How Feminist Dystopias Make Sense of a Changing Reality

Even as actual reproductive rights are eroded and fertility falls, these fictional visions still have much to offer

How Feminist Dystopias Make Sense of a Changing Reality
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines Magazine

Over the past decade or so, many American novelists have been disturbed enough by the direction of society to speculate on what an even worse future might look like. This wave of dystopian fiction has owed something to the popularity of “The Hunger Games” and something to the ascendant authoritarianism in American politics.

But it has surely also been due, in part, to a positive trend. A growing cultural feminism — which saw people walk through suburban neighborhoods and urban streets alike sporting “The Future Is Female” T-shirts — highlighted key texts. Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” (in which fertile women are compelled to give birth for prominent families) and Octavia Butler’s “Earthseed” novels (in which women in an anarchic hellscape resist a Christian cult leader who says he will “make America great again”) were applauded for their prescience. The former even became a hit TV show starring Elisabeth Moss and inspired costumes at a number of protests around the world.

As an American woman newly divested of the protections afforded by Roe v. Wade, I decided to read a recent crop of feminist doom scenarios this year: “When She Woke” (2011) by Hillary Jordan, “Red Clocks” (2018) by Leni Zumas, “Bumped” (2011) and its sequel “Thumped” (2012) by Megan McCafferty and “The Farm” (2019) by Joanne Ramos. I read them wondering what dystopias can offer when the world already feels both scarier and more banal than fiction.

My reading binge revealed a feminist vision that cut across a variety of imaginary hostile climates: The idea that the human instinct to control our own reproduction will rise and rise again in the face of repression and attempts at regulation. Despite their differences, including genre and tone, all these novels nod to the idea that a woman taking charge of her own body is a serious threat to the status quo, whether the stories are outlandish or just a hair removed from reality.

Of course, my initial reaction to this reading list was shock that several of these writers’ ghastly predictions have come close to the mark, including one recurring premise: What if a supervirus decimated human fertility, creating the conditions for total state control and social policing of reproduction?

As you may be aware, there has indeed been a major virus. And although COVID-19 isn’t the cause, global (male) fertility is plummeting. Meanwhile, in America, state control of reproduction is an ever-tightening vise. Politicians link new restrictions on reproductive freedom with fear mongering about population decline, laced with a racial subtext, which brings me to what these novels are not fully able to capture about our current dystopia: how the erosion of reproductive rights overlaps with state and vigilante violence toward immigrants and people of color, and with poverty and addiction, and with gun massacres, and with lack of support for families, all served to us in a constant, stultifying stream via our online social networks.

Yet if yesterday’s speculative fiction can’t capture the totality of our situation, it nevertheless offers brilliant glimpses of understanding. The rush by pundits to justify the killing of Jordan Neely, Black and mentally ill, in a New York subway car immediately reminded me of the most chilling aspect of “When She Woke,” Jordan’s electric 2011 riff on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel “The Scarlet Letter.” This 21st-century story of sin and ostracization pictures an America where the “superclap” has threatened fertility, allowing for a right-wing power grab. Now, lower-level criminals are “melachromed,” given injections that turn their skin bright colors, coded to their transgression, inviting shunning, retribution, exploitation — even kidnapping and sex slavery. It’s a more “humane” punishment system (because prison terms are much shorter) that leaves an entire caste at the mercy of their neighbors’ worst impulses.

