Updated: Mar 9
Written by: Jessica Purgett
Over the past few years, feminist dystopian literature has risen in popularity. In a feminist dystopia, the oppression of women is typically hyperbolized to highlight the need for change in today's society. Women who find themselves in dangerous and sexist countries use feminist dystopia to commiserate with the characters. However, this isn't always a good thing.
Novels like Vox by Christina Dalcher (2018), The Power by Naomi Alderman (2017), Red Clocks by Leni Zumas (2018), and Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich (2017) are just a few of the feminist dystopias that have been widely read in the United States, one of the most dangerous societies for women. According to the Thomas Reuters Foundation, the United States is in the top ten most dangerous countries for women when looking at statistics of sexual violence. As women live life in these dystopian societies, they seek a way to connect with other women who are going through similar struggles, even if they might be fictional characters. Dave Astor writes, "...while dystopian novels are depressing, there's a certain 'rightness' in reading about a future that's negative...dystopian novels feel kind of honest" (para. 3).
Yes, feminist dystopian literature gives the reader a sense of security knowing that another person is going through the same struggles. In most cases, the fictional worlds are so oppressive against women that they might even be grateful that their life isn't that bad. But, there's a problem with reading so much feminist dystopian literature.
Feminist dystopias allow societies to be conscious of the atrocities happening in reality, but they do not call the reader to action. They might point out flaws in the current system but they don't pose a solution to the current problems in society. Let's take a look at Christina Dalcher's Vox that came out in 2017.
The novel tells the story of Dr. Jean McClellan, who is trying to adjust to a new rule imposed by the United States' government: Women can only speak 100 words per day. They are forced to wear bracelets that tally each word a woman says; if they utter more, the counter shocks them. Backed by the government, supporters of this movement wanted to go back to traditional gender roles. In order to successfully do so, limiting the ability of women to fight back with words was important; hence, the word-counters were put into place. Jean is forced to stay in her home, managing the household. Throughout the novel, Jean sees her teenage son become more misogynistic while watching her young daughter grow up in a society that tells her she's worth nothing. More importantly (I won't mention specifics so as to not spoil the story), Jean sees horrible atrocities befall women who are not submissive to this new culture. Thus, at its heart, Vox is a cautionary tale that explores what atrocities might occur if women are oppressed. But is that enough?
At the end of Vox, there is no clear call to action for the reader. Dalcher is not saying, "I've pointed out everything that's wrong with society and here's how to fix it." That's the difference between feminist dystopian and feminist utopian literature. Utopian literature both points out issues in current society and allows us to see a sort of "plan" for how it could be better in the future. Let's look at a feminist utopian novel from 1976, Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy.
Woman on the Edge of Time tells the story of Consuela Ramos (Connie), living in the 1970's United States. She is impoverished and has a history of being committed to mental hospitals. When the reader meets her, she is just about to be committed to a mental hospital again. Just before and while she is committed, Connie starts getting visits from a woman named Luciente, who is from the future. Luciente takes Connie to her world, called Mattapoisett, where there is no inequality; there is not a distinction between rich or poor, and there is not discrimination based on gender or race.
In Mattapoisett, everyone is equal; typical gender stereotypes do not exist. There, no one gives birth; all children are "born" out of test tubes. Everyone takes care of the children, no matter the gender of the person and everyone is expected to serve in the military, which promotes equality among all. Everyone is happy, and there are rarely any cases of violence committed against the citizens. In fact, a woman named Parra tells Connie, "We're trained to respect each other. I've never actually known of a case of rape, although I've read about it...I know it occurs and has occurred in the past, but it seems unbelievable." (Piercy 226)
Does this mean that feminist dystopian novels are trash and feminist utopian novels hold all the secrets to creating a 100% equal society? No. Tom Moylan writes that authors such as Piercy attempted to write "critical utopias," which recognize an, "awareness of the limitations of the utopian tradition, so that these texts reject utopia as a blueprint while preserving it as a dream" (10).
In this way, Woman on the Edge of Time functions as a critique of today's society, but realizes the future it purports is impossible, which keeps it from falling into a utopian cliché. Readers can juxtapose their own society within the utopia and see how their society can change for the better. Though the perfect utopia may not be explicitly what Piercy details, the reader can take away the thought that society can be improved by taking small steps toward equality among the sexes.
Does that mean that we should stop reading feminist dystopian novels altogether? Absolutely not. Feminist utopian works should be read alongside feminist dystopian works. M. Keith Booker, in analyzing Woman on the Edge of Time with Marge Piercy’s more dystopian He, She, It, says, "...both texts include a mixture of positive and negative imaginative projections from the future. Indeed, they gain much of their energy precisely from the dialogic combination of these perspectives...suggesting important interrelationships between utopian and dystopian fiction" (para. 1). In other words, feminist dystopian and feminist utopian novels must be read together in order to come up with a realistic goal for equality in the future.
Just reading Vox isn't going to help society solve the issues facing women today. However, when reading Vox in conjunction with Woman on the Edge of Time, the reader realizes that there is a solution to the violence and discrimination women face every day, steps toward gender equality.
Jessica Purgett is a senior English and Marketing major at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She will graduate in May of 2020 and hopes to pursue a career in editing or copywriting after graduation. She is also the founder and editor of The Mark Literary Review.