Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Post-Apocalypse Beauty Pageant

In two post-apocalyptic series I've read, there was a kind of troubling way that beauty and disfigurement was dealt with. This isn't something solely confined to this genre, of course, but I felt like it was such a misstep and missed opportunity, especially because it's a main theme in these series, that I'll just focus on these two.
The first series is the Pure trilogy by Julianna Baggott. It takes place a decade or so after a series of bombs has gone off around the world(? maybe just U.S.). When the bombs exploded, people fused together with whatever they were holding or standing near. So the main character, who was 5 or 6 years old at the time, now has a doll's head for a hand. Her grandfather has a miniature fan lodged in his throat. The love interest has several live birds embedded in his back. Groups of people have fused into unrecognizable mass of arms/legs/heads. Those that fused with animals or the earth, have become mindless ravenous things that will kill and eat anything that crosses it. And so on. It's been about 15 years or so since the bombs, so the main character in the course of the series is now early 20s. There is a dome which was erected before the bombs went off, and the people in the domes are considered "pure," and weren't affected by the bombs, are considered superior; and the "pures" send out propaganda that one day, they will emerge and help fix everyone/everything. The main character has never seen any of these "pures," but is obsessed with getting her hand fixed and entering the dome. Despite every single person she knows being fused since the time she was around 5 years old, she constantly tries to hide her doll's head hand, and is horrified if anyone finds out what her fusion was. Despite her fusion being so incredibly minor, relatively speaking, as to be rather trivial compared to having living birds in your back, or having been fused onto a window pane or whatever other horrible hybrid and suffering constant pain because of it. Despite it being 15 years or so later, and having all that time to adjust.

The other series is the Birthmarked trilogy by Caragh O'Brien. This one has an environmental collapse with water/food/etc shortage, also with benevolent overlords who are perceived as superior in looks and intellect. The main character has a large birthmark (which is later revealed to actually be a burn) that covers much of one side of her face. She tries to arrange her hair to hide it, but it's still visible. She has incredibly low self-esteem, and is shocked, shocked I tell you, every single time it happens that someone doesn't run away screaming in horror. Despite the fact that no one has ever done so. Despite the fact that she has loving parents who tried to instill a sense of worth and self-esteem in her. Despite the fact that many of her immediate friends and neighbors accept her without a whole lot of comment. A few kids when she was younger teased or laughed at her, but otherwise, little to no bullying. No horror. No rejection. Additionally, almost every eligible man her age she runs across starts to fall in love with her. Seriously, over the course of just the first two books, she has three or four guys showing interest in her. And yet, she still obsesses almost on every page, about her scars, about her looks, about how horrible she must appear.

I realize that not everyone with obvious disability or disfigurement is going to accept that, and that my own issue is an invisible disability and so very different. And there are times with a disability that it ebbs and flows, sometimes you are dealing with it just fine, other times you're kicking against the pricks. But I think what bothers me about these series is that they could be about the main character coming to terms with what's happened to them. When there are so few obviously disfigured main characters, especially women, and especially that don't magically resolve itself within the course of the series; it could have been so different, and so much better. It could have been that the main character could have had a strong self-esteem in the first place. Or that the main character didn't have to obsess over beauty or her supposed lack thereof quite so much. Or even at all. Why does beauty have to be such a obsession at all, especially in a time and place when you're living with the effects of bomb radiation, little food/water/plants and every single other person you know is also disfigured; or when you're living in a land where the water and most plants have disappeared and even what little there is, is also in danger of disappearing? I don't know, it just seems like when you're in a constant struggle for survival, maybe there are other things worth obsessing over.  

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