“Is it because so much has already been won, or because so much is at threat?”
This question was posed in a recent article by Vanessa Thorpe about the growing popularity of feminist (or, at least, female-centric) dystopian speculative fiction. What do you think?
I’ll hold my hands up immediately: though I have a long-standing love of Margaret Atwood, I don’t have a broad knowledge of this genre. But right now I’m sitting with Naomi Alderman’s superb Baileys Prize winning The Power half-read in front of me and two missed episodes of Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale loaded up to greet me at bedtime. It’s not that I’ve gone out looking for this stuff. It’s what hit me in the face with the biggest display in Waterstones; the “Have you seen…?” tea break conversation at work. I couldn’t avoid it if I wanted to.
Women’s speculative fiction is having a moment.
Both Alderman and Atwood create worlds where what we take to be the normal relationships between men and women are upended. I’m barely halfway through The Power and feel like I’m just getting to know the characters, but I’m already unnerved by hints of violence to come from an online presence that seeks to crush the emerging hierarchy of emboldened women. Sound familiar?
In The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopia is presented from the very start. Women are reduced to either their base physicality – their potential for reproducing – or they are confined within normative roles of neglected wife or quasi-nun. They are all sex or none at all. Men meanwhile seem to do alright from this system on the whole, provided that they are happy to perpetuate it.
Why are these stories resonating so much with today’s popular imagination?
Is it, following Thorpe’s suggestion, because so much has already been won?
In the UK, we have a female Prime Minister and a female head of state. Many people will argue that the latter in particular does wonders for inspiring girls and young women to the highest public office. That Prime Minister Theresa May is case in point of gender equality. And if you wanted further proof of women in power, look to the leaders of the Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour, Plaid Cymru, the DUP… According to Stephen Hawking, the five most powerful people in Britain are women.
Perhaps our burgeoning passion for feminist speculative fiction then is because it serves us up with a literary sigh of relief. Phew, we say, imagine how awful life would be in a society where gender inequity is endemic. Where the past century just got erased, and a woman’s place was where ever a man said it could or should be.
But, hang on.
Something doesn’t quite ring true. Without even getting into all the issues of intersectionality, having female political leaders does not necessarily trickle down to promote women’s equal place in society. Nor does it need to be symbolic of it. One of the defining images of May’s leadership so far is not Theresa in a ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt. It’s Theresa hand-in-hand with President Donald Trump, not too long after footage emerged of him boasting that ‘You can do anything you want’ to women, given you have a penis and sufficient wealth or status.
Take this alongside the recent pact May’s government forged with the socially ultra-conservative DUP, despite their stance against reproductive rights, and it’s not hard to understand why lots of women are getting a little uneasy about how bright their future is.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. The recent UK election returned a record number of female MPs to the House of Commons. And through rallying cross-party support for an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, Labour’s Stella Creasy pushed the government to announce that women from Northern Ireland will now be able to access abortions in mainland Britain, funded by the NHS. It’s a fantastic display of how tenacious women can use a system that has so often been stacked against them to keep pushing for women’s rights.
Either way, speculative fiction of the kind that Atwood gives us is a reminder to count our blessings, be vigilant and keep active. The spotlight it’s receiving right now is welcome, and I hope there’s far more of it to come. In the meantime, I’ve just ordered my own weight in PD James and Ursula K Le Guin.
Please do send suggestions of other books or authors for me to add to the collection!