Suffering sells
May 12, 2018 2:52 AM   Subscribe

Never-ending nightmare: why feminist dystopias must stop torturing women. The Handmaid’s Tale has inspired a new generation of writers whose dystopian worlds are ever more bleak, dark and sadistic. But where is the hope?
posted by dng (88 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
 
Agreed that the tipping point into torture porn has been reached.

Anyone in need of refreshment for their hope, Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time had me punching the air earlier this year. I must re-read!
posted by doornoise at 3:14 AM on May 12 [32 favorites]


Related: Is The Handmaid’s Tale still worth the agony of watching it? [The Verge]
"Like so much science fiction, it’s meant to explore the possible end results of present developments, and to serve as a cautionary tale. But what does this harrowing, oppressive drama really bring us? In the show, men are executed for possibly imagined crimes, but the show lingers the most on the suffering of women who are tortured, mutilated, or murdered for offenses as small as mocking a warden. It’s a show about systemic, fascistic control, and especially about the control and ownership of women’s bodies."
posted by Fizz at 3:16 AM on May 12 [3 favorites]


Along with doornoise's recommendation, may I recommend Joanna Russ's The Female Man.
posted by kokaku at 3:36 AM on May 12 [21 favorites]


Also, I'll throw in my recommendation: The Power by Naomi Alderman.

[The Guardian]
"What would the world look like if men were afraid of women rather than women being afraid of men? Science fiction has long questioned the conventional exercise of power between the sexes, from the utopian dreams of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, through the wild speculations of Joanna Russ and subtle inner journeys of Ursula Le Guin, on to Margaret Atwood’s dystopias and out to the seamier shores of pulp. Through exaggeration and reversal, many books have set out to illuminate inequality or open up new vistas of possibility. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen the status quo inverted to such devastating effect as in Naomi Alderman’s fourth novel.

It starts with teenage girls. At 14 or 15, the age when in our present world girls are waking to an awareness of their own sexuality tangled up in all the ways society will seek to stifle or exploit it, Alderman has them come alive to the thrill of pure power: the ability to hurt or even kill by releasing electrical jolts from their fingertips. “Something’s happening. The blood is pounding in her ears. A prickling feeling is spreading along her back, over her shoulders, along her collarbone. It’s saying: you can do it. It’s saying: you’re strong.”"
posted by Fizz at 3:44 AM on May 12 [29 favorites]


The Power was incredibly enjoyable to read this year. It left me wanting more stories of women in charge, even if they are sometimes just as terrible. Handmaids Tale (the series) is beautifully made, but hard to bear.
posted by rainydayfilms at 4:15 AM on May 12 [3 favorites]


Never-ending nightmare: why feminist dystopias men must stop torturing women.

These books are mirrors.
posted by chavenet at 4:30 AM on May 12 [37 favorites]


My personal delight is that Octavia Butler has been referenced twice in the last week in my media engagement.

I have not been able to read "The Handmaid's Tale" - two tries and my nerves are still not strong enough. I have read "The Robber Bride", "Maddam", etc. so I do like Margaret Atwood, it's just that I am still too raw to cope with that book.

It was the same with "1984", George Orwell - I was in a corporate world and it cut too close, only coped about 15 years ago. "The Lacuna", Barbara Kingsolver, I can't cope with "the hero/genius" - still not quite ready, but I have read just about everything else she has written.

Now that both have shuffled off this mortal coil - trying to read everything from Ursula K. Le Guin and Terry Pratchett.

I suspect that is why Austen, Trollope and, my favourite forgotten, Oliphant, are such pleasant reading - the frisson of recognition, but not the stress of currency.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 4:41 AM on May 12 [15 favorites]


Discovering Le Guin, Butler, Russ, and other fantastic science fiction (not "speculative fiction," ugh) writers pulled me out of my youthful fixation on dystopic literature and film, to the point that I just can't watch (or read) more than a snippet of the diseased mass of modern self-hating snuff porn that passes for political criticism in the current cycle of such things. It's not the language of critique, or satire, or literary examination of culture that it purports to be as much as the fever dream of someone obsessed with the impossibility of redemption, recovery, or human progress, fetishizing the sickly, prurient aesthetic of beatific humiliation in the way that Mel Gibson's Passion did for religion.

I really tried with Atwood, back when Tale came out in '85, but I justoy.

There's just a sense that Atwood watched Jerry Falwell and his filthy, hateful gang of monsters from her high horse in Canada (where, notably, abortion was considerably more regulated than it was in the US and would continue to be for several more years) and took everything they said about America and Americans as the tried and true gospel. It made some sense in 1985, I suppose, because the eighties were the absolute nadir for American basic human decency under the idiot Reagan and his flock of suit-and-tie zombies, but our culture has shifted, people are waking, the cockroaches are being turned out into the daylight, and progress is well underway even as it would seem, if one's only metric was our histrionic media frenzy, that we're all dooooooomed. Handmaid's Tale presents an immutable, atavistic vision of hopelessness that is not constructive—it doesn't rally us, it doesn't encourage us, and it occupies the same sort of place as salvation propaganda of presenting endless negativity as a supposed means of motivating us while simultaneously telling us it's all just a given and we're so inherently dirty and unworthy.

What's it for? To tell us we shouldn't let ourselves in the US create an absurdly improbable theocracy based on the fifty-year-old greasy twitching wank fantasy of filthy old white preachers? So noted. Thanks for that news flash.

Now tell us a story that's more than that—that speaks to more than the perverse lust, shared by both extreme ends of the political spectrum, to see fallen dirty bad evil wicked humans punished because we're all just fallen dirty bad evil wicked humans and how the world would be better without us. If we're just children in a bad Catholic school with bitter old nuns pointing at the bloody wounds of Christ, telling us, over and over, "Look at Christ, and look at how he suffered. Look at his wounds, his bloody, agonizing wounds. LOOK AT HIS WOUNDS AND HOW HE SUFFERED FOR OUR SINS," we have to ask ourselves, how well did that work as a means of making us better at being human beings?

We can imagine better.
posted by sonascope at 4:42 AM on May 12 [34 favorites]


the eighties were the absolute nadir for American basic human decency under the idiot Reagan

What's it like over there in President Hillary Clinton's America?
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 4:58 AM on May 12 [118 favorites]


These books are written by women and mostly read by women, so it might be worth asking what they are getting out of it instead of scolding them for writing and reading the wrong things.
posted by betweenthebars at 5:03 AM on May 12 [122 favorites]


It's nice to hear that other people have trouble with this stuff too. I used to be able to read and watch things like this, but somewhere along the line it all just became too viscerally upsetting for me to be able to subject myself to it. I think it was around when A Dance with Dragons (which is hardly feminist but which includes some rather creative, lovingly-described scenes of torture and abuse) came out that I realized I just couldn't deal anymore. I tried to read The Handmaid's Tale but noped out fairly early on, once I saw where things were going. I also can't watch contemporary horror movies anymore, or really anything with realistic depictions of torture in it, which rules out a surprising amount of modern media.

It all just feels too stomach-churningly real. I know that stuff happens in real life, and I have a hard enough time as it is to carry on with my day without the thought of it overwhelming me with revulsion and despair. Maybe I'm just too fragile, I don't know. There are people in the world who have lived through having these things actually done to them, sometimes for years, and who have survived and gone on to accomplish great things. But it still feels masochistic in the extreme to seek out simulations of such experiences in my entertainment, and such simulations seem to be absolutely everywhere now.

