Beyond The Handmaid’s Tale: Feminist Dystopia & Utopia

We always love it when worthwhile, interesting books are adapted to film or TV, as it invariably means that a multitude of readers will be drawn to the source. As sales figures and waiting lists and libraries attest, this has been quite a year for Margaret Atwood’s landmark 1985 dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale, owing largely to the recent Hulu series, as well as the current political climate. If you’re waiting for a copy – or if you’ve already read it – why not tap into the diverse tradition of feminist science fiction that explores gender and society in provocative and visionary ways.

Hillary Jordan’s 2011 title When She Woke offers a dystopian version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in which a young Texas woman is punished for having an abortion by having her skin genetically died red, making her an outcast in a near future American theocratic society that is increasingly hostile to women. P.D. James’s The Children of Men envisions a society doomed by a plague of infertility, and other writers have used this device to more overtly explore reproductive rights, such as in Meg Ellison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwifewhile it is too much fertility that leads to misogynist repression in Sarah Hall’s Daughters of the North. Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country envisions a world where men and women are strictly segregated into proscribed roles, giving rise to a matriarchal movement that seeks to unseat the dominant male order. One of the most original recent feminist dystopias comes from Finland. In Johanna Sinisalo’s disarming and offbeat The Core of the Sun, our heroine Vanna seeks escape from a deeply regimented patriarchal and misogynistic “eusistocracy” by exploring drug culture focused on chili peppers.

Though less common today than those ubiquitous dystopias, another approach to highlighting societal issues lies through envisioning utopian alternatives to the current state of things, and there is a robust tradition of feminist utopia. Utopian tales such as Bengali writer Begama Rokeya’s 1905 Sultana’s Dream, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 Herland, and Doris Lessing’s 2007 The Cleft reveal much about patriarchy by portraying purely matriarchal societies. Provacative titles such as The Female Man by Joanna Russ or Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy offer multiple versions of how the sexes might relate, while Ursula LeGuin’s thought-provoking 1969 classic The Left Hand of Darkness delivers us to a truly gender-fluid world, where individuals are no longer defined by an accident of birth.

Find these and many more intriguing works of gender related speculative fiction on this list in our catalog.

     – Posted by David W.

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6 Responses to Beyond The Handmaid’s Tale: Feminist Dystopia & Utopia

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    Suzy McKee Charnas’ Walk to the End of the World (1974) is a worthy addition as well to any discussion of feminist SF.

  2. B. Y. says:

    Hi SPL! Unfortunately, The Female Man is a text that has been repeatedly cited for its transphobic/transmisogynist views, and it’s essentialist reinforcement of the gender binary. From a review by Noah Berlatsky:

    “The most explicit rejection of femininity, though, comes again in the section dealing with Jael’s world, where men and women live in separate enclaves. The men still enforce patriarchy, which means they need someone to dominate—and so some men dress as and are surgically altered to perform as women. Russ’ disdain and disgust at ‘the changed’ isn’t especially subtle. ‘The official ideology has it that women are poor substitutes for the changed,’ she writes… Though the changed are of course not real, they are clearly meant as analogues for trans women; who are figured as deceived, disgusting, pitiable dupes of patriarchy.

    Radical feminist transphobia was even more common in 1975 than it is now, and Russ apologized for the transphobia in her book later in her life. Still, the treatment of trans women in The Female Man can’t exactly be said to be accidental. As Julia Serano has argued in Whipping Girl, hatred directed at trans women is often misogynist. It expresses a hatred of femininity, and a disgust that someone who could pass, or be taken for, a man, could instead exist in the world as a woman.”

    I’m disappointed to see this book as part of the list, without any mention of this well-known theme.

  3. Joseph Wolf says:

    Many thanks for this post and perspective.

  4. Layna says:

    I love this list! The Gate to Women’s Country and Woman on the Edge of Time were some of my first exposure to feminist sci-fi that gave careful thought to social, psychological, and bio-social technologies of the future–rather than just imagining the physics of star flight in worlds that reproduced most of the bigotries of the current one.

    Please add in Joan Slonczewski’s A Door Into Ocean; her masterful novel envisions neurolinguistic and biosocial technologies of nonviolence. It’s a good read on its own just for the writing too.

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