A Man’s World:
An Exploration of Modern Feminist Dystopians
By Ana Hein
On the morning of November 9th, 2016, I cried for twenty minutes in the shower. Then I dried myself off, put on my plaid maroon uniform, and went to my all-girls, Catholic school in Missouri, where my classmates wore Make America Great Again hats, blared car horns in delight in the parking lot, and sprayed silly string throughout the halls. By second period, I was in the bathroom crying again.
I was horrified by what was happening, yes, but what really got to me was the fact that so many of the girls around me were actively celebrating it. I couldn’t understand how people–women no less!–could be cheering for someone who saw us as nothing more than pussies waiting to be grabbed. Didn’t they know that the man they had endorsed to lead our country only cared about himself and amassing power so he could get it up? Didn’t they understand that they were celebrating the impending parring back of civil rights, attacks on our reproductive health, and a stupid fucking wall that wasn’t going to do a damn thing except waste money? The entire scene that morning felt like something straight out of 1984.
I’m not the only one who’s had this thought.
Over the past five years, there’s been a renewed interest in the Dystopian novel, and most sources cite our current geo-political climate as the reason why. The New York Times reported that in 2016, almost immediately after the election, there was a dramatic increase in sales of the novels Animal Farm, 1984, Brave New World, and It Can’t Happen Here, classic tales of authoritarian regimes, repression of freedom, and general widespread misery.
But there was one novel that stood out amongst all these, one novel that encapsulated so succinctly what millions of people were feeling, not just in America, but all across the world, that it was catapulted back into the popular consciousness as a modern symbol of resistance: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
The story centers on a woman named Offred. This is not her real name–her real name is forbidden now–but a portmanteau of the prefix “of” meaning “belonging to” and the male name Fred. Offred lives in the Republic of Gilead, a near future America that has been overtaken by religious extremists. In Gilead, women are not allowed to read or write. They cannot own property. They cannot have jobs. They have no money. Due to a fertility crisis, the few remaining fertile women in the country have been rounded up by the government and doled out like cards to the elite ruling class to reproduce for them through state-sanctioned rape. They are dubbed Handmaids. Offred is one such woman. She resides in what used to be Cambridge, walks by a wall of Harvard’s campus that is now being used for mass executions while thinking about her husband, Luke, and the daughter that was taken from her.
Naturally, the novel particularly resonated with women. Women who saw themselves as desired objects in other classic Dystopian novels–if they were even major characters at all–thrust into that role by the male protagonist and given little characterization besides vain, frivolous, and sexy. Women who could relate to Offred’s struggle, who knew what it was like to have children taken away from them, to have their rights stripped right in front of their eyes by men who had no idea what the hell they were doing. The Handmaids’ uniform–a long, modest bright red dress with white wings that cover the face–has been cropping up more and more at protests all over the world, from Ireland to Buenos Aires, worn to signal that Gilead seems closer than ever, especially for the second sex.
The influence of The Handmaid’s Tale hasn’t stopped at real-life political movements. It’s also had a tremendous impact on not just the literary landscape of its time, but also on the literary landscape of today. More and more female-centered Dystopian novels are being published, topping the charts, and being critically lauded. These novels are taking core themes and topics from both The Handmaid’s Tale and the legislative floor (reproductive rights specifically appear in almost all of them) and tailor fitting them to a world that, more and more, seems to be resembling the nightmarish fictions of the past.
One such novel that wears its wears its inspiration from The Handmaid’s Tale on its sleeve is Vox by Christina Dalcher; the cover even displays a quote from Vanity Fair that explicitly compares the two. The novel’s chief Dystopian hook is that women are only permitted to speak 100 words a day. They are forced to wear an electronic “bracelet” (read: torture machine) that records the amount of words they speak and administers increasingly painful electric shocks should they exceed their daily word limit. The Pure movement–religiously motivated and conservative, wishing to return to traditional values of the past–sweeps the nation and lands a man in office. Reverends perform public shamings of frisky teenagers on live television. Queer people and those that have premarital sex are thrown into work camps. Women are shunted into the house with nothing to do except scrub the floor and vacuum the carpet. Protagonist Jean is a cognitive linguist trying to raise a young daughter in this hellscape when, after the president has a ski accident, she is offered the chance to have her voice back in exchange for resuming her work on a cure for wernicke’s aphasia, an actual communication disorder, that might be used for more than she knows.