I do enjoy Ursula Le Guin immensely though. One of the stories of hers that I've been meaning to re-read soon is The Matter of Seggri, a group of five anthropological short stories regarding a fictional world that features a matriarchal society. All the day-to-day roles in this society are fulfilled by women, while men are considered less intelligent and good for little more than sex and entertainment, and are segregated into permanent training camps for that purpose. I enjoyed it years ago, but now wonder whether it would read to me as too heavy-handed in its inversion of our own society or whether Le Guin's skill as a writer would enable it to rise above that. I suspect the latter; Le Guin was (still feels wrong to use the past tense there) an incredible author whose works rarely if ever disappoint even when read with a critical eye. I need to give her work another go soon.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:19 AM on May 12 [20 favorites]


I would like to read more "competency porn" by and of women.

Specifically stories of how women succeeded in patriarchal societies. Not because they had some special mystic power through divine intervention, birthright, genetic fluke, etc. (Which rules out a lot of books, sadly.) But because they were smarter, more clever, more devious, more empathic than the people they were up against.

I get how it is hard to write such a book, because it places the protagonist up against terrible odds, but I think that is why it would be so much more fulfilling than, you know, an abandoned swaddling baby raised to toddler-hood by semi-sentient cave bears who taught it empathy and the language of wild things, rescued by the handmaiden to a terrible despot, educated in all the fine manners of court (with a lot of hilarious "were you raised by wolves?" "No, bears" antics), and then she's cast out for sneaking peeks in the war-room / library due to insatiable curiosity and the last thing she sees before being caught and ejected from the kingdom is evidence of a hidden slave trade of People Who Look Like Her and she goes on this dramatic, scary "waif in the big city" adventure to find these slavers and free her people and then there's hints about a royal babe born under a caul who was lost in the woods during a bandit raid on .... and you just know where it's going, there's going to be a huge battle, and bears are going to show up, and while it's an amazingly fun ride, it's not, you know, relevant. There's no tingles.

I want books of women's victories that are tingle-worthy. (Not that kind of Tingle. Well, not so much.)
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:46 AM on May 12 [17 favorites]


[One deleted. I'm sorry, but it would be super easy to slip into a huge derail/debate about which was worse, the '80s or current era, but let's avoid that, please, and continue the discussion of the post topic. Thanks.]
posted by taz (staff) at 6:04 AM on May 12 [6 favorites]


I read The Handmaid's Tale seems like 20 years ago but I haven't watched the show at all yet. It seems too much like taking medicine or something. I feel like I really should but I don't think I'll enjoy it.
posted by lordrunningclam at 6:04 AM on May 12 [7 favorites]


would like to read more "competency porn" by and of women.

Specifically stories of how women succeeded in patriarchal societies. Not because they had some special mystic power through divine intervention, birthright, genetic fluke, etc. (Which rules out a lot of books, sadly.) But because they were smarter, more clever, more devious, more empathic than the people they were up against.


Sometimes the most gratifying response to this need is just to read non-fiction. Two of my favorite books as a kid were biographies of (respectively) Harriet Tubman and Elizabeth I. I recently went back to this well (after literally watching and “I can’t”-ing with “Handmaid’s Tale”) and Catherine Clinton’s Harriet Tubman bio is pretty good.

I’ve always read enough history (and by extension, books set in times past) to make feminist dystopia feel pretty redundant, at best. And to that end, I thought Atwood’s “Alias Grace” was a lot scarier than “Handmaid’s Tale.” Sarah Polley’s tv adaptation was fantastic too.
posted by thivaia at 6:07 AM on May 12 [15 favorites]


The title is sillier than the article by several hundred times, in half a dozen different ways. The article itself, nothing new -- but then again the SFF community has been having these conversations for a longer time, I suppose.
posted by inconstant at 6:10 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]


Oh, I should provide an example of rather what I'm talking about, in fiction: The Steerswoman series, by Rosemary Kirstein. The woman protagonist isn't magical or physically incredible, she's just smart and resourceful. There is a bit of in-world social structure that gives her a little bit of an edge in some situations, but this is rarely used except to drive the plot forward. If you haven't read these, very much worth your time.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:13 AM on May 12 [19 favorites]


I reread the Handmaid's Tale a year or so back, and enjoyed it. The fear of a theocracy seems much less relevant now than when I first read the book shortly after it came out, but other aspects felt timeless.

I only made it about halfway through the first season of the show, though. The comparison to Gibson's Passion seems apt; at least the parts of the show I watched had a similar feel of watching a very slow, lovingly filmed sequence of degradation and pain. Maybe I stopped watching too soon?
posted by Dip Flash at 6:22 AM on May 12


I read the book waaay back. Couldn't get past episode 2 of the tv series, the world is crappy enough in everyday life.
posted by signal at 6:44 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]


I like dystopian stories and competency porn vs. the patriarchy stories and chosen one heroine stories and lots of other kinds of stories and there are good and bad examples of all of these and I really don't see how any of them existing precludes any of the others from existing.
posted by kyrademon at 6:47 AM on May 12 [14 favorites]


For science fiction/fantasy with a very competent woman I'd recommend The Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein, I still have book four to get to but have really enjoyed them.
posted by Fence at 6:51 AM on May 12 [10 favorites]


Maybe I stopped watching too soon?

I was told that, too, but how much lingering-camera, sexy-advertising-gaze, revere-His-suffering-wounds nonsense should we have to put up with before I dunno...some genuine character narrative happens? I'm told the same thing about the ghastly Game Of Thrones, which makes me ask how many rapes that seem to exist solely for the purpose of advancing male storylines I need to sit through before I start seeing the great and noble brilliance that I'm told I'm missing.

Sometimes you need to cut bait and look for better stuff. Great literature by women is abundant.
posted by sonascope at 6:54 AM on May 12 [13 favorites]


There's a weird pervasive cultural sense now about Handmaid's Tale, among a certain kind of progressive literary female group which I am a part of, where you MUST WATCH IT because it's TOPICAL and GOOD FOR YOU which for the first season didn't have a ton of criticism of what I found to be the just relentless bleak torture of the process of watching it, which I tried to do to be consuming the right kind of media. So it's nice to see some pushback - I don't care who watches what, but I felt like a wuss, so. Not trying to derail with this: I'm also really interested in the context in which the Handmaid's Tale was written being both similar to and very different from today's political climate, and ways in which the show is now superseding the book in this way because it's telling it's own story. I don't think it can be flattened just into "You need to watch it because it's politically the moral thing for you to do", and yet that's the conversation? Don't know if any of this makes sense.

I always think about that Tolkien quote about birthday parties and beheadings and "realism". Most people have been to a lot more birthday parties than beheadings.
posted by colorblock sock at 6:59 AM on May 12 [7 favorites]


The most enjoyable aspect of the tv Handmaiden's Tale is the repeatedly pointing out of how wrong the overseers are. Elisabeth Moss's acting and facial expressions are fantastic.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:01 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


Dealing with Real Dystopias is Part of My Job, Madeline Ashby (2011)

Me and Science Fiction: Hope for the Future, Eleanor Arnason (2013)

Another Word: Dystopias Are Not Enough, Kelly Robson (2017)

And on the flip side but not really because it isn't a binary:
Interview with Louise Erdrich (2017)
posted by inconstant at 7:14 AM on May 12 [12 favorites]


Surely the point of dystopias is that they are, y’know, dystopian?

