Competition and Selection in Teen Speculative Fiction

When The Selection by Kiera Cass came out, many readers described it as “a relationship or romance-centered version of The Hunger Games.” Now, with the recent release of the second book in Cass’s trilogy, The Elite, this kind of comparison has been rehashed and explored by fans or critics of the novels. To me, The Hunger Games already possessed a romantic component in the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale… but it’s true, the romantic complications in Cass’s trilogy bring on a whole new slew of issues about gender and agency in this “competition-based” subgenre of teen speculative fiction.

The Selection features the heroine, America, who is eligible to submit her name for possible “selection” as one of thirty five young women to be presented as eligible bachelorettes to Prince Maxon. The girls are allegedly chosen at random, which America quickly learns is untrue– the girls narrowed down to the thirty five presented to the Prince are not only chosen on the basis of physical attractiveness, but to a lesser extent, which caste they are from. The castes function around numbers assigned to families and give strict guidelines for what a family can or cannot do. The fives, for example, are an artistic and performance-based class, where all members hone some sort of special skill (like playing violin or crafting sculpture) and then are hired by higher castes to entertain.

A major source of conflict in America’s story comes from the fact that she never wants to register in the selection, but does so at her mother’s bidding. Her romantic interest at the onset of the story, Aspen, breaks up with her specifically so that she will register, in hopes of giving her a better life (and an automatic bump in the caste system) should she make it very far. Although America and Aspen discuss plans to marry, he is clearly uncomfortable with bumping her “down” to a six, as the wife inherits the number of her husband in marriage.

Of course, once she arrives at the palace, America finds herself attracted to the Prince and exhibiting all of the headstrong, willful tendencies typical to romance novels. He falls for her, agrees her to give her more time to grow affectionate towards him and Aspen reappears on the scene as one of the Palace guards, complicating matters further.

Throughout the novel and its sequel, political unrest increases, demonstrated by the number of rebel attacks conducted on the Palace. We grow to understand how the government became a monarchy and how the Selection came to be, as a process to boost morale among the people: after all, anyone can be a Princess. Well, as long as it is contingent upon the Prince’s love.

The crux of the difference between The Hunger Games and The Selection can be read in the respective love triangles. Katniss’s decision to go home to District 12 and eventually slowly grow close to Peeta again is a personal one. Katniss may remain a political icon as the retired Mockingjay, but she remains out of the spotlight. Most importantly, her relationship has no political consequence. While Katniss tells the reader that Peeta eventually wore her down into having children, these children are still a choice made by the couple.

In The Selection, America’s choice of a partner is a political choice and her future children are not a choice, if she decides to marry the Prince. (Alas, the third book’s publication date is, as of yet, unannounced.) When America considers herself as the potential partner of the Prince, she considers herself, as well, taking on the responsibilities of the role she must play as a future leader of the country. She weighs the power that she could yield and at times, that seems more appealing than the idea of a life with Prince Max. At the same time, when she thinks about Aspen as a romantic option, America realizes that she also has the ability to move up in caste by marrying an officer. 

While the comparison in the competition-based speculative fiction is valid, the way that gender operates in each series is very different, especially for the young adult reader. Katniss’s quiet life and the children she didn’t-quite-want to have with Peeta might leave a sour taste for many, but what about the presumed reproductive capabilities and desires of the future Princess in The Selection? Or the fact that a romantic choice that the narration leads readers to believe is between America, Aspen, and the Prince is actually between America and thirty four other girls who vie for the Prince’s affection? America, as narrator, represents her agency of choice in a different light than the actual process of the plot allows. When romance becomes political choice– and that choice is not even one really yielded by the heroine, despite her presentation as such– how can we, as readers, respond to the dynamics at play here?

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