It’s pretty easy to draw connections between the major forces at work in Vox and The Handmaid’s Tale. At their core, both novels focus on the forced governmental social banishment of women as well as the role religion plays in reinforcing the American government’s agenda and the social mindset that enables these regimes to seize power in the first place. But even going beyond these broad similarities (Wow, a female specific Dystopian is bad for women? Who would have guessed?), the two works still have an uncanny amount in common. There’s the best friend character–Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale and Jackie in Vox–that serves as a more progressive, active foil to the protagonist; both Offred and Jean take an ill-advised lover that has a Dark Secret they aren’t initially aware of; both women get pregnant by said lover when they should have been impregnated by a different man–Offred by the Commander and Jean by her husband.
This is not to say that Vox is unoriginal. The linguistic aspect of the novel–the exploration of how language shapes our development and how the brain processes thoughts into meaning and then into words–is actually incredibly interesting and thought provoking. Christina Dalcher is herself a neurolinguistic; she knows what she’s talking about.
But, ironically, she’s not the best at expressing what she knows. The writing in Vox isn’t the greatest, nor is its plotting. The writing is serviceable, but in no way memorable. There are no glaring mistakes or horrifically awkward turns of phrases, but at the same time, the language does nothing to make it stand out on its own; it simply acts as a conveyor belt transporting the reader from one eerily familiar plot point to the next. After the initial Dystopian world building is put into place–anecdotes told of women arrested for using sign language as an alternative to verbal communication, and the horror of how Jean’s daughter, Sonya, is rewarded at school for going the whole day without uttering a word–the story starts to focus less on the wide-spread societal implications of these horrific laws and turns into a thriller with feminist trimmings to earn it woke points. It all leads up to a conclusion that feels too neat, especially considering the books genre. In the end, Jean’s husband, a high-ranking government official, injects the brain damaging drug Jean helped create to the president and his cabinet, eliminating their ability to speak coherently and thus ending the Dystopia. He gets shot in the process and dies, leaving behind a pregnant Jean who escapes to her home country of Italy with her boyfriend and children with zero moral quandaries or repercussions. And they all live happily ever after.
It’s a much different ending than readers of Dystopians are used to. The most readers usually get are vague hints or oblique references from future material–Historical Notes in The Handmaid’s Tale and the Appendix in 1984 spring to mind–that eventually the regime fell many years after the events of the novel itself, and after all the characters we’ve grown to care about have died, of course. Vox delivers what so few others do: an end to the misery, even if the lead up to that end feels very unrealistic. In fact, the novel promises this end from the very first sentence: “If anyone told me I could bring down the president, and the Pure movement, and that incompetent little shit Morgan LeBron in a week’s time, I wouldn’t believe them” (Dalcher). And this makes sense considering that this book is meant to give modern women hope for the future. It’s not meant to be a warning or a cautionary tale–we don’t need those anymore when so many women are already living out their own Dystopians. What we need now is the message: it will end.
But not all Dystopians are as apparent as they are in Vox and The Handmaid’s Tale. In Leni Zumas’s New York Time Bestseller, Red Clocks, the version of America the characters live in is nigh on identical to the country today except for one key difference, as stated on the back of the novel: “Welcome to America. Abortion is illegal, in vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants the rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo.”
