The World Has Always Been a Dystopia for Women: A Survey of Feminist Dystopias

Books discussed in this essay: The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood; 1985); When She Woke (Hillary Jordan; 2011); “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment” (M. Rickert; collected in Brave New Worlds, 2011); Daughters of the North (Sarah Hall; 2007). Major spoilers abound.

The dystopian novel is one with an agenda. It magnifies an issue in our society so that we can better examine it. The dystopian society–typically set in a future or alternate world–centers around that one issue, which is exaggerated often to the point of unbelievability. But this distortion is necessary so that we can clearly understand the impact.

A clear example is the popular Hunger Games trilogy, which focuses on the very current topic of income inequality. In one memorable scene, the elite of the Capitol gorge on rich food and then make themselves vomit so they can eat still more, while the citizens of the Districts go hungry. The scene is extreme, but that extremeness prompts the reader to think about the issue of food security and waste in our present unequal world.

cropped-margaret-atwoods-the-hand-007-1Feminist dystopias focus on women’s rights, which usually revolve around the thorny subject of reproduction. Becoming pregnant is one of the most private experiences a woman can have, but pregnancy and babies are among the most public of issues a society addresses. The society’s future is bound up in babies: how many, how healthy, are they the kind of babies we want? Since men have always been in charge of society, the issue of paternity–tied up in inheritance, class structure, and all manner of complexities–is also of foremost concern. It’s easy to determine who the mother of any child is, but only the mother knows who the father is (and sometimes not even then).

Society (and men) want to regulate when and how women become pregnant, whether they carry their babies to term, and who is fathering them. As a result, women’s bodies are considered public property, subject to legislation and regulation. Women themselves become objects rather than human beings, property that can be bought, sold, and bartered. Feminism often boils down to the conflict between society’s need to manage reproduction and a woman’s right to recognition as a person and to control her most personal possession–her own body.

The-Handmaids-Tale-Atwood-MargaretThe alpha feminist dystopia, and still the foremost classic, is The Handmaid’s Tale. In Atwood’s seminal novel, fertility has decreased dramatically due to environmental degradation. Those women who are still fertile have been enslaved solely for the purpose of carrying the babies of the elite ruling class. Women have been deprived of all their rights, denied access to money and property, and separated from their families–all justified by the religious authority of this future society’s theocratic rulers. A “handmaiden” is literally required to have sex with her male owner while lying on top of his wife, so that the wife symbolically becomes impregnated with the oh-so-valuable baby.

Obviously, Atwood is exaggerating for dramatic effect, but there is no denying the impact of this image. Her imagined society, Gilead, is an extreme but logical extension of ongoing attempts to control women and their reproduction based on religion. Atwood’s goal is not to get us to believe this could actually happen. Her goal is to get us recognize the insidiousness of religion in controlling people’s lives and to feel the utter deprivation of a woman denied control over her own body, to the point where it is considered the extension of the body of another woman and the property of a man.

Even more than thirty years after the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s warning bell resonates with readers. In looking at the pattern of laws enacted in recent years in the United States to restrict and control pregnant women, it can often feel like we are already living in a version of Gilead. That’s why this story endures, and why it’s important to keep reading and rereading it.

WhenSheWokeJordan’s When She Woke is a direct descendant of The Handmaid’s Tale. This retelling of The Scarlet Letter takes place in a near-future, fundamentalist Christian dystopia where abortion has been outlawed as a result of widespread infertility. Those who are convicted of having abortions awake to find that their skin has been dyed a bright red color. These “Chromes” are released into society, where they face being ostracized, assaulted, and possibly murdered. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, When She Woke exaggerates the current trend of restricting and all but criminalizing the rights of pregnant women in the name of religion.

Rickert’s chilling short story “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment” (collected in the John Joseph Adams-edited anthology Brave New Worlds) also envisions an America in which abortion has been outlawed. In this dystopia, women convicted of having abortions when they were still legal are publicly executed. The punishments meted out in these two dystopias for the crime of abortion may seem outlandish, but these authors are simply following the path of current legislation, where women considering having abortions are forced to undergo invasive procedures, inaccurate “counseling,” and other hoops designed to circumvent their ability to choose for themselves whether to be pregnant.

