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.

Is Margaret Atwood a Science Fiction Writer?

Margaret Atwood says “now is not the time for realistic fiction,” but is her writing science fiction? She would deny it, preferring the more nebulous term, “speculative fiction.” Regardless, in many of her novels, even her more mainstream ones, she deals with what-if’s and what-might-be’s, rather than what is.

On the subject, Atwood says:

“I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid.”

Atwood is generally considered a literary writer by critics who wouldn’t dream of dipping into the genre ghetto, but she gets away with writing fiction that could easily be called science fiction. And she wins major awards for it! She doesn’t write only science fiction, though, but also tries her hand at other genres, such as historical fiction. Not many writers can be successful at genre-hopping, but more are trying it. Michael Chabon and Kazuo Ishiguro spring to mind.

handmaidscoverConsider, for instance, Atwood’s most well-known book, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which was nominated for the Booker Prize but won the Arthur C. Clarke Award the very first time it was given out. It is set in a dystopian future, in which the U.S. government has been taken over by Christian fundamentalists and a lot of basic rights have been stripped away. Due to extreme pollution, many people have become infertile. Those women who are fertile are enslaved as Biblical-style handmaids, conceiving and bearing children for wealthy, infertile women. Its dystopian, futuristic setting place it squarely in the science fiction tradition.

I think The Handmaid’s Tale was so successful and has been so widely read because its core message is a frightening warning about how quickly and easily the freedoms we take for granted can be stripped away. What struck me the last time I read it is the method of depriving women of their rights that was used: Their bank accounts were frozen, and electronic access to money was cut off. As we are well on our way to a cashless society, this struck me as an all-too-real danger, one we placidly accept.

the_blind_assassin_by_ekonkThe Blind Assassin (2000), which won the Booker Prize, is not as straightforward in terms of genre, but it does contain science fiction elements. Its structure is very unusual, in that it is a novel within a novel within a novel. The framing structure is a straightforward historical novel about a wealthy Canadian family’s fall from grace during the Depression and World War II. Within this novel is an intertwined story of two unnamed lovers and their clandestine affair. During their meetings, the lovers — one of whom is a pulp writer — tell each other a bizarre fable that takes place on an alien planet, which underscores their unspoken feelings for each other. The fable, titled The Blind Assassin, is turned into a novel by one of the characters and develops a cult-like following. The intricate structure makes this an engrossing novel, but it is questionable whether it can be called science fiction. Regardless, Atwood is comfortable using tropes of the genre in exciting and unusual ways when it suits her.

maddaddam1__140604211942With her more recent MaddAddam trilogyAtwood has a harder time making the case that she is not in fact writing science fiction. The dystopian future she imagines relies on the products of genetic engineering. A genuine mad scientist applies his eugenics research to create a race of people, then releases a bio-engineered virus to bring about the apocalypse. Her most recent novel, The Heart Goes Last, is another dystopia that was originally published in installments on the Internet.

I enjoy it when authors break the artificial boundaries of genre established by publishing companies and bookstores. Atwood’s fiction may transcend labels, but she speaks to those of us who love science fiction and its speculations on what might be.