Our July theme is all about feminist utopia and dystopia. Fiction written in these categories has the power to act as a call to action, challenge ideas and open our minds. Feminist dystopian stories in particular, where oppression against women is intensified for effect, can feel dangerously true to real life.
These stories remind us there is still work to do to ensure that people of all genders feel safe and catered for by the society they live in. There are times, however, when even the imagination of an author can’t beat reality. Here are 5 examples of truth being as scary as, if not more so than, fiction.
In Mary Beard’s fantastic book ‘Women & Power: A Manifesto’ she states, “When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice”. Turns out that women being able to speak up isn’t so great for the patriarchy and those wishing to perpetuate it will do everything they can to maintain the status quo.
Christina Dalcher took this concept to its extreme in ‘Vox’ where women wear bracelets that electrocute them if they utter more than 100 words each day. Nowhere is this instinct to shut women up more prevalent than on social media. Any woman with strong opinions can expect to receive abuse from people intent on bashing them into submission. In the run up to the 2017 general election in England, Black British MP Dianne Abbott received 10 times more online abuse than any other female MP showing that the impulse to silence women grows even stronger should the woman who dares to put her head above the parapet come from a marginalised group.
‘Gas Light’, known as ‘Angel Street’ in the United States, is a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton. In the play, Jack Manningham tries to convince his wife Bella that he is not disappearing from the house late at night as she suspects he is. He does this by trying to make Bella believe that she is going mad and that she can no longer trust her own senses. The play has led to the term “gaslighting” where men (predominantly) attempt to invalidate women’s views by dismissing them as ignorant, hysterical or emotional.
This practise of gaslighting has wormed its way into social discourse. Many women have no doubt heard the familiar “joke” along the lines of “Calm down sweetheart, that time of the month is it?” whenever they’ve tried to express an unpopular opinion or challenge discrimination.
In its mildest form gaslighting is embarrassing, at its most extreme it can be deadly. In the medical field, there is still a lot of work to do around acknowledging women’s pain and diagnosing conditions such as endometriosis which can take years to be recognised because medical professionals are unwilling to listen to the real concerns of women. Gabrielle Jackson shares her own fight to get an endometriosis diagnosis in her excellent book ‘Pain and Prejudice’.
In Charlotte Wood’s 2015 novel ‘The Natural Way of Things’, we are thrown into an unsettling scenario – two women wake up from a drugged sleep to find themselves trapped in an abandoned building in the middle of a desert. Their heads are shaved, they are under constant guard and, along with 8 other young women, they have no idea why or how they came to be there.
The idea that women could just disappear is terrifying but in 2014 this nightmare was very much a reality when 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria were kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram. For weeks this atrocity was highlighted on the world stage with celebrities using their platforms to demand the return of the missing girls. Three-and-a-half years later they were released. We can only imagine what they endured in those years and the trauma they have been left with. Things like this happen all the time around the world and the majority of these instances will, sadly, never come to our attention.
Crime fiction is a much-loved genre with a multitude of titles available to choose from. A commonly recurring theme in these books is that of a male serial killer determined to kill as many women as possible without getting caught. Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel ’The Silence of the Lambs’ is a famous example and was followed by the hugely popular 1991 film of the same name.
Sadly the book’s villain, Hannibal Lecter, has many counterparts in the real world. Thousands of women are killed every year and, of those, many will never have their killer brought to justice. You will almost certainly have heard of the infamous murderer known as Jack the Ripper. In 1888 the body of the first of his known victims, Mary Ann Nicholls, was found. In total we know of 5 victims (though this number may well have been higher). All too often the infamy of the murderer can overshadow the lives of their victims. Hallie Rubenhold’s fantastic book ‘The Five’ does a great job of trying to redress this balance by focusing on Jack the Ripper’s victims, giving us an insight into their lives before their untimely deaths and, in so doing, giving them back some element of their humanity.
“There’s work to do and the patriarchy won’t break itself”Mikki Kendall, Hood Feminism
Limiting The Reproductive Right of Women
Women’s reproductive rights is a subject that has been explored in a number of feminist dystopian novels with ‘Future Home of the Living God’ by Louise Erdrich and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood being great examples. In both books, the individual’s right to choose what to do with their body is challenged by outside forces; this still happens today all around the world.
In 37 countries, abortion is illegal unless it saves the pregnant person’s life, and in others, it is illegal unless used to save the pregnant person’s life or preserve their health. In September 2021, a new law (known as the “heartbeat bill”) will come into effect in Texas making it illegal to perform abortions at as early as 6 weeks, it will also empower private citizens to sue any establishments that perform abortions after a fetal heartbeat has been detected. Many people won’t even know they are pregnant until after 6 weeks which means this new bill will be tantamount to making abortion illegal by stealth.
Margaret Atwood has stated that she took inspiration for all the terrible things that happened to female bodies in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ from real life events. Even she, a skilled and respected writer, could think of nothing worse than what had already happened. Unbelievably, many of these terrible things continue to take place the world over. These acts of emotional and physical violence are only able to continue because of the oppressive systems in place to protect those who abuse their power. Mikki Kendall in her book ‘Hood Feminism’ makes the point clearly, “There’s work to do and the patriarchy won’t break itself.”
Want to know more about our Herland: Feminist Utopia & Dystopia box? Follow the link, and learn more about our July theme!
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