I’m not a fan of depressing literature myself, but it seems a bit silly to complain that dystopian literature is depressing. That is the whole fucking point. You only read it when you want to read something miserable and bleak. Was 1984 uplifting? Were Fahrenheit 451 or We full of hope? So why would you want Handmaid’s Tale to end with Offred ninja kicking her way out of sexual slavery?
posted by tinkletown at 7:17 AM on May 12 [20 favorites]


That's why the title is ridiculous. The actual article is more saying "there should be more non-dystopian fiction", which is, at least, less ridiculous.
posted by inconstant at 7:20 AM on May 12


Here's some other books about competent-but-not-preternaturally-superpowered women that I've read recently, for those here what are craving them (and yes, the Steerswoman books are amazing):

Cordelia's Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold (SF)
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine (1920's)
Sasha by Joel Shepherd and sequels (Fantasy)
Hild by Nicola Griffith (7th century Britain); Slow River by Nicola Griffith (SF)
Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge (YA Fantasy); Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge (YA Fantasy)
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (WWII)
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle (Alt-history SFF)
Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg (Thriller)
The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis (Steampunk Warfare)
Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell (Mystery)
Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters (Victorian Mystery)

(Even for the fantasy novels, I've tried to stick to ones featuring main characters who prevail because they are smart and/or can wield a sword real good, rather than ones who succeed by exploding people with their minds, since that is generally speaking less a function of pure competence.)
posted by kyrademon at 7:23 AM on May 12 [37 favorites]


There's a weird pervasive cultural sense now about Handmaid's Tale, among a certain kind of progressive literary female group which I am a part of, where you MUST WATCH IT because it's TOPICAL and GOOD FOR YOU

I'd counter with read it, thanks, don't need to watch it too (assuming you read it). Which is also my line for Game of Thrones and the Expanse.
posted by signal at 7:26 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]


I had to read Handmaid's Tale in my highschool senior AP Lit class. I hated it at the time, and took great relish in eviscerating its premise while applauding its writing in the twenty bajillion small essays assigned on it so my ex-preacher zen & the art of motorcycle maintenance white cis male teacher would have to read all my very important takedowns and give me well-deserved A+s for them. A few years later I acknowledged that that was very likely just what he'd wanted out of us, very sneaky. But it's only now that I'm grateful for that assigned reading in a way I haven't been grateful for being forced to read any other book in my past - I don't have to read it ever again and I know full well not to watch the tv show because it will go very badly for me and my tenuous mental health. It's like I got a booster shot at 17 years old so I would be immune to well meaning folks in my future.
posted by Mizu at 7:28 AM on May 12 [8 favorites]


Handmaid's Tale is popular, and as noted, feminist dystopia isn't new with Butler, Tepper, and Tiptree as other notable authors.

But, plenty of feminist authors are doing optimistic and utopian sff as well, which gets written off as wish fulfillment, message fic (as if Star Trek's Nazis, gangsters, segregationists, and theists in space wasn't), romantic fantasy, or feminizing adventure. Going dark is apparently needed to be taken seriously outside of the circle who is down for books about people of various genders having adventures.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 7:46 AM on May 12 [22 favorites]


Also, writing about the cultural impact Handmaid's Tale as TV gets better clicks than any of the other genre TV with a primary focus on women right now. (Big budget cinema is still crap in this area.)
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 7:56 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


The Matter of Seggri is the most brutal thing I’ve read by Le Guin. It treats her characters with the same disciplined care that she does in all her work, but some scenes from that story and Tehanu really do approach the pure nightmare flavour of The Handmaid’s Tale. I always sail through my biennial Earthsea reading for the first four books and then have to take a deep breath before Tehanu. I think that’s a justifiable move, though, and putting her reader through that wringer is a choice Le Guin reflected on and committed to for really good, serious reasons.
posted by Aravis76 at 7:59 AM on May 12 [6 favorites]


I read the Handmaid's Tale when it was relatively new. As I recall, one of the hanging offenses was abortion, and that stays with me in these days of radical religious zealotry. There was an undercurrent about the environment, as well.

I signed up for Hulu specifically to watch the show, and I just can't. It doesn't even seem to have enough links to current events to serve as a lesson to young women, but having watched only the 1st episode and bits of others, I'm happy to be corrected. Mizu's not to watch the tv show because it will go very badly for me is pretty much it.

I was recently reminded of The Gate to Women's Country, Sheri Tepper, which I may need to re-read.

Best thing is how the red costumes have propagated for protests. Thank you again, Margaret Atwood.
posted by theora55 at 8:01 AM on May 12 [4 favorites]


I just read The Goblin Emperor - brilliant, character-ful fantasy/political drama, set in a deeply patriarchal society. The main character is male, as are most of his daily companions (because strong patriarchy), but while women don't spend as much time "on screen", their agency within the restrictions of their society is very much a major theme of the book.

To add to/edit the "competency Porn" list above:

while I love all of Bujold's books, I would recommend Paladin of Souls even more than Cordelia's Honour. It's a later and more polished book - but also, where Cordelia's Honour shows a woman from a non-patriarchal society entering a patriarchal one (and kicking butt), Paladin of Souls shows a woman who very much is embedded in her patriarchal society - one who had played along, and was screwed by fate (and curses), and now is moving on to become her own person - a middle-aged and not at all athletic woman who has to save the world in her own way.

Bujold is always interesting on gender - and so very, very different from the feminist separatist literature. (Her Ethan of Athos is a light-hearted poke at that genre). She's always more interested in people than ideas, which may be why her approaches to gender/patriarchy/etc. feel so real and complicated.

Also, her latest SF book is a slice-of-life book. It's like nothing I've ever read in the genre, but works wonderfully.
posted by jb at 8:04 AM on May 12 [14 favorites]


"Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" by James Tiptree, Jr., aka Alice Sheldon. Not a dystopia, although the women had to get through some hard times to get there.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:07 AM on May 12 [3 favorites]


I thought this was an interesting article, and I don't think it present clear answers. It seems to be more about raising questions.

Throughout it, I kept thinking about how the dystopias she describes grow from the underlying idea that women aren't full people, but resources - for reproduction, for sex, for status. And that's an idea that's still frighteningly common (e.g. incels). Men are happy to talk about what women should do "for the good of society," but what they really mean is "for the good of men" (e.g. Douthat).

I think there's value in portraying the consequences of that attitude from the point of view of women, because hey, we are here, we are people, and we are part of society too. You can't have a better society without having a better society for women. The contradiction is so obvious that it takes being steeped in patriarchy and misogyny to miss it.

And obviously, these stories do resonate with many women; they wouldn't be successful otherwise.

But then I think about Truffaut's famous quote about war movies:
"I find that violence is very ambiguous in movies. For example, some films claim to be antiwar, but I don't think I've really seen an antiwar film. Every film about war ends up being pro-war."
People have attempted to make anti-war movies, but what people take from movies - or any media - is so dependent on their own beliefs and values. You can't make an anti-war movie without people interpreting the struggle as glorious, and you can't make a rape scene without men getting off on it. That is a difficult line for even the best-intentioned creator.

From the article:
"If the truly feminist dystopia must honestly portray women’s struggles without sensationalising their pain..."
I think more men need to be exposed to the consequences of patriarchy from a female point of view, but how to do that without sensationalising women's pain - and instead, humanizing women - is a difficult question. Not when they bring to the table so much messaging about how women are less than human. Some men will get it. Many will not. That's what I find most discomforting about the "torture porn" aspect - how it slips so easily from honesty to titillation, especially in the TV market where (as the article notes) there is an impetus to outdo what has come before.

Maybe part of the answer is to humanize women through many different types of stories. Women don't always need to suffer - we can also be humans when we're not suffering.

But then, men dismiss much of this as "women's stuff" anyway and will never take it seriously so perhaps this is kind of a moot point.

