that we have been able to solve the issue of race. It’s either this, or that things have become so devastating that issues of race have become side-lined, which is somewhat even more unbelievable.

Is the Dystopian genre too white? Credit: The Hunger Games, Lionsgate

Dystopia is an analysis of current societal problems, but it seems to be carefully curated in a way that’s thought to be palatable for Western viewers. Joe Queenan, from The Guardian, described it as ‘a world where white people get to masquerade as oppressed minorities.’ It is the whitewashing of stolen narratives.

Maybe there is simply less demand to see these groups experiencing further exploitation on screen, or maybe it’s just easier to cast Scarlett Johansson in every role… I’m looking at you, Dreamworks.

While of course there are dystopias out there that don’t have a predominantly white cast, ‘Squid Game’ being the obvious one, it remains a glaring issue for the movie industry.

Ethnicities of actors in Hollywood's top 100 films in 2014. Credit: USC Annenberg's MDSC Initiative

The whitewashing of dystopia however is certainly not the reason that the genre is so popular. Movie critics suggest that wrapping ourselves up in dystopia might be a way to combat the anxieties of modern life.

Louis CK said it best in his Conan interview – ‘everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.’ While it could be seen as a rather cynical opinion, there are a lot of theories that support this statement.

As technologies advance and abstract systems develop, the social structures that we are used to are starting to disintegrate in front of us. We are becoming increasingly isolated, we live life through digital boxes, and mental health issues are at an all-time high. No wonder it makes us feel better to watch the horrors of a parallel universe and think ‘well thank goodness that’s not me!’

Credit: The Maze Runner, 20th Century Fox

Can observing struggle, especially struggles we can relate to (like, oh I don’t know, the suffocating crush of inescapable capitalism) make our own problems seem more manageable? It’s a sort of benign masochism in which people are able to find pleasure in experiencing the unfavourable so long as they know that no real harm will come to them.

Sound familiar? Could it be similar to how the ‘Squid Game’ spectators watched Gi-hun from their luxury lounge, and how you watched them all from your comfortable sofa? Bet you didn’t think about that did you? You bunch of sadists. At least observing violent impulses on-screen might allow for some personal catharsis, I guess. Ow, my life’s so hard, I better go and watch some impoverished people play death tug of war.

This is obviously an over-exaggeration. Dystopia is gripping, it’s exciting, and like any genre, you become invested in the protagonist. The added social injustice packaged neatly with a spattering of bloodshed simply adds to the experience.

In the wise and eloquent words of Quentin Tarantino, one of the best filmmakers of our generation: ‘in movies, violence is cool. I like it.’

Well, there you have it. Violence is cool and he likes it. You can’t really argue with that.