How do we know that the young people of the #NeverAgain movement take their inspiration from genre fiction? Well, they’re telling us that, for one thing. There were so many signs referencing science fiction, fantasy, and video games at last Saturday’s march, they could be assigned particular categories: Dumbledore’s Army was out in force, as was Star Wars’ Resistance (for the record, "Porgs don't like guns"). There was a killer Fortnite reference and a stated desire for “teachers, not Terminators.”
As an old of 45 who grew up on a previous generation of dystopian morality tales, I’ve felt an “actually” building up in me since the first tweet connecting the hunger for change and the Hunger Games went viral. It wants to go something like this: Heroic teens acting when grown-ups can’t or won’t have been the lifeblood of young adult genre fiction since there have been heroes and fiction. Beating the bad guys and saving the world in time for study hall is a trope, not a trend. Katniss Everdeen and Harry Potter are just the newer faces in a string of characters that includes Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Huckleberry Finn, The Lost Boys and C.S. Lewis’s Pevensies. It — the book — is now old enough to have its own kids. The original Spider-Man and the first class of students at the Xavier Institute are old enough to be dead.
But however clear the literary antecedents, there is one obvious difference between the subversive heroes of previous decades and the ones seen on the streets today: They’re seen on the streets today. My generation saw lots of tragedies, and I’ve personally marched in the name of various causes since I could hold a sign — but even I didn’t think to bring Princess Leia with me until just last year.
What’s changed? Are things today that much worse, or are the available heroes that much better? Both of those things might be true. For sure, the stories are more popular, and it might be as simple as that. While the basic arc of “adolescents conquering evil” is ancient, it’s only in the past decade that it’s driven an entire market. Sales of YA fiction books have grown by over 40 percent since 2007, and most of that growth has come from stories about idealistic young people with supernatural powers. Of the top five best-selling series, three are specifically about championing good over evil, freedom over oppression: Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Shadowhunters. By comparison, the most popular series of my youth was Sweet Valley High. Teen movies have evolved similarly, as we’ve exchanged the sunny and perfectly scored John Hughes oeuvre (fables in their own right, perhaps) for the more obviously fantastic superhero fare and adaptations of the series listed above.
Popular YA fiction is objectively darker and sharper than it was 20 years ago. It’s not that you couldn’t find stories about youthful freedom fighters back then, it’s that you couldn’t also find a legion of other young people to nerd out with you quite as easily back then.
What’s more, the genre hits of the past decade have invited mass participation, not just consumption. In 2000, when fans first showed up in Gryffindor colors to buy the newest Harry Potter book, it wasn’t a bookseller stunt but an organic response. Around the same time, attendance at Comic-Con began to explode. Even meme culture shorthand depends on adopting the reactions of fictional characters as your own. Curmudgeons who tut-tut that the swipe-and-click generation are passive have underestimated the degree to which such actions give you a personal relationship to what you’ve read.
The characters have also changed, even if the archetypes haven’t. Those top-selling YA series? Women are the authors of four out of five, and aside from JK Rowling they made girls the chief protagonists, too. What's more, slowly but surely, there's been some variety in what color heroes come in—especially in film, genre has been ahead of “serious” films in the prominence of people of color. Of the top 10 highest-grossing films, the only ones to feature black actors in significant roles are in the Star Wars or Marvel universes. And Disney's modern princesses, however problematic, have created cross-cultural represenation in toy stores that simple didn't exist 20 years ago.Though people of color are often supporting sidekicks (before Black Panther proved they could break records as the center of the story), the Parkland generation has grown up educated on the existence of whiteness as a category, and knowing that it doesn’t always have to be the default.
We are all geeks now. Science fiction and fantasy worlds are no longer a refuge for the misfit who has searched them out; rather, the stories invite everyone who stumbles across them to feel like they fit in. I admit I have mourned the loss of nerdom as the exclusive province of true outcasts, and I am masochistically nostalgic for the days when I escaped into science-fiction novels because in the real world I felt bullied and alone. Today’s teens have never known a world in which Hermione wasn’t a hero; isn’t that what I would have wanted back then?