Post-Atwood feminism in dystopian literature: repetitive or resonant?


Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has left a vast impact on modern literature. The legacy of her 1985 dystopian thriller has inspired a sub-genre of feminist thrillers, including Naomi Alderman’s The Power and Christina Dalcher’s VOX. Yet, in exploring these dystopias, the genre limits itself to a repetitive story of the female struggle to freedom. In this light, does Alderman’s work actually resonate with contemporary feminist readers?

The results of the 2016 presidential election, alongside the snowball effect of the #MeToo movement in 2017, caused global dismay for the future of women’s rights. With the 2017 release of the TV series, The Handmaid’s Tale, discussions surrounding the future of feminism surged dramatically. Thus, the arrival of The Power, published in 2016, was well-positioned for the Anglo-American political maelstrom. The Power focuses on a futuristic world where countries are led by matriarchies. Authority resides with women, due to their fantastical ability to deliver deadly electrical shocks. Alderman’s worldwide female revolution is narrated through an unpublished manuscript, providing additional letters from the writer’s perspective. This deftly combines her dystopian world with her lived experiences: Alderman herself was mentored by Atwood, who directly suggested that Alderman include the women’s convent. This setting, sparking the emergence of global religious fundamentalism, is explicitly reminiscent of the Christian fundamentalism in The Handmaid’s Tale, demonstrating Atwood’s influence on The Power

Though Atwood’s influence over Alderman’s work is clear, the real beauty in The Power is Alderman’s own literary voice. Her linguistic grasp of metaphor and imagery results in some truly emotional scenes, without exploiting experiences of trauma. When the character Enuma kisses her friend Tunde without consent, Alderman’s sensory description contrasts the scents of orange blossom and bubblegum with the sounds of insects and the buzzing of Enuma’s electrical charge, creating a heady mixture of lust and power. Furthermore, by depicting Enuma’s ability to harm as an integral part of Tunde’s titillation, Alderman pointedly twists the ‘strong independent woman’ trope into a comment on female sexual dominance over men. Her overt subversion of gender roles is also repeated in the letters that bookend her manuscript: she depicts an inexpert male writer, keen to impress the condescending and slightly unsavoury tastes of a leading female author. In reversing stereotypical genders, Alderman implicitly recognises that power corrupts, regardless of which gender wields it.

Alderman implicitly recognises that power corrupts, regardless of which gender wields it.

In comparison, Christina Dalcher’s VOX is a more recent publication within the genre. Though thought-provoking, VOX lacks worldbuilding and its experimental premise – ‘what if women only spoke 100 words per day?’ – does not strengthen the narrative. Moreover, the male protagonist, Lorenzo, eventually saving the day rather undermines the book’s feminist message. Dalcher is not alone in this, though: think of the role of Offred’s lover, Nick, in orchestrating her escape in The Handmaid’s Tale. Female journeys to empowerment only succeed when supported by strong male protagonists, sympathetic to their lovers. 

The works of Atwood, Alderman and Dalcher also collectively fail to consider the non-white experience, perhaps unintentionally, cultivating their books for the white gaze. This lack of intersectionality means that their narrative of female oppression fails to examine how this oppression may be compounded by discrimination through race or ethnicity. In The Power, although Tunde is Nigerian and Allie, another major character, is mixed-race, these are small attempts to diversify a mainly Anglo-American focused novel. VOX is set in Italy, and its characters tend to reflect Italian stereotypes rather than portray diversity. Intersectional feminists, including Angelica Bastién, have also criticised Atwood’s post-racial world, where racial discrimination, tensions, and experiences are never addressed. How relevant, then, are these cautionary tales to modern-day, intersectional feminism? 

Their narrative of female oppression fails to examine how this oppression may be compounded by discrimination through race or ethnicity.

Analysing The Handmaid’s Tale alongside other works of the feminist dystopian genre provides us with a vital starting point for socio-political commentary on modern America and Europe. However, the genre limits itself immensely, still sometimes falling back on the ‘knight in shining armour’ stereotype instead of fully rejecting it. Even when reversing gender roles, these works conform to traditional narratives, which inherently exclude all non-white perspectives from being heard. This genre must pivot to include intersectional, inclusive feminism, or else it will fail to resonate with a modern, diverse readership.

Image: Miguel Bruna via Unsplash

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