(To be clear, I'm not saying this issue means these works shouldn't exist. Just that it's complicated.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:17 AM on May 12 [37 favorites]


Sometimes people ask me why I, an older man, watch My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, a series aimed at young girls. A big part of it is that it is, in its way, a feminist utopia. It's a series about a group of female characters that go on adventures and do interesting things. It celebrates diversity. And, most of all, it offers hope. If extinction-level-event villains like Nightmare Moon, Discord and Sunset Shimmer can be redeemed, can become good through the efforts of the Mane Six, then perhaps there is hope for us all.

I can enjoy dark entertainment like Handmaid's Tale or Westworld. But a steady diet of it would be bad for my outlook on the world.
posted by SPrintF at 8:57 AM on May 12 [22 favorites]


Maybe part of the answer is to humanize women through many different types of stories. Women don't always need to suffer - we can also be humans when we're not suffering.

That's my feeling. I believe very strongly that empathy is fostered by exposure to different kinds people, and dehumanization comes from living in isolated bubbles. Knowing real people who are different is best, (and I try to practice that), but stories can be a valuable tool too.

I used to watch Scandal (before B613 kudzu-d all over everything) just because it fascinated me to see a female character winning based on traditionally female-coded virtues: talking and social intelligence over violence. I watched as much of The Handmaiden's Tale as I could handle because it resonated to me as an exaggeration of how a lot of things work now, (I was particularly fascinated by the society giving women an acceptable target for their anger to help control it the rest of the time). I watch Supergirl because I'm tickled to see a traditional boyhood power fantasy just directly gender-flipped, and think about what that might mean for the story.

I try to consume media that tells lots of different stories about women partly because I enjoy them, but also to try and fill in the gaps in my own perception and experience.

Upon preview:
Sometimes people ask me why I, an older man, watch My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, a series aimed at young girls. A big part of it is that it is, in its way, a feminist utopia.

I may have to give that show a try. I love Steven Universe more than any other cartoon, (even Rick & Morty, Archer and The Venture Brothers), for its optimism and nuanced views about gender, and that sounds interesting.
posted by mordax at 9:05 AM on May 12 [5 favorites]


While I'm glad I read The Power, I'm not sure I'd posit it as a good antidote to the Handmaid's Tale. Indeed, it has a very similar narrative device thing going on at the beginning and the end, and ultimately it still ends with cataclysmic violence.
posted by mostly vowels at 9:05 AM on May 12 [4 favorites]


Fun fact: Margaret Atwood mentored Naomi Alderman while she was writing The Power.
posted by kyrademon at 9:09 AM on May 12 [4 favorites]


an abandoned swaddling baby raised to toddler-hood by semi-sentient cave bears who taught it empathy and the language of wild things,

Is this a real book?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 9:13 AM on May 12 [3 favorites]


"What would the world look like if men were afraid of women rather than women being afraid of men?"

I've been walking around with the background understanding that men -- maybe not individual men so much as The Patriarchy Embodied -- were afraid of the balance of power tipping towards women, because their concept of The Matriarchy was just the damn Patriarchy again except it'd be even worse & men would actually be kept in large outdoor cages & milked for their sperm before we sent them out to die fighting our wars. (You know, how war is definitely still gonna be a thing, because Hey Women Can Be Jerks Who Do War Too.) This fear is justifiable, I am assured, because blah blah thousands years ago there was a bad oppressive matriarchal society in Japan or somewhere.

Maybe we could use more utopian stories where women gaining power/agency turned out to be better for everyone, as heroes of all genders worked together to make the world better for humans in general? Dystopian fiction can be a great example of what not to do, but at some point, we gotta figure out what the hell we are doing.
posted by taquito sunrise at 9:17 AM on May 12 [5 favorites]


I really tried with Atwood, back when Tale came out in '85, but I just—oy.

There's just a sense that Atwood watched Jerry Falwell and his filthy, hateful gang of monsters from her high horse in Canada (where, notably, abortion was considerably more regulated than it was in the US and would continue to be for several more years) and took everything they said about America and Americans as the tried and true gospel.


Atwood's said this about The Handmaid's Tale:

When I was writing the book, I refused to put into the story anything that had not already happened at some time, somewhere. I just relocated all of those things to a place that was considered to be the bastion of political democracy.

Kind of related, a thing that's happened this year:

Nova Scotia deletes outdated 'spinster' reference from marriage law
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:20 AM on May 12 [17 favorites]


Oh maaan is this where we can rec fiction with competent female protagonists who aren't the only sensible women in the books? Cause I'm here for:

A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall (grimdark fantasy of the "get the gang back together for one last job" variety... except the protagonist is a wonderfully cynical middle-aged woman)
The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson (economic fantasy dealing extensively with themes of imperialism and revenge)
Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon (young ship captain given her first command gets caught up in an international incident)
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (fucking wild speculative sci-fi about a young woman working for the much much scarier version of Star Wars' Galactic Empire)
The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie (queer YA novel about sea monsters)

I loooove books that are dark, where bad things happen and characters that I love might die. But I like them to be authorial-ly tortured because of the plot and because of who they are as a character, not because of what they are (women). That to me is the difference between grimdark and dystopia, and I don't much care for dystopia.
posted by WidgetAlley at 9:33 AM on May 12 [20 favorites]


I mean...they're dystopias. What should feminist dystopias do?
posted by graventy at 10:18 AM on May 12 [5 favorites]


I'll throw this idea out there because I'm not sure if I will ever finish my version, so feel free to steal and write your own Ha-mazon.

Why not write your Feminist Utopia as an alternate history? Say, at the beginning of classical history.

Elevator pitch: The feminist version of Eric Flint's 1632, or a complete flip on Frank Miller's 300.

Divergences from our history: Amazons are a matriarchal sub-culture of the Scythians, and one wise priestess of Hecate has just learned how to cultivate and apply penicillin.

It is the year 492 BC. Thanks to the miracle of the drug Panacea, the island city state of Themiscrya has flourished. But now a new war threatens, as the Persian Empire launches the invasion of Greece. The Achaeans have long been the traditional enemies of the Achaeans, since the time of the Ilian wars.
But Sinope, Ephesus, Mytilene- all of the cities of the Amazon League are threatened by this new war. And with them, the now unique principles of matriarchy and gender equality, which so far have been preserved only in Sarmatia and the Amazonian region of Anatolia.
How the high priestess of the Calyx decide to handle this crisis shall determine not only the fate of Themiscrya, but the course of Western History.....
posted by LeRoienJaune at 10:56 AM on May 12 [8 favorites]


While I'm glad I read The Power, I'm not sure I'd posit it as a good antidote to the Handmaid's Tale. Indeed, it has a very similar narrative device thing going on at the beginning and the end, and ultimately it still ends with cataclysmic violence.

Fun fact: Margaret Atwood mentored Naomi Alderman while she was writing The Power.


I just read The Power, as recommended by MeFites in my Furiosa book rec AskMe, and goddamn but I knew Margaret Atwood had something to do with it even before I got to the acknowledgements.

This is not a good thing, for me.

I really enjoyed the first half of The Power. I like Alderman’s writing a lot more than Atwood’s (which I’ve always found unnecessarily clunky; it’s the opposite of flow, whatever it is), but I have incredible side eye for her vision.

[SPOILERS]

I understand the narrative temptation of “oooh, power corrupts, women would become just as evil as men;” the symmetry alone is pleasing, and it allows you to recast every day horrors in ways that make them fresh and, well, extra horrifying. But it’s a smug fucking cop out, to shrug your shoulders with a thought experiment and go “well, we’re all just the same, in the end, aren’t we?”