51UwPtWxeLL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Hall’s Daughters of the North (originally published in the United Kingdom as The Carhullan Army) examines the other side of the issue: the actions societies take when they need to reduce the number of babies being born. The end result still curtails women’s reproductive choice by directly controlling their bodies. In a future world decimated by economic and environmental disasters, where resources have become scarce, couples must apply for licenses to have children. All fertile women are required to have IUDs, and compliance may be checked at any time by any enforcement officer, in public, in a manner that is essentially sexual violence or near rape. The protagonist chooses to rebel, joining a commune of women who are training as guerilla fighters to resist this authoritarian regime.

bd00d1efdb871b1977feb1ac2f387126Human history has always been a dystopia for women, who as a group have never achieved full ownership of either their bodies or their lives. Women in Western democracies only gained the right to vote–an acknowledgement that women were actually people–during the last century. Sexual slavery, suttee, honor killings, genital mutilation, foot-binding — these are only a few of the horrors inflicted on women (and are still in practice in many places today).

The struggle for women’s rights and freedom still rages in every part of the world, even in the supposedly developed West. In the United States alone, states have enacted over 200 laws restricting reproductive rights since 2010, a dramatic up-surge. Feminist dystopias remind us not to get comfortable or let our guards down, or we could all too easily lose those rights we struggled so long to obtain. A true feminist utopia, in which women are considered full people whose bodies belong only to them, still exists solely in the imagination of science fiction.

First Impressions: The Hunger Games Trilogy

These are my first impressions after reading The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (2010), by Suzanne Collins. I read these books in 2011-2012. They will be discussed in future essays. Some spoilers.

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In a post-U.S. dictatorship, the ultra-rich Capitol ruthlessly controls the poor and starving citizens of the 12 outlying Districts, forcing each of District to offer up two teen tributes — a boy and a girl — each year for the Hunger Games, a televised contest of survival, as penance for a failed revolution many years ago.

I normally don’t read young adult fiction, and I also avoid very popular books. I tend to be the crank who doesn’t like what everyone else loves. But having heard so many raves about this book, when I spotted The Hunger Games for cheap in the used-books section of my local bookstore, I decided to see what all the fuss is about.

Let me first say that this series makes for a fun, suspenseful read. I think Collins has come up with a brilliant concept, although certainly not an original one. It brings to mind The Running Man, as well as “The Most Dangerous Game,” a short story many of us read in grade school. Collins’ brilliance is in casting teens as her survivalists. I’m not claiming that high school is this brutal, but there are similarities, such as the forming of cliques and the feeling of being a hounded outsider.

Collins has also created a very strong heroine in Katniss Everdeen. Katniss has skills, she is resourceful, and she solves her own problems. But she has flaws, too. Let’s face it — she can be a bit thick. For instance, she is unable to read the emotions of others or to let herself be open to them, which causes her to misjudge people in critical ways. Yet this is exactly why we like her. Katniss is authentically 17. She can kick ass, she stands up for what’s right, and she is the unwitting symbol of a brewing revolution, but she still has a lot to learn. This makes Katniss a character we can relate to, cheer for, and worry about. By throwing her into such an extreme situation, Collins ensures that readers won’t be able to put the book down.

The second book of the series, Catching Fire, employs a clever twist to get Katniss and Peeta back into the Hunger Games, which doesn’t feel at all contrived. I actually enjoyed this installment a bit more, I think, because many of the main characters were adults, characters that showed more depth, maturity, and complexity. I also felt the stakes were higher the second time around. And like any good middle book, it ended on one hell of a cliffhanger.

Mockingjay is definitely the darkest of the trilogy, which was already very dark indeed. As Katniss joins the rebellion, she learns that the supposed good guys are not that much different from the regime they’re trying to depose. Don’t expect this book to hold any pat answers or happily-ever-after endings. In that way, it felt very true, if bleak, but I wish that in the end, Katniss had grown more as a result of her experiences. I didn’t get the sense that she changed much at all in this book; rather, she simply grew more depressed and accepting of life’s stark truths.

The final book is just as suspenseful as the previous two, if a little less contained and plotted. There are some intriguing twists, especially one at the climax, that I enjoyed. However, the narration comes across as skimpy and rushed. I get the sense that the author churned this one out. I would have liked her to slow down more, especially at key points in the story, and help us really live in the scene. I also wish we could have gotten inside the characters more and understood how they changed during the course of this story. I have already mentioned Katniss’s lack of growth, but I felt distressingly divorced from Gale, Peeta, and especially Haymitch as well. I think the real problem was that this sequel was so highly anticipated that Collins did not spend as much time crafting it as she should have.

