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How Feminist Dystopian Fiction Is Channeling Women’s Anger and Anxiety

By October 10, 2018No Comments


On a desolate island, three sisters have been raised in isolation, sequestered from an outbreak that’s causing women to fall ill. To protect themselves from toxins, which men can transmit to women, the sisters undergo cleansing rituals that include simulating drowning, drinking salt water and exposing themselves to extreme heat and cold. Above all, they are taught to avoid contact with men.

That’s the chilling premise of Sophie Mackintosh’s unsettling debut novel “The Water Cure,” a story that feels both futuristic and like an eerily familiar fable. It grew out of a simple, sinister question: What if masculinity were literally toxic?

“The Water Cure,” which comes out in the United States in January and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, joins a growing wave of female-centered dystopian fiction, futuristic works that raise uncomfortable questions about pervasive gender inequality, misogyny and violence against women, the erosion of reproductive rights and the extreme consequences of institutionalized sexism.

For Ms. Mackintosh, those questions don’t feel abstract.

“Building off the idea of toxic patriarchy, I decided to make it more solid and physical, because sometimes it does feel physical,” said Ms. Mackintosh, who lives in London. “I felt like I didn’t need to invent a disaster, because there was already a disaster happening.”

This new canon of feminist dystopian literature — which includes works by up-and-coming novelists like Ms. Mackintosh, Naomi Alderman, Leni Zumas and Idra Novey, as well as books by celebrated veterans like Louise Erdrich and Joyce Carol Oates — reflects a growing preoccupation among writers with the tenuous status of women’s rights, and the ambient fear that progress toward equality between the sexes has stalled or may be reversed.

[ Read this review of two new works of nonfiction about the power of women’s anger. ]

Most of these new dystopian stories take place in the future, but channel the anger and anxieties of the present, when women and men alike are grappling with shifting gender roles and the messy, continuing aftermath of the MeToo movement. They are landing at a charged and polarizing moment, when a record number of women are getting involved in politics and running for office, and more women are speaking out against sexual assault and harassment.

At a time of increased unease about parity between the sexes, both new and classic dystopian novels seem to be resonating with readers and critics. Ms. Alderman’s novel, “The Power,” a twisted feminist revenge fantasy set in a world where women develop the ability to deliver an electric shock, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and is in development as a television series.

At the same time, readers are embracing classics of the genre that have taken on new significance in today’s political climate. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” set in a future theocratic state where women are treated as reproductive slaves, has sold more than 3.5 million copies in the United States since 2017, bringing total sales to more than five million, and was adapted into an award-winning television series.

Lately, Ms. Atwood’s imaginary dystopia has inspired real-life political activism, as protesters dressed as handmaids in red robes and white bonnets have gathered at state capitols around the country to oppose policies that restrict women’s access to abortion and health care. In September, a group of red-robed women protested at the United States Senate during hearings for Brett M. Kavanaugh, who was confirmed to the Supreme Court after being accused of committing sexual assault, and could potentially cast a decisive vote overturning Roe v. Wade.

“The moment that we’re in is terrifying for a lot of women, and the story that Margaret Atwood created captures that fear so incredibly well,” said Lori Lodes, an adviser for Demand Justice, a liberal advocacy group that organized the recent protests at the Senate.

[ Read this list of novels that tackle sexual assault. ]

Women have been writing dystopian fiction for decades. Some of the most influential female pioneers in science fiction and fantasy, including Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler and Angela Carter, used the genre as a framework to write about gender identity and its constraints.

The recent proliferation of feminist dystopian works builds on that body of literature, using the lens of science fiction to project current concerns onto the future, while also reflecting on the past.

“They’re in a way how-to books, or what-would-I-do books, supposing this happened to me, what would I do?” Ms. Atwood said in an interview. “The idea that history will always progress is a fantasy.”

Some of the novels are meant to serve as cautionary tales against political inaction and complacency, and as a warning that steps toward women’s equality may one day be curtailed.

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