The Hunger Games. Divergent. The Maze Runner. That gritty reboot of Cam Jansen. Dystopias populated by hot teenagers and evil adults are all the rage. That's led to every writer with a moody teen penning thinkpieces about how dystopian fiction is raising a generation of kids who will be politically savvy and cynical.
But while Divergent Hunger Runners makes for entertaining drama if you're 14 and can't decide what boy to have a crush on, they're about as accurate in their portrayal of oppressive governments as a Facebook diatribe against Presidente Obummer. And using them as political teaching tools is like training people to be scared of a guy in a bear suit while an actual grizzly sneaks up behind them.
5 People Aren't Divided Into Teams
The Hunger Games has the oppressed masses divided into districts based on their industrial output. Divergent divides its people into vocabulary builder words based on their personalities. My upcoming novel, Pop And Locked Up, splits citizens based on the freshness of their rhymes. The factions compete against each other and are taught to consider themselves distinct and crucial parts of society.
But if you want to keep people loyal to a dictator or beatboxer, the last thing you want to do is give them something else to identify with. A dictatorship runs smoothly when everyone is united in a common cause, not squabbling and drawing attention to the differences that make them unique. That's why North Korean propaganda constantly warns about the threat of American invasion. That's why fascists united their people against the threat of communism, and communists united their people against the threat of fascism. That's why Grandmaster Dope Funk preaches against the illicit country music mix tapes penetrating Smoothlandia's borders.
"We're not building your village a well because Americans will drop your babies in it."
It's no secret that life in North Korea is bad, just like it's no secret that life in the Hunger Games' Panem blows harder than Gale. That's why North Korea gives their people an outside threat. America is more likely to invade Mexico than North Korea, but as long as Uncle Sam is portrayed as the harbinger of the apocalypse, the excuse for oppression is there.
Both governments rule through fear. But North Korea's fear is external, like my fear of the sentient bees that are keeping me trapped in my bedroom. Their propaganda portrays hard work and sacrifice as necessities to hold off the evils of the outside world. Living with poverty and surveillance isn't bad compared to being invaded and killed, right? Everything bad that ever happens in a dictatorship can be blamed on a mysterious external enemy, be they Americans, Jews, or the dreaded Communazis.
Countries without famines don't have to remind their people that harvesting is important.
Panem's fear is internal. Teenagers are forced to fight to the death for no reason beyond reminding everyone of how mean the government is. There's no external enemy, aside from vague insinuations that the world is a wasteland. So everything bad that ever happens can be blamed on either the government (who makes you sacrifice your children) or the rival districts (which are controlled by the government, have a higher quality of life, and kill your kids).
A North Korean can't fly to America and kick some white guy's ass, but he can fight that fear by joining the military and being a productive member of society. The only thing Panemians (?) can do is suffer and get beaten, so the desire to fight that fear grows until you've got a rebellion. Fictional evil governments and real evil governments both rule through fear, but only the fictional ones are dumb enough to give its citizens a fear they can punch in the face.
Also, they really shouldn't make their populace look like hunky but downtrodden rubber monsters.
4 Wealth Isn't Flaunted
Panem's Capitol is so blunt about flaunting its ostentatious wealth to the huddled masses that they're a step away from flying over the poor in diamond-studded balloons and peeing on them. Their evil President is so contemptuous of poor people that libertarians would find it offensive. But most dictatorships will downplay the wealth of the elite, or make a policy out of outright hating riches.
A good dictator doesn't use crushing poverty as a weapon, but as a noble example of people making sacrifices for the greater good -- if you skip a meal, a soldier on the front can be fueled! That's why cults of personality carefully portray dictators as both invincible demigods and salt-of-the-Earth men who rose from humble origins and still understand the commoner's plight. They're not making poor people fight to the death for their amusement; they're working right alongside them.
That says "Stalin in the Kremlin cares about each one of us," not "Stalin thinks y'all can fuck yourselves while he watches."
Pol Pot, the only man in history to rival Hitler as a real-life super villain, forced every Cambodian to work in the fields because he thought an impoverished rural lifestyle was the key to a great civilization. Mao wasn't fond of people making money, either. The wealthy have been targets throughout history, because what do they need all that money for when there's soil to till and tanks to build?
Wealth isn't something you rub in the face of a downtrodden populace -- it's something you hold up as an example of the outside enemy's decadence. Most revolutions were inspired by anger over the excesses of a wealthy elite. The Soviet Union, the French Revolution, the little-known but incredibly violent Greenlandian Uprising ... after all the rich were disposed of, the first thoughts of the new leaders weren't "Alright, now it's our turn to wear diamonds, eat caviar, and be totally ignorant of how this looks to the rest of the country!" They made themselves look the same as everyone else, no matter how well-off they might have secretly been.
Note that Stalin was dressed as a humble worker, not as a rich, sexed-up Princess Bubblegum.
You can see the same strategy today. Whenever there's a suggestion that the rich should pay more taxes or stop hunting the poor for sport, there's a backlash in which they claim to be just scraping by and that hunting man is the only way they can feel alive anymore. People love to compare the decadent citizens of Panem's Capitol to America's wealthiest one percent, but Panem's rich people don't even have jobs or live in the same city as everyone else. And Panem's government looking at human history and thinking it's a good idea to have a city that does nothing but party and profit from the backbreaking labor of poor people is like deciding a bear trap looks fuckable even though there's a severed penis beside it.