Hannah, our heroine, who is chromed red for an underground abortion after her affair with a megachurch preacher (remember, it’s “The Scarlet Letter”), goes through several trials in this frightening new world: a short solo imprisonment that is broadcast on TV, then a reindoctrination at a Christian “straight path” center where she has to make and care for a doll to signify her lost fetus — and then a dramatic escape thanks to a group of violently awesome feminist outlaws. The most chilling aspects of the novel’s vision, though, remain the stigma and loneliness faced by the Chromes, and the way Hannah feels her life options shrinking by the second thanks to her identity as a “Red.” When it rains, and a shopkeeper shoves an old poncho at her and sends her away, our own world’s indifference to “undesirables” is underscored, and the Neely story reminds us that this scenario isn’t so far-fetched. In fact, the author has said that the novel was inspired by an offhand comment by her uncle about decriminalizing drug users but turning them “blue” to warn others:

We were discussing the drug problem in America, and he said something to the effect of, “I think all drugs ought to be legal and provided by the government; they just ought to turn you bright blue.” Meaning, so that other people can see you coming and stay the hell away from you. And this conversation, and the idea of what it would be like to be stigmatized in such a way, stuck in my mind and eventually bore the strange red fruit that became “When She Woke.”

Hannah’s flight to Canada, her journey’s final leg, calls back to Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” and its sequel, “The Testaments” (2019). In these stories Canada provides a half-solution to an America gone fascist — a solution that too neatly hearkens back to the Underground Railroad, as if we can’t imagine a future that doesn’t replay the past of Black American struggle.

Canada is no place of refuge for the women of “Red Clocks,” Leni Zumas’ 2019 projection of a future without Roe. In its pages, Mattie, a teenager who is “in the family way” thanks to some backseat fumbling with a boy, gets rejected for refuge at the Canadian border by a “friendly” guard who lets her off with a warning instead of doing his duty, which would mean condemning her to one of the brand-new prisons for women who try to abort. (This is the fate of a friend of hers. In these stories, there’s always a friend, often a woman of color, who has met the fuller force of the law or suffered.)

“Red Clocks,” a beautiful group portrait of several women in a town in the northwestern United States and their reproductive woes, alters our present just enough that its characters’ lives remain filled with quotidian complaints and jealousies — gossiping in the teachers’ lounge, wondering about each others’ sex lives and domestic foibles. But it’s all with the added weight of enshrined fetal personhood. “She was just quietly teaching history when it happened,” Ro, a teacher and amateur biographer, reminisces. “Woke up one morning to a president-elect she hadn’t voted for. This man thought women who miscarried should pay for funerals for the fetal tissue.” Ro is at an impasse, as a single woman who desperately wants a baby but can’t legally have in vitro fertilization (IVF). A looming “Every Child Needs Two” law will make adoption out of the question, too. So she is trying, with increasing futility, “intrauterine insemination. At her age, not much better than a turkey baster.” When Ro discovers that her student, Mattie, is pregnant, her desire for the baby almost threatens to overwhelm her moral judgment. Almost.

All the women in this book confront a renewed social misogyny that’s been tacitly encouraged by fetal personhood. Zumas sharply depicts how people love to despise an already trod-upon class. This feels especially relevant today, after the social backlash to #MeToo on display in the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard defamation trial coincided with the end of Roe and a sense that we were in a new ebb of feminist acceptance.

The way broader social backlash permeates a small town is carefully illustrated by Zumas. A key character, an eccentric local “healer” who uses herbs to provide medical care for the town’s women, is arrested and tried for providing an abortion that never happened. Her hut on the edge of town calls back to a different aspect of “The Scarlet Letter,” its coda in which Hester Prynne becomes a sort of aunt figure in a liminal space by the woods. “Red Clocks,” with the healer’s hut, and an underground abortion clinic, shows us a path out of the morass: quiet, care-based resistance.

While Mattie in “Red Clocks” ultimately obtains her abortion, the teen girls of Megan McCafferty’s cloying but clever YA series “Bumped” are unable to even conceive of the idea. Instead, they are pressured into “pregging” for the future of humanity — and for their own “famegaming.”

“Bumped,” a YA series that takes a tonal 180 from the above books, is the “Brave New World” to these novels’ “1984” — a story that locates all its coercive force in technology and pop culture rather than the law and Big Brother. It begins with a future much like that of “When She Woke” — a virus (this one’s not called the superclap, but hey) has destroyed reproductive capacity after age 18. Thus, teenagers are encouraged to “bump” and “preg” with impunity. Some plan to do so for profit, like the novel’s protagonist Melody, who has signed a contract to pioneer professional surrogacy. Some will bump for religion, like Harmony, Melody’s separated-at-birth twin, who lives in ultrareligious Goodside, where they “shoot first and pray for forgiveness” later.