Quite pointedly, we do not know that. And to write herself to that point she had to betray one of her characters. Honestly one of the least satisfying endings I’ve ever read (although the written exchange between mentor and mentoree, at the end, in the context of a female-dominated future, was ice cold and needle sharp and quite uncomfortable to read).

And both authors seem to treat race as some sort of incidental cosmetic thing that they don’t really want to deal with, which is...weird. To say the least.
posted by schadenfrau at 11:35 AM on May 12 [19 favorites]


It doesn't even seem to have enough links to current events to serve as a lesson to young women

I found it really chilling, personally. I had read The Handmaid’s Tale before, but it never really clicked for me - I hadn’t even remembered when reading it that it took place in an alternate America. The show, for me, references so much of current events, it’s just - in the best traditions of science fiction - talking about them by talking about other things. And asking implicit questions.

One of the reasons I think it’s hard to write the kind of feminist utopias that people are asking to be written is you have to write out how you get there. What made it happen? It’s not really satisfying if you write out a society that’s super awesome but shows not even a hypothetical path from here to there. But right now, in this world, as so many of us are discovering that even the good men often contain horror, it’s hard to see that path. I don’t. I can’t even see a theoretical path there or what it would look like, and I’m good at creating narratives.

When I see hope, it’s only to a half-utopia, which I find useful but I guess isn’t enough for people because it reminds of the despair of thinking we can’t get to utopia I guess?

This article really feels like “ladies just plot your way out of this already”, like we can’t outline a problem if it hasn’t been solved yet.
posted by corb at 11:42 AM on May 12 [7 favorites]


“well, we’re all just the same, in the end, aren’t we?”

Quite pointedly, we do not know that.


While not as common as male rulers, there have been female rulers throughout history. They did not all create utopian states. One could argue that this was because they were female leaders of a male dominated society and could not up-end the system to a drastic degree, but the idea that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, is not without historical basis.

Whether and how much this should be used in fiction is a different matter, but, as just one example, Queen Victoria ruled over the largest, most powerful empire the world had ever seen and it was certainly no paradise of equality.
posted by dazed_one at 11:52 AM on May 12 [7 favorites]


> "The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie (queer YA novel about sea monsters)"

(Can I just take a moment to mention how thrilled I am that queer SFF like this is entering the mainstream? Five years ago, authors like Emily Skrutskie, April Daniels, Dayna Ingram, or Julia Ember would have been published by a company with two employees and passed around like samizdat. This year April Daniels is on the Locus List. Twice.)

(Just wanted to say that. Please resume.)
posted by kyrademon at 11:54 AM on May 12 [9 favorites]


I'm an admirer of Atwood's novels, but I had a bit of a slog through Handmaids Tale, which seemed to induce headaches, possibly intentionally. We all lasted not very long for the TV version, the violence was just too grim for me. I've watched a fair amount of film violence in my youth when I was interested in provocative art, but by now I've seen enough.

I really liked the TV version of Alias Grace, despite a couple of overly violent scenes. The main differences being overall excellent production and a really stunning performance from the lead actress.

Regarding the negativity of dystopias in general, it's interesting that in Atwood's Year of The Flood she contains the seeds of utopia within the dystopia. The concept of the enlightened community garden is presented as the alternative to despair in the flawed modern world.
posted by ovvl at 12:29 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]


Naomi Alderman is the storytelling force behind another feminist dystopia in serial form, the workout app Zombies, Run! I'm not a fan of zombies OR a particularly athletic runner, but for the past year, Alderman's writing (and the fantastic cast) has literally kept me actively engaged, as a runner trying to survive an apocalypse in a world where the patriarchy is the only thing not coming back from the dead. I don't want to spoil plot points for anyone, but it really is brilliant and scary and funny, and somehow got me from couch to half marathon.
posted by roger ackroyd at 12:33 PM on May 12 [4 favorites]


Specifically stories of how women succeeded in patriarchal societies. Not because they had some special mystic power through divine intervention, birthright, genetic fluke, etc. (Which rules out a lot of books, sadly.) But because they were smarter, more clever, more devious, more empathic than the people they were up against.

Non-fiction might be where you'll find this. I can recommend the book on Bess of Hardwick by Mary Lovell. I wish there was a similar book about Lady Anne Clifford, but I don't believe there is one. I'd love to write a historical fiction novel about her.
posted by apricot at 1:19 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]


Throughout it, I kept thinking about how the dystopias she describes grow from the underlying idea that women aren't full people, but resources - for reproduction, for sex, for status

Reading The Hamdmaids Tale crystalized this idea for me, which is what has allowed me to recognize those same philosophies when they come up unexaminedly in other fiction and IRL — something that happens all the time
posted by mrmurbles at 1:28 PM on May 12 [7 favorites]


but the idea that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, is not without historical basis.

Whether and how much this should be used in fiction is a different matter, but, as just one example, Queen Victoria ruled over the largest, most powerful empire the world had ever seen and it was certainly no paradise of equality.


Queen Victoria did not have absolute power. It’s questionable how far she had power at all, really. Certainly the set of decisions that led to the consolidation of the Empire in her name were made by people other than her (all men). There are examples in the past of women who somehow got hold of real power, and failed to change anything much using it, but this was not so much a matter of power corrupting them but a matter of power not being some kind of magic that transforms a woman who holds it into a creature capable of transcending all the political, cultural and religious assumptions of her time. I can’t think of historic examples of a woman or set of women seizing power and creating something worse than the system that came before, which is what the ‘power corrupts’ tag implies.
posted by Aravis76 at 1:30 PM on May 12 [7 favorites]


Margaret Thatcher?

Mary Tudor?
posted by kyrademon at 1:39 PM on May 12 [5 favorites]


Tepper flirts with the transitional moment in Raising the Stones with a machina ex deus where the cost of wishes is forced empathy, but to be honest, her half-way essentialism is something where I'd likely bounce off today.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 1:41 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]


The one book I can remember reading where women are completely in charge and the world is largely better as a result is Cheryl Benard's Turning on the Girls. Yet even this is not a perfect utopia; the matriarchal leaders become rigid and authoritarian and act in some very misguided ways.

I have to take the story with a big grain of salt because the author is pretty conservative and not as clever as she thinks she is. I'm not sure she'd even consider herself a feminist. But even so, I've read it a few times because I sometimes just really, really wanted to read about a world where women are in charge, where sexual assault is dealt with swiftly and effectively, and where women and men are taught and expected to respect each other, where so-called feminine attributes are valued, where toxic masculinity is not tolerated. This is actually a really good review of the book that outlines its strengths and flaws.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:47 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]


corb: One of the reasons I think it’s hard to write the kind of feminist utopias that people are asking to be written is you have to write out how you get there.

I don't think a book about a utopia has to solve all the problems of modern society to have value. I've lately been wondering if there would be value in fiction depicting... aspirational multi-cultural modern societies, I guess? Societies with a culture that the author has intentionally, thoughtfully written to be as genuinely bias free as they can manage, given an upbringing in a bigoted society such as ours. Where there really is no problem white patriarchy, whether via the society's conscious rejection of it or through it never developing in the first place, for whatever reason, up to and including "Well, they're just kind of better than us. Imagine us but better, without a patriarchy." I feel like having something to aim toward could help illuminate the path without mapping it. I think you could still find interesting conflict to drive stories set in such a society, whether in intra-cultural conflict or external threats.

LeRoienJaune: Why not write your Feminist Utopia as an alternate history? Say, at the beginning of classical history.

[...]

It is the year 492 BC. Thanks to the miracle of the drug Panacea, the island city state of Themiscrya has flourished.


The story you pitched sounds killer, but I'm even more interested in this:

"2500 years later, the Soterian religion and its philosophies of equality have come to dominate the globe rather than the Judeo-Christian-capitalist-patriarchal philosophies that have in our world.