The novel follows four women who live in the same small Oregon town that are all radically affected by these laws. The Biographer–aka Roberta–is a single high school teacher in her forties who desperately wants a child but is unable to naturally conceive. The Mender–aka Gin–is the town “witch” who lives in the woods with her animals and runs an unsanctioned new-age female medical practice out of her shack. The Daughter–aka Mattie–is a pregnant teenager and knows exactly what happens to girls like her who try and procure illegal abortions. And The Wife–aka Susan–is trapped in her role in life and in an unfulfilling marriage. Having multiple point-of-view characters in a novel like this allows the reader to fully understand all the ramifications of the Dystopian by showcasing how multiple women in completely different circumstances are affected by it. The Wife, for example, at no point is pregnant or wants a child; all the conflict in her storyline derives from the social stigma against unfit mothers and single mothers that is perpetuated by these laws. And while The Daughter’s story ark directly tackles unwanted pregnancy, The Biographer’s ark tackles its inverse, a wanted pregnancy that seems impossible to achieve without now outlawed medical intervention.
But what’s even more affecting is the use of names throughout the novel. Not once is one of these women referred to by their real name in the narration of the text; the only time their names are mentioned is in dialogue. Every time these women are named, the narration refers to them by the societal role they occupy. It’s a rather simple stylistic choice that drastically impacts how the characters are perceived by the reader. By addressing the characters in terms of their function, it pushes the reader to see them the way society sees them, and by extension, women as a whole: not as people in their own right, but as commodities and archetypes. It dehumanizes them, but at the same time reveals how they think of themselves and how others think of them. The roles each woman occupies are extremely telling. “The Mender” is not “The Witch”, even though that is how most of towns folk view her; by having her role be “The Mender”, the reader is led to think of Gin as a healing figure, a more respected and serious figure, as opposed to one burdened with stigma. And by referring to Mattie as “The Daughter” as opposed to “The Student” or “The Pregnant Woman” or even “The Pregnant Girl”, it highlights her own inexperience in life and how she views herself as still very much a child, not ready to take on the role of parent.
All of these novels have the same message: the world is not kind to women. That’s something that has been true for a very long time. Margaret Atwood famously didn’t include anything in The Handmaid’s Tale that didn’t actually happen at some point in history. These books are written in order to show the female experience through the dramatic lens of genre. They’re written as calls to action and pleas for help, rallying cries filled with anger, fear, and most importantly, hope. Hope that the tomorrow presented on the page won’t come to fruition. Hope that women will be seen as equals worthy of respect. Hope that someday, it won’t be just a man’s world anymore.
Alter, Alexandra. “Uneasy About the Future, Readers Turn to Dystopian Classics.” The New York Times, 27 Jan. 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/27/business/media/dystopian-classics-1984-animal- farm-the-handmaids-tale.html Accessed 20 Dec. 2019.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books. 1998. Print.
Atwood, Margaret. “Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump.” The New York Times, 10 Mar. 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/10/books/review/margaret-atwood-handmaids-tale- age-of-trump.html. Accessed 21 Dec. 2019.
Beaumont, Peter and Holpuch, Amanda. “How The Handmaid’s Tale dressed protests across the world.” The Guardian, 3 Aug. 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/03/how-the-handmaids-tale-dressed- protests-across-the-world Accessed 20 Dec. 2019.
Dalcher, Christina. Vox. New York: Berkley. 2018. Print. Zumas, Leni. Red Clocks. New York: Back Bay Books. 2018. Print.
About the Author:
Ana Hein is an undergraduate student at Emerson College pursuing a BFA in Creative Writing with minors in Comedy Writing and Performance and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Her work has been featured in Wack Mag, Concrete, Gauge, Emerson College’s Undergraduate Students for Publishing blog, and Black Swan, among others, has won multiple Editor’s Choice Awards from Teen Ink Magazine, and is forthcoming in Fearsome Critters, Terrible Orange Review, and Generic. She can usually be found buying too many books, singing loudly, wearing red lipstick, complaining about the weather, staring into the void, and generally being very dramatic.