That being said, it was still a satisfying end to the series. Collins maintains her tone and does not merely deliver the expected. I would recommend this final installment in The Hunger Games for older readers.

It’s no mystery why these books are so popular. This series is suspenseful and exciting, but it also charts the growth of its main character very well. Katniss can be dense about love and revolution, but she should be. That is her age. Unlike other recent YA sensations (Twilight springs to mind), I think The Hunger Games deserves its popularity.

Imagining a World Without Men: A Survey of Feminist Utopias

 

Books discussed in this essay: Herland (Charlotte Perkins Gilman; 1915), The Female Man (Joanna Russ; 1975), The Gates to Women’s Country (Sheri S. Tepper; 1988), Woman on the Edge of Time (Marge Piercy; 1976), and Always Coming Home (Ursula K. Le Guin; 1985). Some spoilers.

What does a world look like where women are equal to men?

Women writers have tried to imagine such a utopia. Perhaps not surprisingly, for many of them it was a world without men at all.

herlandCharlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland may be the earliest example of a feminist utopia. In Herland, three male explorers discover an isolated country in the South American jungle populated only by women. It is a perfect place, where women live in harmony with one another, spontaneously reproduce, and have advanced their society due to lack of conflict. The only fly in the ointment is their male visitors, who can’t help their innate sexism, but these confident women mostly just laugh them off. At first blush, Herland seems fairly ideal.

But there are problems with the all-female utopia that Gilman fails to address. For instance, the women all seem asexual, which ignores a fundamental aspect of our nature in favor of combatting the sexual objectification of women. Also, it is difficult to imagine any group of human beings living together without conflict, no matter what their gender. Still, I’d recommend Herland, a quick read, just for its historical value as an early work of feminism, even if does avoid some of the more difficult questions that are raised.

joanna-russ-the-female-manIn 1975, Joanna Russ imagined a similar utopia in The Female Man, this time an alternate world called Whileaway. However, her utopia is not so perfect. Reproduction is handled more realistically, and the women do fight among themselves, often violently. This is one of four alternate worlds Russ presents in the novel. Another, most definitely not a utopia, depicts men and women living separately in a perpetual state of war. Just as in Herland, The Female Man cannot imagine a world where men and women can live together in equality and harmony.

While I admit that I too have spent a happy hour or so imagining a world without men, it’s not practical. We must envision ways women can achieve equality while still keeping men around, if only for the very basic reason that we are one species who are all in this together–or at least, we should be. Also, many women happen to enjoy the company of men.

51I7jyZitGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Sheri S. Tepper moderates this vision of a feminist utopia somewhat in The Gates to Women’s Country. In her post-apocalyptic far future, women and men mostly live separately, the women inside a beautiful walled city that hearkens back to the civilization of the ancient Greeks, the men outside the walls in barracks, constantly training for war. Only a few men are allowed inside to serve the women, carefully selected for their submissive traits.

As in the previous two novels, Tepper’s world is one in which men and women cannot live together naturally, due to the innate characteristics of men. The soldiers are basically overgrown children who perceive women as helpless objects requiring protection and impregnation with sons. The servitors are the flip side of the coin: wise, calm, strong, always in control of themselves—the “perfect men” in this women’s fantasy. However, they are not perfect by nature, but by design, and therefore they are not real.

urlA utopian vision where men and women do co-exist can be found in Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. A present-day woman time-travels to the future and is shown what an egalitarian society might be like. Although men and women live together in this utopia, there is virtually no distinction between them. The time traveler sometimes cannot even tell what gender her guide is. The language has changed, as well, so that gender pronouns are no longer used. While at first glance this seems like a desirable way of achieving a perfect communal society, erasing the differences between us again defies human nature. Although our differences often inspire oppression, they are also what make us interesting, and quite possibly what enable us to innovate and adapt so well.

The utopia presented in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home imagines a future of communal living where gender differences have been preserved. This utopia is similar to the one in Woman on the Edge of Time: people live cooperatively in villages, eschewing technology and the trappings of our present-day consumerist society, pursuing their passions and strengths, moving fluidly between relationships, and governing and raising children as a group. Yet even Le Guin has a hard time envisioning such a utopia without rejecting almost all the achievements of the modern day. To be our better selves, we have to return to a more primitive version of ourselves. There is a certain attraction to this simpler life, but is it realistic? Once knowledge has been gained, once technologies have been developed, we don’t let that go. We have to build on what came before, not tear it down.

