By Molly Masters
The raw and violent depictions of violence against women in the serialisation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was enough to make viewers look away. However, the book, and indeed the TV series alike, were based on Atwood’s actual research of reproductive violence across the world. As uncomfortable and troubling the subject matter may seem, and overwhelming in an over-saturated dose of torturous viewing, dystopian fiction often plays on or directly takes its subject matter from real life. For example, Orwell’s 1984 was wracked with depictions of nuclear war, fuelled by the concern of use of the newly-developed nuclear weapons in the post-war period. Brave New World elaborated upon a world overrun by technological advances, and critiqued the development of reproductive technologies. Speculative fiction, at its root, depicts the horrors and utopias of “what if” scenarios to the extreme, but it’s the female-written fiction that has disrupted the canon which creates a commentary on the feminist issues still at hand today, making these works of literature even more pressing to read.
“The writing of women’s dystopian fiction is intimately related to the realities of reproductive technologies and their threat to women’s autonomy. The battle between the sexes over the control of women’s fertility and, correspondingly, infertility should serve as a warning. These texts are not only stories.” Marleen S Barr
Female-led and female-written dystopia taps into women’s own concerns and how their bodies and actions are policed. We have seen in recent publications, as well as the classics attributed to the speculative fiction genre, that these concerns are still at large, and a large number of dystopia authors write narratives that are hyperbolic representations of societal concerns today, in order to create a conversation, inasmuch as to depict a very worst case scenario that is never too far away. We shall begin with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, one of the very earliest pieces of dystopian fiction penned by a woman.
“By motherhood they were born and by motherhood they lived – life was, to them, just the long cycle of motherhood.” – Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
As one of the first depictions of utopia by a female author, Herland is certainly not to be dismissed. It plays an important role in the establishment of the canon and the anxieties women were writing within. However, an essential standpoint to acknowledge when addressing Perkins Gilman’s work here is to recognise how antiquated and outdated many parts of Herland are. The narrative follows three male explorers, who stumble across a part of the world entirely run by women. They bear children by divine intervention, live off the land, and support and sustain one another; at an arm’s length, a perfect utopia. However, Perkins Gilman’s text, read alongside others, can allow us to observe how an idea of a utopia for one generation of readers differs so completely to the next. Perkins Gilman was writing during the time of the Progressive Movement in the USA, and was also awaiting the 19th Amendment to the American Constitution granting women the right to vote, which came in 1920. Her lived experience undoubtedly informed her writing, but also shadowed her from important elements of the feminist canon recognised by the 21st century. A leading critical voice on the feminist dystopian canon, Ruth Levitas, explained this exactly. She wrote; “one of the reasons why people work with different definitions of utopia is because they are asking different questions”. The questions and concerns being addressed by Perkins Gilman are likely far less radical in comparison to those today, and the rhetoric of her novel is rife with gender essentialism, white supremacy and anti-abortion narrative, speaking to her privileged, sheltered writing stance. But, Herland remains to play a large part in how we read utopias and their relationships to intersectional women’s rights, and allows us to create a conversation on what we do want in our fiction now, and indeed, in our utopias to come.
Perkins Gilman was largely addressing a conversation of reproductive choice, among other elements of ecological utopia and sustainability. Whilst her depiction of women as “earth mothers” is not as groundbreaking in our contemporary moment as it was in hers, we can use Herland as a benchmark for what can be seen as an antiquated view of what women no longer see as liberatory or radical. Herland depicts an entirely matriarchal society, populated by immaculate conception where motherhood and the children they bear are the “raison d’etre”. Women, upon hitting the age of twenty-five, are expected to begin “bearing”. Perkins Gilman narrates, “to them, the longed-for motherhood was not only a personal joy, but a nation’s hope.” This is an important quotation in understanding the ideology behind Herland. The all female utopian land is not really a utopia at all, as the women are still tied to the state as vehicles for reproduction and population, not dissimilar to the dystopia that is The Handmaid’s Tale, which we will come onto soon enough. The narrative seems oddly and sinisterly utopian in it’s assumption that every citizen longs to become a mother to five daughters routinely and without argument. As the quote we’ve included above reads, “life was, to them, just the long cycle of motherhood.” Today, this idea of compulsory motherhood in the name of one’s state sounds oppressive and claustrophobic; and also reductory to the idea of who gets to occupy the role of mother, which in our contemporary moment, is not always to be put upon a woman, or indeed, one single gender or expression. It’s unclear as to how Herland will continue to be defined within the genre of speculative fiction. It remains a cornerstone of women’s writing, and still holds a valuable commentary on how Perkins Gilman’s lived experience informed her writing of a utopia for women, however, the built up idea of a state force which ultimately controls bodies, choice and activity reads as a bad utopia, engaging in the same frightening rhetoric as Margaret Atwood and Aldous Huxley, who intended their works to read as dystopia.
