Blog sample for ENG 3430: Survey of Women and Literature (SP 2019)
Rebecca Traister at The Cut has been writing a lot lately on women's rage. Her recent piece, excerpted from Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger (2018), explores how women have been one of the most potent forces for social change in U.S. history and how we're seeing this play out in the present moment/movement(s). It's difficult to know, Traister cogently reminds us, where the current wave of women's protests (over sexual harassment, pay equity, reproductive freedom, racial justice, to name a few) will lead, or if any lasting changes will result from the collective anger people are feeling right now: "Because movements are made up of moments, strung out over months, years, decades. They become discernible as movements — are made to look continuous and coherent — only after they’ve made a substantive difference." I'm wondering what an alternative history would look like if in 1776 the "founding fathers" had taken seriously Abigail Adams's warning that if they “put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands,” without paying “particular care and attention” to the rights of women, “we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation” (qtd. in Traister). Indeed, what would our present moment look like if they had taken her advice to: “Remember the ladies” (and all the other enslaved majorities ruled by a minority of white men who saw only themselves as fully human and deserving of freedom).
There are quite a few feminist dystopias that imagine a future where the 19th Amendment is repealed and several centuries of incremental justice is erased--Atwood's Handmaid's Tale and Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue come immediately to mind, both published within a year of each other in the mid-80s and tapping into the rage (and fears) of their own particular time while speaking to the historical past and our future present. Then there are the feminist "utopias" that project into the future or past--for instance, more recently, Naomi Alderman's The Power (2016)—a world/reality where women hold political, physical, and sexual power over men. This works as an effective device that materializes the everyday sexisms women in general are made to endure (Traister also provides some chilling recent examples of these in the media and senate responses to women's protests over the election of an overtly racist, serial sexual harasser to the presidency and of course that president's defense of all the similar boys trolling around in his club, or, locker room). However, the main problem with The Power, and other narratives like it, including Handmaid's Tale and Native Tongue, is that they never seem to unravel or imagine anything possible beyond raced/sexed/gendered binaries and their intended readers or audience are for the most part quite limited.
Certainly they appeal to white women's rage (they already know what sexism feels and looks like) and perhaps they are trying to make visible to (white) men their own privilege and misogyny, but do very little to expose/explore the everyday violence and insidious trauma experienced by people of color and/or people living in generational, systemic poverty. The kinds of socio-political rights and bodily freedoms these novels imagine being eroded or gained are in many ways taken for granted, in the sense that there is little to no acknowledgement of how these same rights and freedoms have never been fully extended to a large portion of (non-white, non-cis, queer, nonconforming- or disable-bodied) peoples. So if you want to read a dystopia (I use that term loosely here) that explores the complexities of this country's history of slavery and its unresolved repercussions that we are still grappling with, then definitely start with Octavia Butler's time-traveling Kindred (1979). Then, continue reading through the increasingly published (and popular) body of indigenous and postcolonial speculative fictions and writers—for instance, Nalo Hopkinson, Larissa Lai, Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemison, Tomi Adayemi, and many others found in anthologies like So Long Been Dreaming (2004) and Walking the Clouds (2012)—who expand the boundaries of not only the genre of sf/dystopia/fantasy but the kinds of rage and bodies allowed agency in these types of narratives.
Still. I would like to see/read a story that imagines a history, present, and future where anger/rage is no longer necessary, where multiple humans/nonhumans exist in a system of mutualism, where there might still be conflict (what's a story without conflict, many might ask) but a conflict that is not fought over the right to freedom but perhaps how to live in or with that freedom in the most sustainable, equitable, intra-active entanglements between different peoples and species. I think Sue Burke's Semiosis (2018) actually makes a fair attempt to do this, but only manages to see it in some far distant, other-planetary future. For now, on this world and in this time, despite unresolved histories and generations of exclusion, as Alicia Garza notes, freedom (and a just future) will only be possible through a "coalition that is … much bigger than [any one group's interests]. I want people to get free. I'm mad as hell about a whole bunch of things, every single day. But I want to be free more than I want to be mad" (qtd. in Traister).
Coincidentally, Michelle Alexander's debut column for the NY Times Op-Ed, "We Are Not the Resistance," was published while I was writing this post and provides some further insights into the present moment/movement(s), pushing for something beyond the rage of resistance: "Today, many of us in the movements to end mass deportation and mass incarceration do not want to simply resist those systems. We aim to end them and reimagine the meaning of justice in America. By the same token, many of those who are battling climate change and building movements for economic justice understand that merely tinkering with our political and economic systems will not end poverty or avert climate disaster, nor will mere resistance to the status quo. As the saying goes, 'What you resist persists.' Another world is possible, but we can’t achieve it through resistance alone."