Monday, August 18, 2008

Feminist Dystopias

On the plane to Mexico for spring break, I read Jeannette Winterson’s new book, The Stone Gods. The beginning of the book is spectacular as Winterson transports us to a future dystopic world. The problem with the book is that it unravels by the time Winterson reaches the end of the book. I desperately wish that she had written more of the first section of the book and ditched the second and third parts, although the trope of interweaving the three worlds is interesting and somewhat engaging. In spite of this criticism, this really is a fantastic book by an author that I just love. One of the very interest things about Winterson’s dystopia in The Stone Gods is how gender and sexuality operate as a fulcrum of the creation of her dystopic future.

I had the opportunity to watch the more recent dystopic, Children of Men, this summer as well, which was nominated for three Academy Awards. The interesting thing about Children of Men as a dystopia is the way that it, almost unwittingly, I think, fetishizes pregnancy. The framework of this film is that in 2027, conception is impossible and no children have been born, until a woman, an immigrant in England, is pregnant and seeking safe passage to have her baby. In the film, pregnancy is the opportunity for a future and for a release from the dystopia created by the film.

Unlike Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, where pregnancy and the control of the female body is the source of the dystopia, in Children of Men, pregnancy is the way that we are released, or delivered, from the dystopia. Atwood’s work is really a classic now and I think it’s interesting to consider these two books in light of The Handmaid’s Tale. Children of Men, for me, while disturbing and unsettling, does not have at the core of its analysis gender roles. Rather it embraces the current environmental horrors as the source of creating the dystopic future and then overlays gender, pretty uncritically, I think, onto the story--and uses traditional constructions of gender as the “savior” model for the book. Winterson, like Atwood, however, has at the base of her work an analysis about gender - and sexuality - and it is central to the telling of her story. That’s why while I see limitations to Winterson’s work in this current book, I admire it. As a professor of mine said, “Writing books is hard work.” That’s true, and writing them in a way that is informed by sex and gender is even harder.

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