Carol is a high-status lawyer in the city, and... / Ajay is a struggling actor, and... / Aishatu is the mayor of London, and..."

And the story is just set in the world. It's about the world/society in that it's about what this familiar story looks like in this unfamiliar world/society, but in the same way it's not about the world/society in that it's about how it came to be that way, because the latter would be a lot harder to pull off than the former, I think, though some basic ideas about how the latter had happened (without necessarily needing to get too bogged down in the details of it) would probably be necessary to make the society feel convincing.

The easier way to go is make it a fantasy. That way you can handwave economics with magic. That's what I'm trying to do in my own work, but it's still very hard to depict such a society without unconsciously letting patriarchal garbage seep in. Or even consciously seep in, since I'm incapable of letting go of or making too large of changes too characters I've had in my head for twenty years, because I become unable to write them anymore, which shows how much inherent bias I have in my own brain. I'm just not smart or well-educated enough to really do a good job of developing this society in a convincing way, and with a 40+ hour a week day job I just don't have the time to both learn all the things I need to learn (so much! and so much is so difficult!) and still actually write my YA action-drama, so I'm just sort of plugging along and hoping I can get the writing to a self-sustaining point so that I can start putting more effort into research, and in the meantime just trying to touch lightly on anything I don't feel I can do justice.
posted by Caduceus at 1:48 PM on May 12 [3 favorites]


Margaret Thatcher is an excellent example, but I wouldn’t say power corrupted her. She was solidly committed to her destructive agenda from the very beginning, and if anything she was surprisingly incorruptible—by her own appalling lights—throughout her time as PM. She certainly never compromised on what she took to be her principles. Mary Tudor is the ruler I had in mind when I was thinking of women absolutely caught up in the political and religious madness of their times.

Either way, I think it’s a mistake to conflate the seizure of political power by a particular woman with the quite different question of the seizure of gendered power by women as a class. The latter, so far as I know, has never happened; Mrs Thatcher and Mary Tudor both had to deal with the disadvantages of being women, in sexist societies, while still holding political power. They never actually inverted the balance of gendered power in the world, though Mrs Thatcher did get some theatrical effects out of her handbag.
posted by Aravis76 at 1:51 PM on May 12 [12 favorites]


> Is this a real book?

It might be. I just rolled off a list of essential hero’s journey tropes, though.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:51 PM on May 12


Leckie's novels are based on the premise that even if biological sex and reproduction were made irrelevant by some advanced technology, labor and economic scarcity would create oppressive forces.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 2:10 PM on May 12 [3 favorites]


Women are people. It feels dehumanizing to assume that matriarchy (true matriarchy, not egalitarianism) would be something inherently better than patriarchy. We are as good and as evil as men.

as for why not more utopias? because utopias make for boring fiction. Who wants to read about perfection? what struggle is there, what growth to drive the plot?

Occasionally, the story of a utopia can be told by the insertion of people from elsewhere to provide conflict. As a teen, I was very much in awe of Voyage from Yesteryear (James P. Hogan) and its post-scarcity society. (Haven't read it since, wonder if it would hold up to my memory?). But it only works as a novel because of the insertion of outsiders into a utopian society - the story is entirely told from the point of view of the (not at all utopian) outsider society.
posted by jb at 2:30 PM on May 12 [3 favorites]


Thomas More's Utopia is okay (more of a discourse than a novel) - but nowhere near as compelling as We or Brave New World, or Gulliver's Travels. Perfection makes for bad stories.

Similarly, no one's interested in making a movie (or miniseries!) of B.F. Skinner's Walden Two - interesting discourse, but nothing happens.
posted by jb at 2:36 PM on May 12 [3 favorites]


Margaret Thatcher is an excellent example, but I wouldn’t say power corrupted her.

Can you compare this with the version of Margaret Thatcher that never entered politics? Who remained a university research chemist?

I think we're doing kind of an off, shorthand interpretation of that saying. It's not so much that the state of power inherently corrupts people like some parody of ancient Rome, but that the process of achieving power is compromising, and the people that achieve or maintain power have to be morally compromised to an extent.

Americans have a weird continuing Victorian Protestant attitude towards women in politics, like a transferral of "Woman as the moral center of the home" to their role in government. Consider how Clinton was regarded for doing things that were common for male politicians, or the absolute moral opprobrium that politicians like Elizabeth Warren or Nancy Pelosi face when they do something political that isn't pure enough. It's not not just that they're making political sausage, it's they're betraying the way Americans see "good" women.

The idea that women leaders have to be different, HAVE to be morally pure is a highly sexist view, and one that comes in handy in attacking women who do attain practical levels of power.
posted by happyroach at 2:43 PM on May 12 [16 favorites]


Voyage from Yesteryear (James P. Hogan) and its post-scarcity society. (Haven't read it since, wonder if it would hold up to my memory?)

Emphatically not.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 2:47 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]


Some uplifting scifi: posted by LURK at 2:58 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]


Emphatically not.

:(

(I still have the battered hard-cover, found at some book sale.)
posted by jb at 3:12 PM on May 12


I really liked The Handmaid's Tale when I read it back in high school, but I feel like it's a rather dated novel. Not in the sense, at all, that feminist dystopian literature is no longer relevant, but in that its vision is missing a lot of the ways in which patriarchal power has morphed in the last decades. There's also a strand of liberal feminism that only recognizes patriarchy if it's dressed up in Christian theocratic garb, and the book read through a contemporary lens ends up feeding right into that. Our cultural blind spot is in the ways that patriarchy is propped up through racial and economic violence, and we're finally living in a cultural moment where consciousness of that has become more mainstream through a growing public interest in intersectional feminism and critiques of neoliberal capitalism. The tv adaptation could have worked to incorporate these themes but it doesn't engage with them hardly at all, which makes the show feel a bit tone deaf to me.

The gratuitous violence is not great either, not just because it's hard to watch, but also because it's a kind of cartoonish, spectacular vision of oppression. The scarier stuff, I think, is where everyone just pretends everyone is equal, and violence is meted in more quiet, subtle ways.
posted by adso at 3:13 PM on May 12 [12 favorites]


Queen Victoria did not have absolute power. It’s questionable how far she had power at all, really.

Yes and no. She did not have direct political power; when she tried to wield it as a young woman, it went badly for her. But she had a great deal of indirect power. She dealt with it at first by giving it to her husband, who stayed busy with his plans for Britain until he died. By then her children were grown, and she busied herself by trying to ensure generations of peace in Europe by marrying her children into the various royal families. This was considered a sensible plan at the time, but considering that one of her grandchildren was Kaiser Wilhelm II and another one was the Tsarina of Nicholas II, no one can say it really took.

But it was a ladylike plan, within her remit. Queen Victoria did not hold with woman suffrage. She had had one strong woman in her early life — a domineering mother who tried to abuse her into lifelong submissiveness — and that was enough. Her best allies and friends were always male, and so she considered them to be women’s natural protectors. A female leader is no more likely to be a visionary than a male one.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:33 PM on May 12 [6 favorites]


I sure am ready to experience female leaders instead of male ones.
posted by agregoli at 3:47 PM on May 12 [10 favorites]


"I would like to read more "competency porn" by and of women. Specifically stories of how women succeeded in patriarchal societies. Not because they had some special mystic power through divine intervention, birthright, genetic fluke, etc. (Which rules out a lot of books, sadly.) But because they were smarter, more clever, more devious, more empathic than the people they were up against. "

I call these "Rebels in White Gloves" books, after this very lovely social history of (Hillary Clinton's) Wellesley class of 1969, and their polite, glove-wearing radicalism. Biographies of early members of the Junior League (including Eleanor Roosevelt) or early visiting nurses (including the Call the Midwife memoirs) push similar buttons for me -- privileged ladies of the upper and upper-middle classes who use their privilege to stick it to the man ... while wearing very ladylike dresses. (It's the part where they fuck shit up while wearing perfect makeup or high heels or constrictive clothing or whatever society demands "ladies" of that era do that delights me the most. This is why The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel seems like it was made exclusively for the focus group of My Personal Brain.)

