Deep dives: why feminist dystopias matter

Sophie Wilson introduces some of her favourite feminist dystopian literature, and tells us why it's important today

Sophie Wilson
21st March 2021
The Handmaid's Tale (2017) via IMDb
As an avid reader, being asked what my favourite genre is makes me squirm. Do I love romance? Thriller? Fantasy? There are way too many options, and frankly, way too many good authors out there. But, as an English Literature student, I think that when you decide on a dissertation topic you really are committing to saying you love the genre of the books you have chosen. And so, for me, that is feminist dystopias.

It all really starts with Atwood for me, the absolute queen of campaigning for women’s rights through literature. The Handmaid’s Tale is an absolute classic, and the phrase nolite tes bastardes sends shivers down my spine, a quiet but powerful rebellion that shows the grit and strength of the community of women. For those who do not know, this novel looks at women who are alive during the time of declining fertility rates. The government took it upon themselves to make women essentially prisoners, turning them into the personal carriers of babies for high up middle-class masters. They are turned into a baby making machine, and have to sit and endure having sex with a man they have no connection with.

The links between real life pressures and Atwood’s dystopian novel really make you stop and reflect on your own life.

The extremity of this society really allows the presentation of women to be delved into. How far do we really see women as merely reproducing beings in real life? I know that I look at my future career and I am worried that my ability to produce a baby will halt me from progressing, through internalised misogyny. I also know that there is pressure put upon me and others to find a man you want to spend the rest of your life with soon, so that you can make a baby before your time runs out. Please do not get me started with how much is wrong with this (notably that relationships come in all forms and all forms are equally respected and valued, and also that many women decide not to have children), but the links between real life pressures and Atwood’s dystopian novel really make you stop and reflect on your own life.

Although Atwood is an amazing dystopian writer, there are so many more in this field that should gain attention. Leni Zumas’ book is called Red Clocks and she looks at what would happen in America if abortion was made illegal. Curtailing women’s rights and freedoms, this book opens up the discourse about how women should have control over their own bodies, but instead presents the government as trying to control the decisions of women. Deeply thought provoking, this book made me think about what else could be taken away from us, while also educating me on the bill introduced in 2019 in the US which tries to make abortion a criminal offence.

The problems presented in these books are happening in our own lives around us, and we need educating on these issues instead of allowing them to silently pass us by.

I think that feminist dystopias really are important, and now more than ever they can be used to make a powerful statement. With the really sad death of a young woman this week, our vulnerability as women has been pushed upon us like never before. The book, Gather the Daughters, looks at women who go through a summer of fruition, where girls are chosen by a man to become their wives.

But, the whole society is structured upon men raping their daughters in the house, and then the wife allowing her new husband to do this to her own children. The whole scenario is horribly disturbing and I found this book extremely hard to read. But, presenting a woman’s vulnerability as being omnipresent, always there and never getting any better, is really clever. With women not feeling safe in their homes, it shows that for many women there is no place where they feel safe, and so they live a life filled completely with fear.

As social media has told us this week, women walk home with keys between their fingers, they have rape alarms ready, they ring their parents if walking home past 9pm, they change their walking route so that men cannot appear and try to hurt or abuse them. The list really is endless, but this book asks: what happens when women never get a relief from this fear?

These are just a few books that I would recommend, but if the genre appeals to you then I would also suggest The Water Cure, The Power, The Heart Goes Last and Stepford Wives, all books that look at the position of women in society today and exaggerate their problems so that they are easier to discuss. This raises awareness of important issues, something that is important to do. At a time when women are being forced into their homes past 5pm because of the dark nights and the fear of being hurt if they leave at night time, these books provide a really necessary insight into what it really means to be a woman at a time when half of the population feel scared for their own safety.

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