Where Feminist Dystopian Fiction Falls Short
The canon of feminist dystopian writing mostly offers a narrow version of womanhood: sensationalized, suffering, and overwhelmingly white.
Image via Hulu.
As the gulf between speculative fiction and political reality continues to narrow, the popularity of the feminist dystopian novel persists.
The relationship between thought experiment, publishing, and policy forms a darkly efficient little ecosystem: For every human rights abuse enacted into law, there’s a new novel to paint us a potential fresh hell. Critics have been grappling with the genre’s powerful resurgence, its gratuitous violence, and, worst of all, its perennial relevance ever since Margaret Atwood unleashed The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. And, considering supply-and-demand, the sub-genre’s moment appears poised to continue.
It’s important to evaluate the canon we’re building around these texts, as borders can easily double as blinders. Canons, like history, are subjectively constructed: When critics note commonalities, compare imagined regimes, and run through the roll-call—Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Christina Dalcher’s Vox, Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure, to name a few with a strong attendance record—they’re cocooning a canon through repeated citation. And citation breeds exclusion; absent a few non-white and non-Western outliers, the existing canon is largely composed of stories by and about white North American or European women.
This is in part circumstantial; as Sophie Gilbert notes in a widely-read piece on the sub-genre for The Atlantic: these speculative texts are largely “rooted in the US and its own distinctive cultural anxieties,” which are coming hard and fast. Gilbert does admit that it’s “fascinating” to consider how non-Western countries might disintegrate if caught in a similar nightmare. But such an attitude ignores the nightmares already extant. If we narrow our focus exclusively to the American news cycle, we miss the full and terrifying range of global female suffering, as well as the stories being told to illustrate it.
On the one hand, we often come to genre fiction specifically for a certain kind of sameness—the pleasure of experiencing a familiar formula reconfigured in a fresh, challenging way. Moreover, the formal elements of dystopian worlds are powerful building blocks for social critique: a near-future setting, literalizing metaphor, tweaking an existing system to expose its ill-concealed repressiveness. Despite the genre’s formulaic nature, these variables contain massive potential for innovation––one reason why they’ve proved to be so enduring.
On the other hand, however, it’s easy for repetition to slip into carelessness. The narrative cores of these novels are formed around admittedly horrifying but increasingly ludicrous “what-if” questions. Stack them together and it can feel like the writers are engaged in a kind of deliberately provocative one-upmanship: What if all women were tortured for speaking more than 100 words per day? What if any woman who dared show willfulness got transported back to a more repressive time as punishment? What if toxic masculinity was literally a toxin?
Even as they vividly depict the perversion of political policy, this body of feminist dystopian writing is at risk of closing on a reified version of womanhood: sensationalized, suffering, and overwhelmingly white. This is a conversation that needs to be broadened and globalized, which might in turn require bringing it out of the high-concept realm and back to reality. As readers and critics, we ought to shift our focus from the world we almost have to the one we’re already stuck with, even (or especially) if that involves looking beyond our own borders. Speaking to The New York Times about Before She Sleeps, her near-future novel set in the Middle East, author Bina Shah put it succinctly: “What’s going on now in Saudia Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan is worse than what’s happening in The Handmaid’s Tale.”
There are more ways to depict the routine banality of male violence––and the closely-associated catharsis of the female revenge fantasy––than dreaming up an entirely new sociopolitical system. Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel, My Sister, The Serial Killer, which came out in late 2018, is strong precisely because of its commitment to realistic gender dynamics. The book contains much of the same raw material as others we group under the “feminist dystopia” label—a sensitivity to the many faces of inequality; a sharp attunement to the precariousness of female existence; the diffuse cocktail of fury and exhaustion that comes with the work of trying to navigate it. But mixed in with the standard stuff is a liveliness that the canon at large can lack, and a willingness to redraw the lines of genre in a way that accounts for a more global understanding of female experience.