I have yet to read a utopian vision that posits equality for all and yet society continues to progress along a forward trajectory (the only thing that seems to come close may be the Star Trek universe). I would like to. For forward-thinking writers, though, it is easier–and certainly more interesting–to imagine the dystopias that might be. But that is the subject of another essay.

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First Impressions: Woman on the Edge of Time

These are my first impressions after reading Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976) in February 2015. This book will be discussed in a future essay.

urlAfter bashing her niece’s pimp with a bottle, Connie Ramos is committed to a mental hospital, where she begins telepathically time traveling to a utopian future.

Published in 1976, Woman on the Edge of Time reminded me quite a lot of two other feminist speculative fiction classics of roughly the same period: The Female Man by Joanna Russ and Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin. All three present idealized anarchist utopias, as well as brief depictions of a dystopian counterpart. These utopian communities are presented as environmentally conscious and sustainable, having achieved equality among the sexes and races (albeit in different ways), where the people live communally and in harmony with nature. (Of the three, I liked Le Guin’s the best, but it is the most recently published and the most fully baked, I think.) These are not novels so much as vehicles for ideas about how people could possibly be, and after reading so many of these–including a few minor versions not mentioned–I feel I’ve exhausted this narrow sub-genre. The ideas are attractive, but having moved well past the Age of Aquarius, they seem much more unworkable, relying on an idealized vision of human nature.

Of more interest in Piercy’s novel is the present-day life of Connie Ramos, who is poor, Hispanic, undereducated, mentally ill, and pretty much a victim of all our social institutions. Connie’s plight, having been committed and then subjected to heinous experiments against her will, almost make us cheer her drastic actions after she accepts that she is at war. She is at war against our systems themselves, and the deck is well stacked against her. It’s never very clear if Connie is literally time-traveling or if she is hallucinating as an escape. Given the epilogue with her medical history, I’m inclined to believe the latter, but I don’t know if that is what Piercy intended as the author. There is a lot here to chew on, but I’m not sure Piercy has assembled it into a cohesive story. She seems to be trying to say so much that nothing comes through as powerfully as she might have intended. If she had focused on Connie in the present, and scaled back all the future scenes, using them more as an indicator of Connie’s troubled psyche, this probably would have been a much more effective novel.

First Impressions: The Female Man

These are my first impressions after reading The Female Man by Joanna Russ (1975) in June of 2014. This book will be addressed in a later essay.

51mIMBOx6LL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Four women from alternate universes come together in this work of feminist speculative fiction.

Although The Female Man is billed as a “classic of feminist science fiction,” I hesitate to call it science fiction. It’s barely even fiction. More accurately, it is a feminist stream-of-consciousness rant that employs speculative what-ifs to imagine worlds both better and worse than our own, specifically the positions of women in those worlds.

Russ herself is one of the four women, the “female man” who tries and fails to make herself into a man in order to succeed in what is presumably our world, at least our world of the 1970s, when this was published. Russ’s anger is palpable throughout, although she tempers it somewhat with snarky humor. Several times, I found myself wondering whether we hadn’t moved past all this male-female behavior that Russ is criticizing, but truthfully, you only have to read a few Internet comments to see it alive and kicking in the 21st century. In that sense, Russ’s book is still needed and we are not yet free.

Those readers who come to The Female Man expecting a more straightforward narrative are bound to feel stymied by the lack of plot and the jumping around, without explanation, from one world to the next. Besides our own world, there is Jeannine’s world, where the Great Depression has never ended and women are primarily preoccupied with catching husbands, and there is Janet’s utopian world of Whileaway, where there are no men at all. I was feeling fairly adrift in all this until about three-quarters of the way through the book, when we meet Jael, a woman warrior in a world where men and women live separately and spend all their time literally at war with one another. This is probably the most cohesive section of the book, where Jael explains more or less what’s going on and the plot, such as it is.

Forget it, this book is not concerned with plot. It’s concerned with women, with what we endure and how things can possibly be different. Unfortunately, Russ does not seem able to imagine a world where men and women can live together with women not being subject to oppression. I hope she’s wrong about that.

First Impressions: Grass

These are my first impressions after reading Grass by Sheri S. Tepper (1989) in March 2010.

