Storytelling in Media: D is for Dystopia – BeNjamyn Upshaw-Ruffner

NOVEMBER 19, 2021

Everyone always tells me that “media holds up a mirror to society” or other formulations of that nature. Honestly, dear reader, it’s gotten to the point where I acknowledge how art reflects the cultural moment of a time and place, only to receive rolling eyes and gallic shrugs. Has this sentiment become a cliché? Maybe it has, but I wouldn’t want to take the transformative power that art can have for granted. With that in mind, why is so much of our storytelling media centered around the end of our world? Why is the idea of the apocalypse so rife with interpretations? And what might the proliferation of these kinds of dystopian stories say about our current times, if anything?

From Brave New World and 1984, stories that have been canonized by English literature departments, to games like The Last of Us and TV series such as The Walking Dead, there’s no shortage of fiction exploring what happens after the world ends. There are far too many examples to go over in this article, so which one do I select as a case study, dear reader? Do we look at fictional threats like robots, zombies, or aliens? Alternatively, we could look to the ever-growing existential threat of climate change. I’ve decided to settle on analysing a piece of speculative fiction that is both instantly recognizable and, at least in my opinion, rarely talked about. Enter Alan Moore’s graphic novel (decidedly not the Hollywood film adaptation) V for Vendetta.

Have you read this comic, dear reader? Up until recently, I hadn’t. Regardless, the both of us have almost certainly seen the famous mask: chalky white complexion, rosy cheeks, open slits for tired eyes, and a vague smile highlighted by a well-groomed mustache and underscored by that piercing goatee. This famous mask has been tied to many protests and activist movements in recent memory. I recall seeing folks right here in Montreal don this mask as they carried monitors into the McGill Metro station, displaying the horrifying cruelty of the meat industry for all passersby to see.

After reading V for Vendetta, it’s easy to see why so many activists have been drawn to that mask as a symbol. But wait, you may be thinking: wasn’t this article supposed to be about dystopian stories? Well dear reader, what apocalypse could be more disturbing than one brought on by political turmoil and the threat of a slow-rising fascist ideology in governance? This is the premise that V for Vendetta aims to explore.

The story was originally published in 1988 in Britain, at a time when neo-conservative sentiments seemed to be on the rise, preceded by decades of cold-war-era fears of impending nuclear war. The story takes this backdrop and speculates a dystopic future for Britain set a decade later in the 1990s, where a nuclear war has devastated most of the world. A fictitious fascist party called “Norsefire” rules the country and its people under a totalitarian police state. Reading this story in 2021, it is somewhat chilling to see the government use authoritarian tactics of mass surveillance, and, moreover, employ a militarized police force to limit the sexual and religious freedoms of its citizens. This stark warning against the dangers of fascist-leaning ideology really hits home for me, given how the police forces in North America tend to respond violently to Antifa or BLM protests.

What surprised me was how extreme the protagonist, V, was. The story positions anarchy in opposition with, and as an answer to, fascism. While I can follow this dichotomy for the world that the story builds, I don’t personally identify as an anarchist. I thought this would be important to point out to you, dear reader, because I believe that fascist ideologies are a very real threat to us today. Just like in the story, we see a strong connection between xenophobic rhetoric and far-right-leaning politicians.

If I was V, I would instead advocate for democracy in the workplace, along with increases to the minimum wage to account for the higher cost of living. In addition, some form of universal basic income can help people land on their feet during hard times. Advocating for things like tenant organizing for affordable housing, taxing billionaires more, and holding members of law enforcement and the military accountable are all ways that we can fight tyranny in the real world. Am I a radical for believing food and shelter are basic human rights?

By contrast, the V of Moore’s graphic novel resorts to terrorism. V, and the story in general, draws on the image of Guy Fawkes as a representation of the radical rebel. V’s revolution is assisted by his protégé Evey, and she dons the mask to assume the role of V by the end of the story, after V’s death. Although Evey and V work together, V is much more radicalized. He uses violence (bombs, etc.) to destabilize the fascist leaders, freeing the people from oppression. Evey shares V’s conviction for defeating fascism, but she is made uncomfortable by the violence.

It seems like Moore really wants to focus on mass surveillance as a characteristic feature of authoritarianism. We of course all know the sheer scale to which governments can invade our privacy using surveillance today. I think that the story correctly identifies the close relationship between discrimination and surveillance. With mass surveillance, a state has the wherewithal to maintain its already-existing structures of power under the guise of security and safety.

It was V’s project of anarchy in this story that got me thinking about the role of revolutionary violence in our recent history, and the different ways that art may interpret that history. Whether or not the story succeeds in addressing this, I do feel like it at least opens opportunities for a conversation to happen.

My problem with V as a protagonist, aside from his endorsement of violence, is his relationship with his protégé Evey. Evey clearly shares the same goals as V; she wants the oppressed people to be freed from their fascist overlords. Despite this, the story gives Evey comparatively little agency. It is clear throughout the novel that Evey is disturbed by V’s goals for vengeance, and doesn’t seem to condone the murder of anyone. However, she cannot do anything about it because her agency is undermined by V and his goals. Moreover, Evey’s portrayal as a sex worker is disturbing, given her young age of 16. After V rescues her, she begins working with him and participates in his cause. Despite this, V manipulates her into a situation where she gets physically attacked by the police. Evey still somehow eventually forgives V for this transgression.

Whether deliberately or not, the story positions V in a nebulous space in which the reader can’t always root for him. By contrast, Evey is easier to root for because the story robs her of freedom just like her government does. V’s dishonesty towards the woman who eventually carries on his cause seems to conflict with his ethos of freedom. The story doesn’t really allow Evey to decide for herself to become an anarchist. Instead, her dire circumstances are exacerbated by the very person who is supposed to liberate the people. This makes her choice to don the Guy Fawkes mask at the end of the story seem surprising to me.

I wanted to interpret Evey as the story’s protagonist though because I felt I related more to her positionality in the narrative. Dear reader, if our activism is unilateral, as was the case with V in the story, we run the risk of recapitulating the same kinds of discrimination we are opposed to. When I came out as non-binary, having my experience called into question or denied was a fear I needed to confront. I quickly learned that a vocal minority of people within the feminist movement gatekeep, discount, or exclude trans and non-binary lives from their activism. This, of course, undermines the entire purpose of feminism.

Similarly, V’s chauvinistic tendencies cause him to ignore how the fascist government’s rule uniquely impacts women in a way that his lived experience cannot account for. Thus, even as V manages to dismantle the fascist government by eliminating its leaders, the sexism of the fascists continues through his exploitative treatment of Evey. When V is eventually shot and killed by the detective from London’s police force, Evey completes V’s plan and adopts the alias for herself. Perhaps my interpretation is naïve, but I like to think that Evey becoming the next symbol for anarchism would bring a greater degree of intersectionality to her movement.

An undergraduate
feminist art & art history