In the SFF world, not yet mentioned, I'd suggest Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small quarter about Kelandry of Mindelan, who has no magic, and succeeds because she works harder than everyone else and is fundamentally decent and grounded.

There are also a number of SFF books set in a "magical Jane Austen" world, where the female characters typically have magic -- because everyone in their world does -- but they succeed not by being The Chosen One, but by being witty and clever and resourceful like Elizabeth Bennet. (Mareilon the Magician, Sorcery & Cecelia, the Paper Magician is maybe a little bit chosen-one-y but not terribly so ...)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:55 PM on May 12 [19 favorites]


I've often argued that the idea of women being "better" than men in some inherent way dehumanizes women, so believe me I do get that. But ya know, we don't know that women are human in the exact same identical way that men are human. We truly do not know what women with power as a class - political, economic, religious, social, physical power over men as a class - would do with that power. We don't know.

It's tempting to conflate "human" with "identical to men." Let's not, though. Maybe women would use power for good. Maybe women would misuse OTHER things or constructs in spectacular ways, just not power.
posted by MiraK at 4:09 PM on May 12 [19 favorites]


[One deleted; while the topic obviously touches on politics in general, this isn't actually a politics thread, still less a US-specific politics thread, so let's avoid those derails.]
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 4:49 PM on May 12


Ok, trying this without the specific example. With the exception of a small minority of dissent, most Americans endorse and demand a violent system of oppression. We know that power corrupts because it already has for most of us. Which is why a lot of feminist afrofuturism and at least some silkpunk that I've encountered has been deeply concerned with imperialism and metaphors for white supremacy.

I tend to agree with the school of thought that the opposite of patriarchy probably isn't an -archy.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 5:21 PM on May 12 [9 favorites]


I like my dystopias subtle, so The Handmaiden's Tale didn't grab me as much as it did some people. But I agree with the idea that we don't need fewer dystopias (gender-focused or otherwise) but more non-dystopian fiction written alongside them. I feel like we're at a point when a turn towards darker, grittier fiction (both on TV, and in fiction generally, and in sci-fi/fantasy specifically) has started to run out of ideas. You're getting people trying to re-make not just Atwood's epic but Breaking Bad, or A Song of Ice and Fire, with none of the heart - and resorting to shock value to make up the gap.

Kind of disappointed about The Growing Season - a couple of friends recommended it to me as interesting. I may try it anyway. I like when speculative fiction actually fits technology in with its social consequences, and as I said, I like subtle dystopias, where you don't immediately see the problems.

It's tempting to conflate "human" with "identical to men." Let's not, though. Maybe women would use power for good. Maybe women would misuse OTHER things or constructs in spectacular ways, just not power.

Maybe if brown-eyed people, or left-handed people, or people who had never had their wisdom teeth removed ran the world, their unique "different way of being human" would keep them from abusing power. There is an almost infinite number of variations we could try. And I'm sure that the spirit of open-minded and disinterested inquiry would keep you from insisting that women should get first shot. Maybe we should just pick a possibility from a basket, and try it for a couple hundred years.

Or, hey, maybe instead of spending the next fifty millennia trying to figure out exactly which kind of privileged elite we need to hand all the power to in order for everything to go perfectly, we could just try to build a society with genuine equality of opportunity and treatment. Maybe such things aren't just a matter of efficiency, but a human right.

I know a lot of this is probably tongue-in-cheek, but the remarkable speed with which "we should have equal rights" moves to "well, we shouldn't count out the possibility of our own superiority" is actually something we've seen before, in the real world, more than once. Among other examples, this is precisely the shift that poor white males made in the early American Republic - demanding the end of property requirements for voting shifted quite quickly to demanding the disenfranchisement of free blacks and women in places they had previously been able to vote, sometimes in the course of a single town hall session.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:49 PM on May 12 [6 favorites]


Maybe if brown-eyed people, or left-handed people, or people who had never had their wisdom teeth removed ran the world, their unique "different way of being human" would keep them from abusing power. There is an almost infinite number of variations we could try. And I'm sure that the spirit of open-minded and disinterested inquiry would keep you from insisting that women should get first shot.

There's a real reason why we are specifically speaking of women now: the possibility of (political, economic, social, religious, physical) power in the hands of a demographic which has historically been denied said power solely due to belonging to that demographic. The groups you mentioned are arbitrary in that respect and therefore irrelevant.

If we were talking about upending nuclear family/marriage systems, we'd be imagining worlds with queer people setting relationship norms, and it would be arbitrary and irrelevant to ask if veterinarians could have their turn setting relationship norms instead.

But to reiterate, none of this is to argue that women (or queer people) are inherently better. Just noting that *we do not know* what their world would look like. Let us not assume they will muck up in equal-and-opposite ways, because that assumption still centers current power holders.
posted by MiraK at 8:44 PM on May 12 [12 favorites]


I'd say we're already disrupting marriage systems, although racism and capitalism are far more disruptive than the LGBTQ movement. At the same time, we're also having ugly fights regarding BTQ people, BLM and the black lives rainbow flag, gender conformity, and a century of cultural misogyny in the LGBTQ movement.

There's at least a half-century of intersectional criticism that focusing on sexism or homophobia in isolation ends up tacitly favoring White American and White European needs. Unfortunately a lot of feminist and queer SFF utopias and dystopias tend to do just that.

I'll paraphrase Le Guin that science fiction is more reflective than predictive. Leckie's Imperial Radch where nearly utopian gender-fluidity and complete reproductive autonomy exists hand-in-hand with dystopian slavery, militarism, caste society, and ethnocentrism serves as an uncomfortable of the kind of privilege and liberty I have as a White American Queer.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 11:58 PM on May 12 [6 favorites]


maybe instead of spending the next fifty millennia trying to figure out exactly which kind of privileged elite we need to hand all the power to in order for everything to go perfectly, we could just try to build a society with genuine equality of opportunity and treatment. Maybe such things aren't just a matter of efficiency, but a human right.

Yes, authors of political manifestos are wrong when they propose to solve existing inequalities by just inverting the existing hierarchy (I believe this has happened on a handful of occasions). On the other hand, the author of a work of fiction who invents a new hierarchy, to show readers what life looks like in that distorted mirror-image of our world, is not making the same mistake. Her work is unlikely to be intended to offer an straight argument for a political change, an image of the perfect world after her preferred type of revolution; usually, if that’s all she’s after, her fiction will be propaganda and fail as fiction quite apart from its politics. (Atlas Shrugged is sporadically successful only as a romance novel for this reason—not enough imagination goes into constructing the actual political bits of the story.)