“We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.” – Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
A pivotal and highly-referenced piece of literature in the dystopian canon is, of course, Margaret Atwood’s incredibly complex and terrifying, The Handmaid’s Tale. It is the most natural of places to begin a discussion of dystopian literature and it’s materialisation of women’s concerns over bodily agency, reproductive choice, and liberation. The recent HULU serialization has renewed the interest in Atwood’s text, and further demands the discussion of women’s bodily agency in an age where political leaders repeatedly disrespect women with their words and actions. Deconstructed, The Handmaid’s Tale presents a world where the government controls women’s bodies and reproductive actions. The text steps outside of the dystopia genre by embellishing and amalgamating the narratives of oppression already existing as lived experiences for women all over the world; narratives which often exist outside of the mainstream Western lens.
The narrative set-up, which is horrifying and suspenseful at its core, also encompasses some parodies and critiques of everyday patriarchal actions which are accepted in real life. For example, the names of the handmaid’s forced to reproduced with their assigned Commanders in the role of surrogates, for example “Offred” and “Ofwarren”, parody the taking of a husband’s name in marriage, albeit in a more sinister way. Atwood tactfully includes details like this to hold a mirror up to the way patriarchy holds itself in our contemporary society. Atwood constructs Gilead as a rigid patriarchal structure that relies on, but disrespects and disgraces the matriarchal, and presents an environment that houses a true apocalyptic vision of female choice, freedom and agency.
Moreover, it’s worth noting that The Handmaid’s Tale also provides an interesting and intriguing slant on the value of the female body and it’s ties to waste and consumerism. Tapping into a social concern of capitalism and ever-increasing consumerist habits, she uses a narrative of the throwaway and disposable to juxtapose with descriptions of women’s roles, bodies and output. Before Gilead, Offred’s stream of consciousness reminices a “time before”, where new belongings were “ready for spoilage” and consumerist attitudes meant “beckoning in the careless junk”. This parallel appears a deliberate act by Atwood in provoking a conversation on women’s bodies as something to be harvested or made, molded, used, and discarded by the state, much like when the Unwomen of the novel are thrown away into the toxic environments like rubbish for not being able to reproduce. Atwood also aligns this reading with a consumerist society of the 21st century, hell-bent on using and abusing all natural resources, except Gilead is one that has gone too far. Aligning women’s bodies with consumable and obtainable goods provokes a reading of the American healthcare system, too, where women must routinely pay for abortion services, contraceptives, and reproductive healthcare and treatment, which makes the female boy and its capabilities a profit margin. In an essay for The New York Times, Atwood herself states that, “Of those promoting enforced childbirth, it should be ask: Cui bono? Who profits by it? Sometimes in this sector, sometimes that. Never no-one.”
A blog post like this could go on forever, as the range dystopian fiction available is ever-increasing, and the connotations of each continue to develop, in-keeping with the concerns we see manifesting in the world today. Exploring the themes underneath the writing helps us to tap into the standpoint of each writer contributing their work to the canon of speculative fiction, and the increasing number of novels written by female writers allows us to read speculative fiction which enhances our understanding of where feminism has been and where it is going. Common themes of the novels on the shelves today seem to align with wider concerns in contemporary society, for example, environmental destruction, consumerist behaviours, invasive advertising, rapidly evolving technologies, and above all, abuse of female bodily agency and freedom. We look forward to hearing what you make of The Water Cure, and how it’s themes and narrative work into an understanding of our own socio-political moment, and indeed, how it contributes to the wider canon.