Monday, 19 March 2012

Feminist Utopias: What’s Gender Got to Do With It?

In January, I posted to this blog on the subject of utopia, a perfect place. Is such a society possible?

Do certain conditions, such as the absence of crime, poverty, racism and other inequities make for the perfect place? Utopian narrative is a place to explore these questions, but these same narratives could be termed dystopian. Who decides what conditions are the most important, and how can these conditions be established and maintained without creating new modes of oppression?

One way to approach the inherent teetering between utopia/dystopia is to acknowledge and use that tipping point as a point of departure. In feminist utopian literature, narratives often complicate the easy answer, avoid closure, or look to examine multiple perspectives but provide no simple solution.

I hope I don’t have to explain or defend “feminist” here, but I welcome relevant dialogue.

Let’s just say by way of definition that feminist utopias are concerned with the search for equality in the ideal community. They consider both the existence of social stratification based on difference (sex, race, race, class) and the humanist ideal of sameness to be problematic. Gender inequalities are part of the exploration but not the totality. Feminist fiction tends to project its desires for perfect community and to investigate problematic elements of those desires. As such, some may seem neither utopian nor dystopian per se.

Three perfect examples are Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (she even subtitles it “An Ambiguous Utopia”), Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. These works look at social inequalities and suggest structures or processes to enable more equitable ways of living, but they’re not easy.

In The Dispossessed, the protagonist Shevek is forced to travel from his anarchist/socialist world to a repressive capitalist one to share scientific ideas which are deemed disruptive and self-serving to the functioning of his community. In The Fifth Sacred Thing, factions within a radically democratic city disagree about how to peacefully resist attack from militaristic invaders. Piercy’s novel presents an alternate society that may or may not be the hallucination of a mentally ill narrator.

Compare these narratives to utopias such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which projects a desire for the perfect human community or dystopias like Orwell’s 1984 which predict extreme, dim futures as cautionary tales. Their approach is humanist, focused on repression of citizenry, not issues specific to women's social roles and intersections of identity.

What are your thoughts on these intersections, and what other texts explore this?

What's useful about this kind of literary exploration?


  1. I had always been drawn to the idea that a utopian society would have an absence of gender. But as a transgendered person, over time I came to realise that gender was important to me and I couldn't decide if I wanted to be free from from it altogether or have it somehow redefined in a way that was free from patriarchy. It is the investiagation of the intimate self that I think really distinguishes good feminist blue sky thinking. A helpful article, thanks.

  2. You're welcome, and thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    I think a society without gender would find some other basis for discrimination and status (like in Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness). It's less about the existence of gender or race and more about the value assigned, and subsequent ranking or stratification of groups of people as better or less than.

    To me, the ideal society would value each person and their contributions, traits and voices equally, regardless of difference. Steps toward this can be seen in some radically egalitarian communities, so a better world is possible.

  3. I'm also very suspicious of claims to make sex/gender invisible--to me they're analogous with appeals to color-blindness, which has been shown to exacerbate racism, not promote equality. Once we're in a utopian, inequality-free world, then that wouldn't be the case, I suppose, but it's not a path to it. And in any case, I want to celebrate the differences between ethnicities, cultures, sexes, sexual identities and preferences, abilities. Vive la différence, not eliminate all difference.

    Again I want to return to my conception of utopian science fiction as a mirror to the dystopian; you take our world or one very like it, tweak one or two social-political elements that are promising to make them work better (or remove a cause of inequality), and thought-experiment what a better world we might live in if only we could fix this one thing. It doesn't have to be a perfect world--I think we've agreed that anyone attempting to write a perfect science-fictional world will upset someone in the process. So to me Nicola Griffith's books (even the dystopian ones) are utopian in as much as the women in them do not fear sexual violence or discrimination, lesbians do not show fear or doubt or crisis or feel the need to hide themselves or conceal their feelings for others, and no one else expresses surprise or disapproval at their visibility. It's subtle, but it makes the whole world a very different--and much better--place.

  4. Octavia Butler's Lilith's Breed books are kind of depressing utopias in a way. Depressing because the concept is that humans are so screwed up that the only way to make the world better is to have aliens come in and humanely kill us all.

    They're also great though because they suggest that utopian fictions are motivated in part by imperialist impulses, and that indeed imperialism is motivated in no small part by utopian visions. It's always easier to make a better world on someone else's land.

    1. Yes, that's a very good observation. I suppose the (partial) exception to the colonial utopia is the post-apocalyptic utopia--building a new society after the total collapse of the old. (I say "partial" because post-apocalyptic is a very frontier-mentality genre, with lots of lone horsemen and pioneer spirit and circling the wagons, and it doesn't come much more colonial than that.) Lilith of course does both, making my point less new.