Teens Already Know How to Overthrow the Government

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Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images/Lionsgate

It’s early morning on a school day, and I’m texting with Emma González — the shaved-head badass co-founder of the #NeverAgain movement and one of the primary teenage organizers of the anti-gun rally to be held on March 24 in Washington, D.C. — about her preferences in fiction. Specifically, what I want to know is this: Does she read YA and fantasy fiction? Which characters does she like or relate to? “Are you a person who likes/liked Harry Potter/Divergent/Hunger Games?”

I ask because Emma, and the other activist kids in Parkland, Florida (I wrote about them earlier this month here) are being compared all over social media to YA heroes and heroines, their brave, defiant rebellion reminiscent of something from a dystopian plot. A viral post on Twitter, circulating in the days after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High — which killed 17 people, most of them teenagers — said this: “You know, when I said I wanted the real world to be more like Harry Potter I just meant the teleportation and the magic stuff not the entire plot of book 5 where the government refuses to do anything about a deadly threat so the teenagers have to rise up and fight back.”

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And a tweet by Jennifer Ansbach, a teacher, said this: “I’m not sure why people are so surprised that the students are rising up — we’ve been feeding them a steady diet of dystopian literature showing teens leading the charge for years. We have told teen girls they are empowered. What, you thought it was fiction? It was preparation.”

It made me wonder: Is the viral nature of the #NeverAgain movement at least partially because there was something familiar about the Parkland teenagers? Did other American teens feel they “knew” them already?

I have been writing about religion and religious beliefs for years, and saw similarities between the Parkland activists and the Biblical prophets, whose countercultural messages presaged wars and revolutions and the coming of a different, better age, galvanizing people to their side. If the activists are like prophets, then the YA novels and comics and movies consumed by kids are like Scripture, stories told over and over again, to be consumed by a mass audience: defining a mind-set and setting expectations for the future. (And the fandoms are like the apocrypha, new versions and iterations of the canonical story.)

Emma, in particular, whose fierce, furious speech in Fort Lauderdale circulated everywhere just days after the shooting, looks like a prophet. “I’ve been thinking of her as Joan of Arc,” says Victoria Aveyard, author of the Red Queen YA series, which features a teenage girl as the head of a resistance movement. More often, Emma has been compared to Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of the Hunger Games, who volunteers to sacrifice herself, in place of her sister, in a deadly battle of survival orchestrated by malevolent government forces.Victorious, Katniss becomes the face of a widespread insurgency. “No one will forget me,” Katniss says in Book One. “Not my look, not my name. Katniss. The girl who was on fire.” (“We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks,” is what Emma said in Fort Lauderdale that day.)

In her texts with me, Emma shrugs off the Katniss comparison. She isn’t, it turns out, a huge Hunger Games fan. “Harry Potter alone,” she texts back.

“Who is your favorite character?” I ask by text.

“Ginny (book character, not movie character) or Luna.”

“Do you see any resemblance between yourself and Ginny or Luna?”

“Ginny is Strong, levelheaded and Passionate (small + powerful); Luna is gentle, kind, Strong, and just has a Wonderful World view.”

This makes sense. It was Ginny Weasley, the beautiful, diminutive athlete who, in Book Five, coined the name “Dumbledore’s Army” for the unauthorized student organization that met in secret to learn the practical applications of Defence of Dark Arts. And it was Ginny and Luna who (along with Neville) in Book Seven reactivated Dumbledore’s Army, swelled now to a full-scale rebellion in the war against the Hogwarts headmaster Severus Snape. “Nothing’s impossible if you’ve got enough nerve,” says Ginny in Book Six.

Some of Emma’s peers in Parkland hold a more conscious sense that they are enacting roles in a meta-narrative. Anna Crean, a 15-year-old survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, was making valentines in Creative Writing when the gunfire began. She covered herself with her backpack and since that day has since given an interview on Facebook and written an open letter that was picked up by NBC. She believes her activism and that of her peers is the inevitable consequence of being saturated with stories of teenage heroism since childhood: “We’ve grown up with teenagers in dystopian eras that have fixed everything and become the heroes of their city. Then they put us into a dystopian era in real life and they don’t expect us to do anything? We can make a difference because that’s what books and movies have told us since we were little.”

And David Hogg, who along with Emma is a visible leader of the core #NeverAgain group, told me that he was motivated to activism because, in the midst of the shooting he was overcome in the moment with an existential sense of his own mortality, a feeling he describes in cinematic, narrative terms. He realized that until that moment he had not been a hero but “a background character,” he said. “We really only remember a few hundred people, if that many. Out of the billions that have ever lived. Is that what I was destined to become?”

David is one of the Parkland teens most often seen on TV. With his button-down shirts, and his gawky, earnest affect, “he looks like he stepped out of a John Green book,” says Justina Ireland, whose YA book Dread Nation — about a black combat-trained warrior girl living during Reconstruction — comes out next month.

YA authors point out that their stories aren’t just the triggers for activism: They are activist acts in themselves, providing a language and a reference point for real-world countercultural movements. Long before Parkland, a number of leftist groups had already appropriated the title “Dumbledore’s Army” for themselves. One, also called “The Harry Potter Alliance,” organizes Harry Potter fans into activist cells, focusing on “equality, human rights, and literacy,” according to the website. And during the Hillary Clinton campaign, “a lot of people who worked on the digital team — and they’re all around like 30 — in really dark moments referred to themselves as Dumbledore’s Army,” says Laura Olin, a digital strategist who worked on the campaign. “It was a huge slog. It was really brutal every day.”

It’s the main job of a YA author to make heroes and heroines of people who are accustomed to being powerless — kids — but also, increasingly, other kinds of social outcasts as well, creating in fiction a vision of equity and power that counters the reality in which so many kids live. As a consequence, the YA community is in a constant tension with itself over fairness: an activist conversation over what kinds of characters get a hearing, prominence, and what kind of characters don’t. So while the Parkland kids are admirable, it’s useful to remember that they are popular in large part because they look the conventional part. “We like our victims when they’re white,” Ireland says. “If we had a wider range of YA, every teenager would be a YA character.”

Teens Already Know How to Overthrow the Government