By Becca Bashford
Here at Books That Matter, we passionately believe that literature has the ability to empower and inspire women. This month’s theme, Feminist Dystopia, explores a unique literary genre which goes a step further in its efforts to empower and inspire – in fact, it leaps into the world of politics and activism. The startling rise in the popularity of feminist dystopia is not a coincidence. Women are no longer turning to speculative fiction as a means of escape, but rather, the world of speculative fiction is becoming more recognisable to women every day. It seems that dystopian authors have recognised that there is a new – and necessary – space to explore the crossroads of dystopia and reality, and in turn, women are recognising their real, lived experiences in the pages of their favourite dystopian novels.
“Dystopian fiction isn’t soothing anymore. It’s too close for.”
In 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale was published. In 2017, nearly three decades after is publication, the book was once again topping charts and selling millions of copies worldwide. Some attribute its resurgence to the launch of the television series, but others (myself included), believe there is a darker reason for its return. It is no coincidence that in the wake of Trump’s election, women everywhere sought an outlet for their rage when a man who publicly declared his right to “grab a woman by the p*ssy” became President. It is no coincidence that when a man accused of sexual assault was shortlisted as a nominee for the Supreme Court, and was later appointed to that court, women donned white bonnets and crimson cloaks to greet him on his first day at work.
The Handmaid’s Tale outfit has become an international symbol of outrage and protest. It serves as a reminder that women’s rights, particularly their reproductive rights, are being threatened or even revoked at an alarmingly fast rate. Feminist dystopia has therefore become an outlet not only for women’s anger, but for their disillusion, disempowerment, and more heartbreakingly – their fear. Novels such as the Handmaid’s Tale are no longer far-fetched or inconceivable, and we also must take it upon ourselves to either learn or be reminded that Atwood’s depiction of Gilead was not conjured from thin air, it is an amalgamation of truths of women’s oppressions happening all over the world; predominantly to women of colour and women living in poverty. The genre of feminist dystopia has therefore reached a point where it can serve an even more necessary moral purpose – it forces us to look at our own reality and compare it to the world within its pages. Does it feel too familiar? Uncanny? Does it fill us with anxiety because we are just a stones-throw away from overturning Roe v. Wade? It certainly does. That is why across the world, dystopian imagery is weaving itself into the world of political activism.
Following Trump’s inauguration, women across the world united to protest in an international Women’s March. The crowd was interspersed with red and white – the Handmaids had joined the protest. Their signs went viral on social media, they read: “Make Atwood Fiction Again”. Shortly after Brett Kavanaugh became one of the most powerful judges in America, the Handmaid’s lined the balcony overlooking the Senate’s office, sending an unmistakeable message: women everywhere are watching. During the fight to repeal the archaic eighth amendment in Northern Ireland, women donned bonnets and cloaks and stood silently outside the Dáil Éireann parliament building – their signs read “Abortion rights NOW!”. In Buenos Aires, Handmaids marched silently across the city in the pouring rain until they reached the Congress Building, where they read a letter from Margaret Atwood herself which demanded legal, safe, and free access to abortions for all Argentinian women. At the 2018 Golden Globes, the self-named ‘Hollywood Handmaids’ launched their ‘Silent No Longer’ campaign, protesting the objectification, marginalisation, and sexual abuse of women in film.
There is no doubt that feminist dystopia has sparked a conversation, but it has done more than that. Dystopian fiction has begun to focus on the very real threat that poses women, their bodily autonomy, their reproductive rights, and more pressingly – the silencing of their voices. The motif of the silent handmaid, dressed in virginal white and blood red, is terrifying yet effective. It reminds us, in the words of Atwood herself, that:
“…The idea that history always progresses is a fantasy”
History is not progressing. In Ohio, Mississippi, Alabama, Northern Ireland, Argentina and beyond, women are being treated as nothing more than silent Handmaids, and its time to fight back.