Fiction asks us to participate in an imaginative experience. The experience can be nightmarish, like The Matter of Seggri or dreamlike and gentle like The Left Hand of Darkness. Probably the author’s political sense will guide the feelings she finds herself evoking in these stories, and how we respond will be intertwined with our own politics. But it’s a category mistake to say that writing the story itself is a waste of time because we already know equality is better than hierarchy. We do know that but we live in a world where we have to understand power in the same way that we have to understand sex and death and money and grief and all the other tangled and flawed stuff of life, which fiction deals with. Having several different fictional worlds that show us how power might refract differently through people’s lives, if it gets broken up in different ways, is a good thing even if it is morally obvious that none of those worlds represents an ideal. Our world doesn’t represent an ideal either, and dreams and nightmares can help us to see its realities in new ways.
posted by Aravis76 at 1:35 AM on May 13 [6 favorites]


sonascope, flagged as fantatic.
posted by glasseyes at 4:23 AM on May 13


I would like to read more "competency porn" by and of women.

Specifically stories of how women succeeded in patriarchal societies. Not because they had some special mystic power through divine intervention, birthright, genetic fluke, etc. (Which rules out a lot of books, sadly.) But because they were smarter, more clever, more devious, more empathic than the people they were up against.


Allow me to introduce you to the Honorverse, where all protagonists except one are female, the ruler is female, and they're usually just smarter and better and more honorable. The main storyline, the Honor Harrington series (starts with On Basilisk Station, but you'll be fine if you just skip to The Honor Of The Queen, I did), has a female naval commander who has to deal with patriarchal attitudes about her competency and she just keeps crushing them by being good at things and it is so so good.
posted by corb at 1:27 PM on May 13 [2 favorites]


On Basilisk Station and The Honor of the Queen are part of the "Baen Free Library" and downloadable at no cost from the publisher's web site. According to Wikipedia Changer of Worlds, Crown of Slaves, and The Shadow of Saganami were released with freely copyable licensing terms at some point too, but I can't remember if I found them on the Baen site or had to go Googling to find them.
posted by XMLicious at 2:18 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


Utopias can be boring unless they're imperfect or threatened by dystopias (Star Trek, Banks Culture, etc).
Always Coming Home by Ursula LeGuin describes a really interesting utopia in detail.
The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk is about dystopian war threatening the utopia.
posted by ovvl at 5:53 PM on May 13


I would like to read more "competency porn" by and of women. Specifically stories of how women succeeded in patriarchal societies. Not because they had some special mystic power through divine intervention, birthright, genetic fluke, etc. (Which rules out a lot of books, sadly.) But because they were smarter, more clever, more devious, more empathic than the people they were up against.

Ooh, can I recommend A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan? Okay, it's fluffy fantasy, but I was really thrilled reading about a woman with scientific inclinations in Victorian-era England struggling--and succeeding!--at being taken seriously. Plus, y'know, there's dragons. And it works just as well as a mystery as it does as a fantasy novel.
posted by zeusianfog at 10:21 AM on May 14 [3 favorites]


"well, we shouldn't count out the possibility of our own superiority"

Fwiw, in my opinion, this is *exactly* where many white women go wrong when they go pro-feminism. Yeah, maybe it's about gender equality, but it sure isn't about ethnic or caste-based equality. White women gotta build their own empires now, y'know, otherwise then it's not fair because white men got to and that means it's not EQUAL!!!

And both authors seem to treat race as some sort of incidental cosmetic thing that they don’t really want to deal with, which is...weird. To say the least.

It's not weird, it's been intentional, as a de jure cultural by-product which our colonial societies have collectively manifested. I have read "The Handmaiden's Tale" but I will not watch it. After a lifetime of being force-fed comparable stories about my own non-white ethnic heritage, and how these very similar stories were the basis for our enslavement by the genetically/morally superior White People... no, I am done with the women-hating ideology of the West. I am racially fatigued from hearing what monsters women are, especially non-white women, and I don't have anything left for these white-woman-feminist-dystopian futures, in which because humanity failed to (racially/eugenically) "purify" itself, actual white women must die.

Seriously, from generations of my mom's ancestors who were enslaved by colonial Anglo-Europeans, to me: "But [if we don't suffer like this] think of the white women!!!"

I would like to read more "competency porn" by and of women. Specifically stories of how women succeeded in patriarchal societies. Not because they had some special mystic power through divine intervention, birthright, genetic fluke, etc. (Which rules out a lot of books, sadly.) But because they were smarter, more clever, more devious, more empathic than the people they were up against.

Do consider that it was in the best interests of colonial North American (and Christianizing European) forefathers to eliminate as many of these stories from the human consciousness narrative as possible, in order to consolidate their power hierarchies (ex. the Rani of Jhansi, or Lalla Fadhma N'Soumer). Stories of strong women, especially strong non-white women, are particularly threatening to the colonial status quo, in whose society we all still operate.

(In other words, these stories you claim to be asking for might actually be de-colonization stories, to which you still must overcome your own sense of ethnic fragility in order to adequately digest. Do try to refrain from projecting your own ethnic group's failings onto the failings of ethnic minorities of the world -- particularly whom your ethnic group has historically held power over -- please! The Handmaiden's Tale can't talk about race because then it would reveal how women would perpetuate the power-abuse patterns, just through a lens alternative to gender, and the moment the spotlight shines on that truth, the fallacy of heroic white feminism will be too-revealed. Seriously, how much longer can Anglo-Euro North Americans continue to believe the myth of their own ethnic-identity-based (i.e. caste-based) superiority, if their practice is to consistently fail in confronting the fragile foundation upon which it was originally set?)

Being mixed-race and visibly non-white in white-majority Canada, I have done a certain amount of community/social services/nonprofit-type work, and it sure seems to me that many white feminist women choose to demonstrate the same ethnic fragility as their own (corrupt?) white forefathers in the face of non-white feminine power. It definitely makes for impotent, meaningless alliances with most white women. The only white women I've seen "do it well" are down-to-earth-types who spend as much time living by their instincts as possible, and who don't bother themselves too much with feminism (at least, out of respect, not to my face... because they are sensitive to the fact that white-based-feminism typically does far more to silence me, than it ever does to effectively help me.).
posted by human ecologist at 4:18 PM on May 14


Do try to refrain from projecting your own ethnic group's failings onto the failings of ethnic minorities of the world -- particularly whom your ethnic group has historically held power over -- please!

I don’t understand why this is an implication of wanting stories about women who survive within the interstices of patriarchal societies? The story of the Rani of Jhansi and of Mirabai are actually pretty good examples of such stories—both hit exactly that mark for me—and this is because both women were not faced just with colonial oppression (Mirabai is too early for that) but because they faced, and in a sense triumphed over, the traditional misogyny of Rajput society. The failings of Rajput society in relation to women are not a matter of Western projection, they are pretty ancient, and Indian and Indian-origin women need these stories just as much as anyone else does (at least speaking for myself—stories of competent women surviving sexist societies are deeply enjoyable for me, in lots of contexts, and I don’t think that makes me complicit in colonialism).
posted by Aravis76 at 10:52 PM on May 14 [5 favorites]


The failings of Rajput society in relation to women are not a matter of Western projection

Amen! Nonwhite people are perfectly capable of being misogynistic all on their own!

There is a horrendous strain of usually-white western liberal who seems to feel it's racist to talk about non-white people enacting systemic oppressions. Worst case scenario: they downplay, minimize, and excuse oppressions perpetrated by non-whites, and pressure those of us who live under those oppressions to stop speaking up because by doing so we are apparently encouraging white racists. Best case scenario: they pipe up in discussions about Chinese patriarchy or Indian casteism to say, "Well, everyone is terrible, of course, it's not just Chinese/Indian folks. White western people are the worst of all."

At worst it shuts the oppressed down, and either way it leaves us to wonder why the fuck every single discussion has to center white/western people as the reference point.
posted by MiraK at 6:09 AM on May 15 [5 favorites]


« Older Lines of longitude and latitude define and refine...   |   Will Smith on how he landed The Fresh Prince of... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments