Essay by Elli Takenaka
Art by Grace Guy
In a society where approximately seventy-three percent of people have essentially unlimited and uninterrupted access to a colossal version of the internet through “the feed” (Anderson 112), one would expect pornography downloads and other interactions with sexually explicit material or services to skyrocket. But M.T. Anderson’s young adult novel Feed lacks direct representations of sex and sexuality altogether, instead only hinting at pleasure-driven sexual relationships rather than demonstrating them outright. So why are there no clear acknowledgments of the physical act of sex, sexuality, or any other sexually explicit subjects in Feed, despite it being set in an environment where one would expect such matters to be abundant? I argue that the way in which sexuality is discussed in Feed, that is, particularly through an emphasis on consumerism and environmental degradation, as well as the overall lack of direct representation of sexual acts in the text are a notable reflection of the dystopia within which the story takes place. However, the role that I suggest this lack of outright sexuality plays here remains in tension with the way young adult literature seems to obscure sexual acts on a grander scale, implying the presence of sex rather than demonstrating it, or simply excluding it altogether. This paper therefore aims to examine the representation of sex (or lack thereof) in Feed, keeping in mind the trends in YA which seem uncomfortable with the idea of young people’s engagement with sexual acts.
Before diving into an examination of Feed, it is critical to note what I mean when I discuss trends of the lack of sexuality in YA literature. In her article “Let’s Write About Sex – YA Fiction as a Means of Learning About Sexuality,” Sara Hutchinson outlines the importance of portraying healthy sexual relationships in young adult fiction in order to educate adolescent readers about sexuality. There is something constraining about YA literature: the general lack of sex scenes in YA fiction may have to do with what Hutchinson calls “gatekeepers who may doubt the value of sex scenes within YA fiction,” accompanied by apparent general anxieties about adolescents having sex as well as reading about sex (Hutchinson 316).
Feed presents sexuality chiefly through language, though such language still seems to tiptoe around the subject. For instance, rather than referring to the genitals of the anatomical diagram in the doctor’s office as such, Titus and his friend continue to refer to the “anatomical guy’s basket” or his “nads” (Anderson 57 & 61). Later in the text, Quendy asks Titus if he thinks Calista and Link are “doing it,” a clearly euphemistic and oddly juvenile choice of wording. Additionally, in the hospital, Link and Calista stand by the “vibrating bath” having “probably decided to hook up” (Anderson 61; emphasis added). It is precisely this “probably” that figures in the text: we can assume from the consistent sexual references throughout that these 15-year-olds are sexually active, in fact, Titus even mentions wanting to “hook up” with Loga “again,” implying that they had had some sort of sexual encounter before (12), but none such encounters are presented definitively in the story. Although I would argue that Anderson’s choice not to directly represent sexual acts reflects the bleak reality of Titus’ society, particularly as such an omission is highlighted by the abundance of language referring to sex, it is important to note the speculative nature behind such an argument what with the clear pattern of omission seen across the scope of YA literature.
In the version of America presented in Feed, everything from the school system, to the government, to the moon is commercialized and run by corporations, each of them simply an avenue for advertisements of whatever products and merchandise are on trend at any given time. As literary critics Elizabeth Bullen and Elizabeth Parsons write, “[in Feed,] the characters’ awareness of this outcome of predatory capitalism is limited by the parasitical relationship corporate capitalism—in the novel, the Feed Corporation—has with the consumer” (132-133). This relationship between corporation and consumer forces Titus and his peers to find the greatest feelings of pleasure not from their relationships, but from the products they buy. It is as if these corporations intentionally subvert human sexuality with products to prevent further human connection. Upon his reintegration with the feed after being hacked at the nightclub, Titus is described as feeling completely overcome with the feelings of the feed “pouring in on [him and his friends] … [coming] down on [them] like water” (Anderson 71). They “[dance] in the rain” and run their hands across their bodies, “feeling them again” (Anderson 71). It is like an orgasm, an outpouring of pleasure not due to anything overtly sexual however, but to the renewal of their abilities to connect with the corporations that feed on them. In other words, it is as if they are channeling their sexuality through the feed via the consumption of materialistic products, rather than through sexual interactions with other people, or even masturbation. But interspersed throughout this “rain” are brief interludes of news from the feed, describing harsh realities of the world that Titus and his friends simply ignore, and which are quickly overridden by lighthearted advertisements:
In other news, protests continued today against the American annexation of the moon. Several South American countries including Brazil and Argentina have submitted requests to join the Global Alliance in response. President Trumbull spoke from the White House. “What we have today, with the things that are happening in today’s society is…”(Anderson 71)
It seems as though the sensation of pleasure has been entirely displaced from an action that connects individuals to a capitalistic process that separates them, and the corporations use this pleasure to mask the dystopia their practices have created.
Titus is lonely, and his loneliness seems to reflect a sort of separation he feels from other individuals, perhaps due to the feed and its displacement of pleasure: virtual life rarefies sex and dissipates human interaction. Titus goes to the moon hoping to meet someone, or to hook up with his ex-girlfriend Loga should no one better show up (Anderson 12). But Titus does meet someone on the moon, however his relationship with Violet never escalates beyond a “PG-13” rating, with only “mild sexual situations” even though she gives him “complete prong” (Anderson 298 & 144). The most sexual encounter between the two of them described in the text, besides making out in his upcar and Violet’s one-sided attempt to feel Titus up, happens to be that orgasm-like moment where they reconnect to the feed, with Violet “pulling her hands down across her breasts, her chin up in the air” (Anderson 71). Even together, Titus and Violet derive pleasure from the concept of consuming goods and services through the feed, which acts as a sort of substitute for actual sex. In fact, as Violet’s feed deteriorates, Titus becomes less and less sexually attracted to her, eventually saying she’s like a zombie (Anderson 269). Moreover, when Violet asks what he thinks would be the best way to die, Titus responds by saying:
I want to have this like, intense pleasure in every one of my senses, all of them so full up that they just burst me open, and the feed like going a mile a second, so that it’s like every channel is just jammed with excitement, and it’s going faster and faster and better and better, until just—BAM! That’s it, I guess. I’d like to die from some kind of sense overload. … I’m going to do that when I get real old and boring.(Anderson 145)
Once again, intense releases of pleasure are associated directly with the feed, rather than sex. In fact, it seems that a pleasure so intense that one “bursts” is doable if purchased, since Titus notes that he intends to die that way when he’s “old and boring” (Anderson 145). Thus, even pleasure and death are contracted down to merely commodified products.
Though much of the discussion of sex in the novel is presented through language, it is not necessarily always through the dialogue between characters but rather the advertising and advertising speak that such a consumeristic society generates. While looking at “upcars” to buy (that is, futuristic flying vehicles which have replaced traditional cars), Titus is presented with an advertisement of a “Dodge Gryphon … with all of these people in bikinis stuffed into the car with [him]” and a more personalized one of a “Nongen Swarp” that shows “a romantic drive through the mountains with just [him] and Violet, who they got pretty much right, except they made her taller and with bigger boobs” (Anderson 121-122). Additionally, at the dinner table one night, Titus’ younger brother, whom he calls “Smell Factor”, sings over and over “Intercrural or oral! Ain’t a question of moral!” to which his parents’ reaction is not to question the appropriateness of what is being said, but rather to scold him for singing at the table (Anderson 127-128). This is perhaps because they are all so accustomed to the presence of sexual language in everyday speech due to the advertising that bombards them daily. Sex appeal is used to draw attention to materialistic products, but once the purchase is made the precise things that makes an inanimate object attractive disappear, and suddenly the consumer is left with just another product that “the minute she [walks] out of the store, she [doesn’t] like … anymore” (Anderson 31).
Running in parallel to the rampant capitalism in Feed is intense environmental degradation which goes hand-in-hand with a human disconnect from nature:
Set in a not-too-distant future, the novel’s consciousness of the geopolitical and environmental hazards of consumer capitalism in risk society is figured through characters who are for the most part unfazed by clouds so artificial they are trademarked, farms that grow great walls of meat in which mutant eye and heart cells sometimes generate into blinking organs, the last forest in the district cut down to build an air factory, and a sea so toxic that a visit to the beach requires a suit fit for a present day trip to the Chernobyl reactor. This environmental degradation is indirectly revealed as background information while the plot progresses, mirroring the fact that in promoting social atomisation, socialisation into consumer capitalism reduces political consciousness.(Bullen & Parsons 132)
It is fair to assume that the reason for this degradation is rooted in such a disconnect, a narcissistic elitism that sees the human race as more important than the natural, and this disconnect is exacerbated as the environment continues to disintegrate. The deterioration of the tie between humans and nature in the novel is made clear through the lack of sexual representation, with the most prominent example in Feed being that of conception, which, due to high levels of radiation, must take place in facilities called conceptionariums rather than “freestyle” (Anderson 225).
In conceptionariums, each baby is “brought into the world in a room with no one there but seven machines. We all are” (Anderson 270), so from the start, children in Titus’s society are deprived of human and natural connections. Even the two parents of the child are separated from each other during the process, the father in one room and the mother in another (Anderson 117). There is a complete lack of sexual intimacy in the process of conception, with each baby given whichever features from the mother and father the parents choose, plus a few from any photo reference they bring along (Anderson 116-117). What with the conceptionariums meaning sexual actions are no longer needed for procreation, it seems that the obvious conclusion would be that sex is solely for the sake of pleasure then. But if pleasure is most strongly associated with consumerism, then maybe over time sexuality becomes somewhat obsolete. This is, perhaps, the goal of a society in which everything is governed by corporations, to break down human connection and emotion so as to prevent people from banding together and participating in the ensuing riots and protests which Titus sees news of on the feed.
In his essay “Parables for the Postmodern, Post 9/11, and Posthuman World,” Thomas J. Morrissey examines Feed as a chiefly satirical text intended to invite young adult readers to be critical of humanity’s rapid movement toward a capitalistic society completely intertwined with technology. In doing so, Morrissey discusses the novel as a “de-creation myth, … a consciously sterile re-enactment of Genesis” (195). Viewing Titus and Violet as alternative Adam and Eve figures is not uncommon among scholars, particularly given the direct references to Genesis Anderson provides: the third section is titled “Eden”; Violet shares with Titus the highly processed apple juice when he awakens in the hospital; they explore a “garden” together; and most notably, they awaken together in what seems like a new world, one outside of the circle of the feed. It is like a rebirth, a moment where it seems as if they alone are given a second chance at a life much different than their own. However, the “garden” they are presented with on the moon is a horrifying adaptation of any kind of utopian Eden: “Outside the window, there had been a garden, like, I guess you could call it a courtyard or terrarium? But a long time ago the glass ceiling over the terrarium had cracked, and so everything was dead, and there was moon dust all over everything out there. Everything was gray” (Anderson 62). The description of this garden follows directly after Violet and Titus’ first kiss, a kiss that lacks any sort of emotional description, and which is instead overlooked in favour of the horrific description of the dead garden. As Morrissey writes, “the lunar garden has died because technology has failed. The terrestrial biosphere is dying because technology has been misused. Thus, the garden that was intended to remind lunar visitors of the homeworld’s bounty instead tells a tale of misapplied creative zeal. The pleasure dome is cracked; Eden is sterile” (196). In one single image any supposed human-nature connection is cracked too, like the glass of the terrarium, and the damage to such a relationship is reflected in the grayness of the garden. Even the garden, which is supposed to be an abundant, fertile space upon which Adam and Eve may lay the foundation for the rest of humanity, is reimagined into a horrific reality of infertility and death. The “binary between technology and nature” has been complicated, through a suggestion that “nature needs technology to survive” (Ostry 101). But demonstrated here is precisely the fact that technology divides the human and the natural, and that very divide cracks the terrarium which is meant to protect the sanctity of Eden. The relationship between Feed’s Adam and Eve cannot overcome their situation; Titus and Violet were not meant to last, for the fruitful environment upon which they are meant to build their kingdom was doomed from the start.
With the many references to sexuality in Feed, it seems unlikely that Anderson chose to omit direct representations of sexual activities based on anxieties related to the sexuality of young people. Rather, the ways in which discussions of sexuality are woven into the language of the text forces the reader to question why physical acts of intimacy are not exhibited, and why industries like pornography and prostitution are not present and intermixed with the corporations that sell material goods and run the country. All things considered, however, Anderson’s choice not to include any instances of physical, sexual intimacy emphasizes the power of the corporations in Titus’ America over the average consumer, and the environmental degradation and human disconnect that such intense capitalism produces, ultimately acting as a reflection of the dystopian society that Titus is often too ignorant of to portray to the reader himself.
Anderson, M.T. Feed. Candlewick Press, 2012.
Bullen, Elizabeth & Elizabeth Parsons. “Dystopian Visions of Global Capitalism: Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines and M.T. Anderson’s Feed.” Children’s Literature in Education, Vol. 38, 2007, pp. 127-139.
Hutchinson, Sara. “Let’s write about sex – YA Fiction as a Means of Learning about Sexuality.” New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, Vol. 12, No. 2, 2016, pp. 315-325.
Morrissey, Thomas J. “Parables for Postmodern, Post-9/11, Posthuman World: Carrie Ryan’s Forest of Hands and Teeth Books, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, and Mary E. Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox.” Contemporary Dystopian Fiction for Young Adults: Brave New Teenagers, 1st ed., edited by Balaka Basu, Katherine R. Broad, and Carrie Hintz, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013, pp. 189-201.
Ostry, Elaine. “One the Brink: The Role of Young Adult Culture in Environmental Degradation.” Contemporary Dystopian Fiction for Young Adults: Brave New Teenagers, 1st ed., edited by Balaka Basu, Katherine R. Broad, and Carrie Hintz, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013, pp. 101-114.