As the sisters go through high jinks and their identities get confused, the message is that both the secular world’s commodification of women’s bodies and the religious world’s dogmatic control of women’s bodies are hurting these young women. And young men, too, who are not deemed good bump material if they’re short or otherwise imperfect. Melody eventually sees the light, grows closer to her sister and makes a speech heard round the world (literally, thanks to the novel’s ever-present social networks): “Baby! Baby! … Not bumps or pregs or deliveries … and we’re having meaningless sex to do it … we pretend that we aren’t in the business of buying and selling human beings.”

McCafferty’s books may seem more simplistic than the “grown-up” novels that deal with similar themes, but she aptly touches on currents that exist already, especially panic about declining (white) fertility.

“As go cars and young couples in their backseats, so goes America,” wrote Luther Ray Abel at the conservative magazine National Review just this spring, fantasizing about the good old days when teenagers got knocked up in cars and were forced into shotgun weddings. “C’mon, kids: Buy a car, fall in love, get married, have babies, and buy those babies a car.”

Each of these novels is chilling in a unique way — but all feature white heroines, in white milieux, whereas the reality is that Black women and immigrants bear the brunt of restrictive reproductive policies, while gender nonconforming people face the double discrimination of misogynistic social policy and an anti-trans bias that can even come from their own community, especially health care providers. To their credit, all the novelists are explicit about those broader truths through side characters and apocryphal stories, but reading them in succession highlighted the racial dimension of tussles over reproductive rights.

The disparate effects of these laws are not just factoids to trot out at pro-choice rallies — they are the historical heart of the anti-abortion movement. “​​For white women in particular, [a society based on these new laws] would mean a retreat to the home, where they would be encouraged to bear more children so as to reclaim the racial character of the nation,” wrote the scholar Melissa Harris-Perry way back in 2011, when anti-abortion laws began to proliferate alongside fiscal austerity and nativism. “Immigrant women, however, would be discouraged from having children.” To put it another way: The National Review doesn’t want Latinx kids in the Rio Grande Valley, or Black kids in Chicago, or trans teens anywhere, buying new hot rods, canoodling in the backseat and whoops! reproducing all over the place.

Joanne Ramos’ “The Farm” addresses race and class more directly than the other novels in this bunch, while sharing themes and literary approaches with several. The facility at the center of the plot has a literal “panopticon cam” watching the “hosts,” or surrogates, who are mostly immigrant women. Just as the characters in “Bumped” have a bracelet called MOM that beeps when they consume too much caffeine or get too upset, the hosts are “cared for” by having their entire lives, including food intake and exercise, monitored obsessively.

Ramos’ target as a novelist isn’t just paternalism toward pregnant folks, which she nails with painfully accurate satire, it’s the capitalist ethos, the desperation for a financial leg up that turns participants in any system into hustlers — and manipulators — and simultaneously victims of exploitation.

Her heroines, like the crew in “Red Clocks,” waver between friendship, rivalry and cruelty. Most compelling is Jane, a young Filipino woman being pressured on all sides to make life better for her baby daughter by separating from her and carrying someone else’s child. Perhaps most poignant of all the scenarios in the book is its opening description of Jane’s failed stint nursing babies for the ultra-rich, something that actually happens today exactly as described: “They will tell you to ‘make yourself at home,’” Jane is told about her clients. “But they do not want you to make yourself at home!”

“The Farm” posits the very plausible idea that pregnancy and reproduction itself will soon enough be outsourced systematically, and that when this happens, marginalized women will be put to work in the service of privileged ones. But like her fellow novelists, Ramos’ bleak vision is tempered by acts of friendship, and growth. Her characters, torn between the impulses to hustle and to take care of each other, find imperfect ways to make both work.