Grass-sheri-tepperIt is a trope in science fiction to have far-future humans colonize alien worlds and then cut ties with Earth. This enables the story to be told on an alien planet but with familiar, human characters. Here, the planet is Grass, which is covered entirely with grass and peopled by two groups of humans: the aristocracy, who live on estancias out in the grass and do little but participate in mysterious, dangerous Hunts; and the working classes, who live in the planet’s only town and spaceport, where they are protected by the swamp forest that surrounds the town. To this world come an ambassador family from Earth, on a secret mission to find the cure to a plague that threatens all of humanity, which sets the plot in motion.

Tepper has built an intriguing, complex, and sinister world in Grass, and a lot of the suspense of the novel is in learning about the planet’s native species and discovering the true nature of the Hunts. But some of the secrets, when revealed, strained my disbelief. All in all, this is an entertaining (if long) story, a worthwhile reading that could probably have used a little more editing and focus.

Grass was nominated for both the Hugo and Locus awards in 1990. In 2002 it was included in the SF Masterworks collection. It is the first novel in the Arbai trilogy.

First Impressions: The Sparrow

These are my first impressions after reading The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996) in December 2011.

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“…Because if I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, then the rest of it was God’s will too, and that, gentlemen, is cause for bitterness. But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself and my companions and the whole business becomes farcical, doesn’t it. The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances,” he continued with academic exactitude, each word etched on the air with acid, “is that I have no one to despise but myself. If however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of hating God.”

It’s hard to describe the exhilarating sense of emotion I felt while reading this book. I don’t consider myself a religious person, and this book is unquestionably about religion and our relationship with God. I am a spiritual seeker, though, and I found this novel to be one of the most meaningful examinations of our purpose as humans that I have ever read. It is not an easy read, and it offers no easy answers. But despite its horrors — and some truly horrific things happen in this story — it is a beautiful, life-affirming read.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, because part of the joy of reading The Sparrow lies in discovering it. Russell parcels out the story in bits and pieces, to prepare the reader for what’s coming. So, just a bare-bones summary, then: a group of people discovers radio signals — recordings of beautiful singing — coming from the Alpha Centauri system. One of these people, Emilio Sandoz, is a Jesuit priest, who interprets the singing as a sign from God. He spearheads a Jesuit mission to travel to the planet of Rakhat, four light years away, and meet the Singers.

Russell tells the story of the expedition mainly in flashbacks, alternating with scenes set in the present, after Sandoz has been rescued from Rakhat, the only survivor of his mission, a broken and despairing man. This structure allows the story to unspool slowly. The reader knows that Sandoz’s ultimate experiences on Rakhat were horrific, that he loses everyone he cares about and is somehow brought to a state of utter degradation, but we don’t know exactly what happened to him (until the end), or why. We are seeking, like Sandoz, for the the meaning of suffering and loss, searching for God somewhere in the universe. Even though it concerns aliens and space travel, The Sparrow is a very human story, a quest that mirrors one of our first stories: the story of the Fall of humankind.

When Sandoz and his friends arrive on Rakhat, it is literally a Garden of Eden, and the aliens they encounter first are like the innocents before the Fall. But Russell doesn’t make it that easy for us. The fundamental mistake that the human visitors make is interpreting this alien world through a human worldview. Russell’s tale of first contact is meant to mirror Europeans’ first encounters with Native Americans. Early on, the narrative includes a historical account of a Jesuit priest who was tortured and mutilated by the Native Americans he tried to convert, was rescued, but returned to America to be recaptured and ultimately killed. This story mirrors Sandoz’s journey in many ways. He is not interacting with primitive humans, though, but with alien species that at a very basic level he does not understand. Russell does a terrific job of making these beings truly alien and showing how the humans’ failure to acknowledge their alienness leads to the downfall of the mission and irrevocable changes on Rakhat.

However, the humans are just as alien to the Rakhat natives, and through their eyes, Russell leads us to question our own sense of morality. Sandoz is judged harshly by almost everyone upon his return, and to me, this is one of the most distressing truths of the novel: the lack of compassion we show our own.

The Sparrow is a book of contrasts. The planet of Rakhat is both incredibly beautiful and the scene of almost unimaginable horrors. The human characters are good, intelligent, loving people, yet the novel doesn’t flinch from depicting humanity’s failings, most especially our capacity to misjudge, misinterpret and, even out of good intentions, make the worst mistakes. And while this story is full of God, it doesn’t definitively answer for the reader the question of what God is or whether God even exists. For its contrasts, its challenges and its beauty, I absolutely loved this book.