Red Clocks takes place in a near-distant future (almost too near to be considered dystopia) where abortion and IVF are “federally banned” (33) and a new law, “Every Child Needs Two,” is about to go into effect, making single motherhood illegal (119). Throughout the novel, women’s “bodies are broken” (4), reduced to their “biological destiny” (ahem, Freud) or reproductive function, and associated with “Nature,” as a disruptive, unruly, and unpredictable force that must be tamed or controlled. Several of the main female characters often feel ambivalence or rage toward their own bodies—Ro’s desperate frustration with her inability to become pregnant or adopt a child before single-motherhood is banned; Mattie’s disgust of her pregnant (teen) body and fear of trying to seek an abortion; and Susan’s conflicted regret over reproducing two children (instead of pursuing a law career), trapping her into the suffocating tedium of motherhood and an unhappy marriage. All three women, trapped by their bodies, gender roles, and sense of failure or helplessness, internalize their anger toward a world that limits their agency instead of externalizing it to work toward social justice and reproductive freedom.
Ro and Susan, arguably the two angriest characters, spend much of the novel doubting or grappling with their own right to be angry while also projecting that suppressed rage onto each other, both envying and resenting the other for their assumed freedoms—one for being a mother and the other for her childlessness. Their friendship breaks down as a result of their inability to express their rage, to communicate to each other their deep unhappiness over the fact that they live in a society and culture in which women are only defined by their familial relationships (as mothers, daughters, sisters). A world where the fundamental value of a woman is determined solely by whether she reproduces or fails to reproduce children rather than what women do or accomplish in the world beyond their designated bodily functions or relationships. The two characters who seem to accept their bodies with any sense of pleasure or at least lack of self-loathing and internalized rage, Gin and Eivør, are notably outcasts or on the margins because they refuse to accept or live according to repressive gender norms. As if to live on the margins is the only positioning in a patriarchal society where women’s freedom and self-love are possible. Though, of course, Zumas also indicates the precarity of that positioning or freedom by aligning Gin’s story with the history of witch persecutions and Eivør with a long history of women’s writing and scientific discoveries being silenced, suppressed, or attributed to men.
In this sense, like many dystopias, Red Clocks is a novel more about the past than the future. Zumas examines the ways in which women remain trapped by patriarchy, which throughout much of history has worked to oppress and isolate women by refusing them their rights to bodily agency or their ability to voice their anger against anyone but themselves. Likewise, Oyeyemi’s rewriting of “Snow White” in Boy, Snow, Bird, set primarily in New England during the 1950s and 60s, is concerned with a patriarchal history of silencing women and turning women against each other; however, Oyeyemi also extends this to a contemplation of the history of systemic racism and “passing,” constructs of whiteness and beauty myths, and power relations between women. Indeed, Oyeyemi exposes how the “worship of whiteness” (283) and white femininity (or masculinity) complicates the question of who is allowed to express rage.
Much of Boy’s power rests in her whiteness and blind privilege, her freedom not “to see color,” and literally so when she unwittingly marries into a family of color who has been passing for white over the course of three generations. Boy is also passing, though, hiding her lower-class roots (as she cultivates the appearance of a patrician, icy, peroxide-blonde) and her own history of childhood abuse. To some extent, Boy’s trauma keeps her in a kind of protective dissociative dream-state, and arguably her white privilege allows for this as opposed to those who suffer the generational and everyday traumas of systemic racism. Then she gives birth to Bird (who is unexpectedly born darker-skinned than her older half-sister, Snow) and wakes up to the nightmare of racial injustice.
Boy’s anger is unleashed upon the Whitmans for “hiding” behind the privilege of their lighter skin. Even if their moving north and their choice to “pass” as white was prompted by the need for survival during Jim Crow and the chance at a better life, the family assumes she will send Bird away to live with Clara (the shunned darker Whitman sister) and Boy clearly sees the self-loathing that they direct toward themselves, and toward her own daughter. Because they bought into the “worship of whiteness,” transforming Snow into a beautiful object, a kind of trophy for their success at “breeding out” their blackness, instead of Bird, Boy sends Snow away, sacrificing one daughter for the other.
When I first read this book, I kept asking why the family so easily allows Boy to send Snow away. Perhaps blinded by my own white privilege, the answer was quite obvious (and mentioned at some point by the family matriarch, Olivia): Boy’s whiteness and the family’s worship of whiteness grants her the power to voice her rage and act to protect her own daughter. Once that core issue of white identity and power is exposed in the book and within the family, Boy immediately gains power over the Whitmans. She, unlike the other women in the novel, is allowed to be angry. Nowhere is this made clearer than in the reconciliation scene between Boy and the now grown-up Snow near the end of the novel. Boy admits she treated Snow badly and tells her that the way she resolved anger toward others when she was a girl living in the Lower East Side was to slug it out, to express that anger through physical violence.
Snow cannot do this; she has been raised to be the perfect white girl and then the perfect black woman, and “black women have never had the privilege of rage”.
Huffington Post via Congressional Quarterly via Getty Images
In my next blog, I’ll be writing about Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street and Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. Both novels provide vehicles for exploring how young women of color learn both the limits placed upon their anger or voices as well as the power of telling their stories. By simply telling coming-of-age stories about latinx or black girlhood, Cisneros and Woodson work to broaden the range of whose stories can be told and in what voices.