Set in Lagos, the book is an incendiary mash-up of two unlikely genres: the slasher and the domestic novel. It’s narrated by Korede, a meticulous, quiet, long-suffering nurse whose sister, Ayoola––the younger, more traditionally attractive, artistic, charismatic, and generally beloved sibling—has an inconvenient habit of tiring of her lovers, drawing them into conflict, stabbing them, then claiming self-defense. Next, she calls Korede to help with the body disposal. The two operate under an efficient system until they’re divided by a bump in the road: Ayoola meets Korede’s long-time unrequited love, a doctor at the hospital where Korede works, and begins a dangerous flirtation. The sisters’ mother is overjoyed that Ayoola is dating a doctor. Korede is terrified she’ll be bleaching his blood from their carpets in a few short weeks.
My Sister is a refreshing antidote to the plethora of Atwood’s high-concept successors. Rather than rendering global disaster or rewriting existing political regimes, Braithwaite zeroes in on the fine-grained and domestic; the everyday but still-brutal acts of violence against women. In the same Atlantic essay, Gilbert praises Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks for the “quiet ordinariness” with which it strips its female characters of rights, rather than needing to dream up “spectacular global catastrophes” that catalyze their loss. Braithwaite’s novel makes a virtue of a similar quietude: Taking as its context the realities of gender-based violence in Nigeria and the intensity with which young girls are primed to view marriage as a privileged goal, it offers a detailed and culturally-specific depiction of Nigerian womanhood. In contrast to the “preposterous scenarios” imagined by the pro forma feminist dystopia, Gilbert notes that it’s those settings like Braithwaite’s, those that “aren’t preposterous at all,” that rightly strike us as even more alarming.
My Sister proceeds in short, sharp chapters delivered in Korede’s characteristic deadpan—a tone that pivots neatly from comic dread to poignant resignation. Between the scenes of the present—those at home, in the hospital, or on the streets of Lagos—Braithwaite weaves a series of chilling flashbacks, all titled “Father.” More than just a slasher dramedy, this novel is also a portrait of a family that has been traumatized by a monstrous man. Their father is a force of rage that keeps the women around him perpetually terrified: He is physically violent toward his wife and daughters, especially as he tries to marry off Ayoola to a wealthy, lecherous older man. His actions ground the novel’s thrills and one-liners in the psychological realities of misogyny and domestic violence. The title and premise might sound facile, but there’s real emotional heft behind Ayoola’s protestations of self-defense. “It’s upsetting to think about,” she tells her sister while describing a fight with an earlier lover, lately deceased. “He had me cornered.”
Still, My Sister is also very much a slasher novel, and Braithwaite stays alert to the comedy of the climbing body count. She’s deliberate about muddying the moral waters and delighting in it: When Ayoola claims self defense, the practical Korede flatly counters, “But . . . there was a stab wound in his back.” Some readers might be rubbed the wrong way by Braithwaite’s comedy, reading it––somewhat ungenerously––as glibness toward misogyny and female believability. But our systems novels are stuffed with more than enough self-seriousness—if there’s one thing that feminist dystopian books mostly lack, it’s a sense of humor.
It’s worth thinking about how far we’re prepared to push the borders of the “what-if” question in the service of depicting women’s rage––What if men piss you off? Just kill them—as well as remembering which bodies are disproportionately policed for expressing it.
Although My Sister does a similar kind of work as the feminist dystopian novel, it achieves its political ends through a more innovative set of tropes. Its exaggerations are those of agency rather than environment. Men are helpless in the face of Ayoola’s deliberate charm, useless to the point of inarticulacy. Time and again, the logistics of body disposal are improbably skewed in the sisters’ favor. Like The Handmaid’s Tale and its antecedents, we’re asked to suspend our disbelief in favor of the book’s political project. But unlike the growing canon, My Sister celebrates its chaos and rage. There is no Atwood-like simmering in victimhood here––Braithwaite’s sisters are women of action. Their story is one of quotidian violence and daily fury, shaped by the culture and politics of Lagos.
There’s no doubt that women’s anger is a hot topic right now. My Sister cuts straight to the heart of what makes it cathartic: Killing off bad men is a lot more efficient than rewriting political policy.