Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Comparing Feminist Dystopias

In this post from two months ago, Red Megaera* says:
What I'd really like to see is a feminist dystopian novel about the creeping incursion of pornography into everyday life and its dangerous impact on women's freedom and autonomy. Margaret Atwood's acclaimed novel The Handmaid's Tale published in 1985 was written partly as a critique of Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin's Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance which proposed to treat pornography as a violation of women's civil rights, and allowed women harmed by pornography to seek damages through a lawsuit in civil court. It also stands as a critique of radical feminism in general, particularly its analyses of intercourse and patriarchal beauty practices. Atwood's Gilead is a dystopian society in which alliances between radical feminists, religious fundamentalists and other social conservatives have led to the overthrow of the United States government by a repressive, totalitarian society. The implications for women are horrendous. The Handmaid's Tale is a wonderful piece of literature, but I'm not sure about its politics. I've always thought it would be far more instructive at this time, in this culture to write a radical feminist dystopian novel which critiqued pornography, cosmetic surgery and the mass media. Heaven knows you don't have to look far for inspiration. ... [W]hat are totalitarian theocracy and capitalist patriarchy if not different sides of the same coin?
Since my copy of The Handmaid's Tale is being lent out at the moment, I won't be able to quote from it --- and I remember next to nothing of the final chapter, with the future academics discussing the hows and whys of Gilead's coming into existence, so it may be that Atwood mentions a role for radical feminism there --- but I have read it multiple times**, and had a rather different view of it than Megaera has.

I don't really see a critique of radical feminism in The Handmaid's Tale because I don't remember any representation of radical feminism in that book at all. I saw plenty of examples of women collaborating with patriarchy, though: Serena Joy, former televangelist and wife of the Commander, who preached submission and domesticity for women but finds herself miserable living that life herself; the Aunts, whose job it is to prepare fertile women for their new lives as Handmaids, and who often use their power over other women to vent their own considerable frustrations; the unknown partner each Handmaid must have to carry out her everyday errands --- neither woman can trust the other, so each feels compelled to put on a show of religious piety and righteous patriotism, which of course feeds the other's reluctance to confide in her; and Janine/Ofwarren, the one character in the book who really does believe in Gilead, and in the rightness of her place in it.

There is one passage where I can see the critique Megaera is talking about --- the idea that radical feminists, in seeking to eliminate sexual exploitation and oppression of women, are easy prey for the far more powerful religious conservatives who seek to eliminate women's sexual freedom --- where Aunt Lydia is trying to convince her charges to see the bright side of their new situation by contrasting "freedom to" (go where you please, wear what you please, have sex with whom you please) with "freedom from" (rape, street harrassment, abduction, murder). This is, of course, a fundamentally conservative analysis of violence against women: by existing in public, women make themselves prey to predatory men; therefore, every woman should belong to one particular man, who will protect her from all the others.

So perhaps the absence of radical-feminist ideas or social reforms --- even in perverted form --- reflect the likely outcome of a radical feminist/social conservative alliance, which would be the complete annihilation of the radical-feminist element. Indeed, those women who cannot or will not adapt to the new regime are exiled from it, to the radiation-contaminated "Colonies."

The whole structure of Gilead also depends on a practice to which radical feminists are opposed: prostitution. Men's loyalty is assured by bribing them with women --- they get a wife once they've advanced a certain distance up the ranks, and if they reach a particularly high status, they also get a Handmaid, to assure that they have issue. Additionally, there are clandestine houses of ill repute, called Jezebel's, where high-status men can go to meet, drink with, and bed those "loose" women who were too rowdy to become Handmaids but were not cast off to the Colonies.

So, while Gilead is certainly a feminist dystopia, predicated as it is on the reproductive enslavement of women, it's not necessarily what Red Megaera has in mind as a radical feminist dystopia, although I'm willing to give it a lot more credit in that regard due to the regime's tacit acceptance of, and reliance on, prostitution.

I do know of another feminist dystopia that might fit the bill more closely, though: in Sheri S. Tepper's Beauty, the time-traveling heroine discovers a horrible future that starts coming into being in the 1990s. That future is gray, ugly, cramped and overcrowded, with a centralized authority crowding hordes of people together into hivelike apartment complexes to free up the biggest possible expanse of ground on which to grow food for them all. Everything is strictly utilitarian and barely adequate for ensuring everyone's mere survival, to say nothing of making them happy. The people change with their environment; they become mean, jumpy, quick to anger, afraid of each other, small-minded and nihilistic.

