In my initial definition of dystopia at the beginning of the semester, I defined it as “a society where the things that make us human are stifled.” This broad definition does not capture essential characteristics of a dystopian society, such as oppression and government control. The definition of dystopia is a society in which life is as miserable as possible for a group of people due to oppression from a government or other authority.
It is important to note that within the definition of dystopia, the definition of oppression has to be correct. Using Iris Young’s “Five Faces of Oppression” as a guideline for defining oppression is imperative. Exploitation, marginalization, violence, cultural imperialism, and powerlessness must be present in the society to consider it oppression. In The Planet of the Apes, I felt humans did not experience oppression from the apes. In that reality, humans have the mental capacity of animals; they don’t seem to exhibit any higher-order thinking. While the actions against them were wrong, they can’t be classified as oppression.
It is also important to notice that the oppression that a group of people is experiencing is purposeful and intentionally being kept in place by the government or other authorities. If everyone in the society is suffering, then it cannot be reasoned that the society is a dystopia because no one is perpetuating the oppression. Situations such as post-apocalyptic societies or natural disasters causing suffering among the population also do not constitute a dystopia because humanity must be the cause of societal problems.
Fictional dystopias exist to provide social commentary on current events in society and warn others about how life could turn out. In “Dystopias Now,” Robinson asserts that dystopias are our “social fears.” Brown Girl in the Ring addresses the ongoing problem of gentrification and the government abandoning low-income communities. The Handmaid’s Tale addresses how the increasing presence of religion in politics is dangerous for women’s rights. The Purge addresses the glorification of violence in our society. The Planet of the Apes addresses how those in high government positions may keep the truth from the general public to keep them uninformed and oppressed.
Each fictional dystopian society has something significant to contribute to ongoing conversations and problems in the real world. As informed citizens, it is up to us to recognize when the community around us is headed toward a dystopian future and facilitate change.
And the only way to do that is with a correct definition of dystopia.