It’s been a sobering few months of reading. And yet the satisfying pace of these books, their deep character studies and moments of grace, made them all read as less bleak than the news itself. To follow the status of reproductive rights in 2023 is to be bombarded with horror stories that have no neat conclusion. In just the first few months after Roe fell, a woman named Gabriella was shot in the head by her partner after returning to Texas from Colorado, where she obtained a legal abortion — abortion having been rendered effectively illegal in her home state. A woman named Chloe in Arizona was forced to deliver a baby despite severe fetal anomalies that meant the infant’s life was short and full of pain. A woman named Deborah, unable to get an abortion in Florida, carried to term a baby with no kidneys — he died in her arms shortly after birth, as her doctors had predicted he would. A Black Texan couple temporarily lost their newborn for having a midwife-attended home birth (in an environment where maternal mortality for Black women is shockingly high). And for the women who simply couldn’t have abortions, the future is forbidding.

While the plots of novels tend to be clear, dystopian reality often arrives cloaked in confusion. Which states have what bans in place now? How many women have given birth to babies with genetic conditions who then died? The constant flux is a feature. It creates a scenario where the easiest answer to the question “What are my options?” for a pregnant person in distress is — there are none.

It’s also true that the people for whom Roe mattered the most at the end of its life were white women. For most rural, poor and otherwise marginalized Americans, Roe was a law in name only. And perhaps writers from these groups haven’t felt compelled, in the last decade, to imagine a society where reproduction was even more fraught. They were already there. At times, it feels obscene to conjure up an imaginary new underclass when so many exist already.

This is why there has been so much pushback on turning to “The Handmaid’s Tale” as a universal symbol of resistance, particularly in the post-Roe landscape. As an editorial from the Latina magazine Luz points out, to compare the loss of abortion rights to Atwood’s dystopia is to ignore “the history of child separation, de facto and actual forced birthing, and physical and mental violence as a tool in communities of color.” To leap to a fictionalized future as a metaphor erases that lived reality for millions of women.

Yet “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Octavia Butler’s “Earthseed” novels create “harder” dystopias than any I read this year — more totalitarian control for Atwood, more random terror for Butler, more death, sexual assault and separation of families for both.

Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 adaptation of P.D. James’ dystopian novel “Children of Men” remains an interesting male-envisioned touchstone in this genre. The story uses an infertility plague as a metaphor to warn of the growing struggle over resources — and refugees — in an era of climate catastrophe. As wars, mass atrocities and political upheavals around the world lead to dislocations, family separations and horrific traumas for migrants and asylum-seekers, “Children of Men” feels prophetic, but Cuaron maintains that it was simply a commentary about trends already apparent at the time. The Mexican director said in an interview that for him, “It was more about a spiritual infertility”: a commentary on the sense that human beings were living for the moment, and not for future generations. As the triple crises of fertility, displacement and climate continue to worsen, we can expect more feminist, personalized engagement with the global sweep of reproductive politics, and the fact that, as Cuaron says, “we are naturally migrants.”

But maybe that’s not what we need as readers. Perhaps the intensely personal, smaller nature of many of these newer dystopian novels makes sense for our times. As the news of crackdowns on reproductive rights becomes more overwhelming than ever before, the work of the feminist novelist may be less to remind us of how bad things can get, and more how those broader shifts will affect our daily lives. Even when we want to push them aside, they will affect us, unless we extend solidarity to others and find the courage to resist.

Whether it paints a smaller picture or a big one, ends on a note of hope or hopelessness, fictional treatment of ideas can help us sift through what threatens to overwhelm and remind us that even in the face of rabid reaction, sparks of autonomy will invariably ignite. Art may not always be able to grasp how bad things can get, but it shines at showing how brave people can be. In an indifferent time, fictional protagonists with agency and humanity can bolster our convictions — as long as we remember that those very qualities of agency and humanity are what’s being denied when the state gets involved in family planning.

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