While Tepper makes it clear that what leads human society down this path is a complex, deep-rooted and pervasive network of cultural trends (see the passage quoted in this post), she does draw special attention to growing societal misogyny as part of the process. Aesthetic degradation is the other important indicator for her --- beauty, both natural and man-made, is vanishing from the world --- and both of these themes show up in the superabundance of really violent, gory pornography in her dystopia, and in the lead-up to it. One of the characters Beauty meets on her first trip into the late twentieth century is a novelist, Barrymore Grimes, whose work she can barely stand to read but who is wildly popular in his own time.

That's probably the most striking way in which Tepper's dystopian vision differs from Atwood's --- rather than be tightly (if hypocritically) regulated and harnessed for the benefit of a totalitarian state, the desire of men to exploit women sexually is given a free rein. While the people in Tepper's dystopia may be losing almost all of their other freedoms, they retain the freedom to do whatever they want sexually, which really means the men retain the freedom to do whatever they want to the women. Other than that, their visions are surprisingly similar, given the huge differences in style and substance between their books. Like Tepper, Atwood sets her dystopia on a ruined, poisoned Earth; both writers critique the reproductive enslavement of women --- Atwood explicitly, and Tepper by making overpopulation, which she links to society's restriction of women to the reproductive role, and its denial of her right to self-determination even within that role, the driving force behind her dystopia; and both blame religion for its role in upholding said exploitation.

*Because I'm a Greek-mythology geek, I pay special attention to bloggers who take their pseudonyms from that canon. I've noticed two radical-feminist bloggers using the names of Furies --- the aforementioned Megaera and Allecto. If anyone has seen the third Fury, Tisiphone, anywhere around the Internet, I'd appreciate a link.

**Four or five, maybe? Definitely more than three, but not a huge number of times. (The most-read book by me is probably Dune, which I've read maybe seven or eight times).


Anemone said...

I suspect we're living in that dystopia now, starting with Larry Flynt's legal victory (pornography of women's bodies as his freedom of speech).

Or maybe we've been crawling out of it all along?

Lindsay said...

@Anemone --- yes, the book did make the point that both of those things --- coarsening and brutalization of culture, mainstreaming of more and more blatant acts (or depictions) of violence against women --- are happening now; she depicts the early 1990s (the book was published in '92) as already clearly showing the signs of what was to come.

Linda Radfem said...

Lindsay, you might also like Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army which is also feminist dystopia, about a small community of radical feminist separatists living independently in a mountain area somewhere in England.

Women's reproductive freedom is still under state control; women of reproductive age are required to be fitted with an IUD.

I totally agree with Anemone that we are living that dystopia now, and I wonder if that was why so many women found feminism after reading The Handmaid's Tale. It seems like a very subtle type of feminism when you read it now, but perhaps when read in the social context that it was originally published in, it mirrored reality just enough to turn on a few light bulbs. It is most definitely a critique of radical feminism's dodgy alliance with religious conservatives and the way that backfired, hence we have sexpoz feminists now. That association really damaged the cause of radical feminism; I spoke to 20something woman at my uni only recently who was fully convinced that the 'radical' in radical feminism actually indicated religiosity.

Thanks for the tip too btw, I look forward to reading Beauty; it sounds like it's critiquing a few of the things that really disturb me about current manifestations of misogyny, like gonzo porn and labiaplasty.

Lindsay said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Linda. I'll keep an eye out for that book.

And I do think dystopias are a pretty powerful way to get people thinking about societal trends --- look at how great 1984 was at getting us to think about how euphemism works as a political whitewash, among other things. "Orwellian" is now a stock adjective for such uses of language.

There is less straightforward utility when the dystopia (and its real-life inspiration) doesn't involve a totalitarian state, though. As yet, in what's still at least a nominally democratic society, people can check (some of) their governments' worst abuses of power --- and good dystopian literature can give lots of people who might never have studied political science, or law, or history, a fairly sophisticated understanding of the tactics a police state might use against its citizens. When the dystopia doesn't involve a police state, though --- when it's a free society distorted by toxic, though freely adopted, cultural influences, I'm not sure there's much an individual can do to guard against that.