How Not to Write a Feminist Utopia/Dystopia

Recently, I’ve been delving into the world of gender-based utopian fiction (that usually winds up being dystopian). Yes, it’s a little niche, but seeing as I’m dabbling with something like that myself, I thought I’d spend a bit of time seeing what was already out there. From my search, I’ve discovered a fair bit. Mostly written by men, we have scenarios ranging from weird viruses, to birth control resulting in unpleasant side effects, to an isolated society that began to spontaneously reproduce without men. So far, so good. By wiping out half the species you can have a good rummage around the human psyche, and imagine a few interesting ways things might pan out. But be warned, it isn’t all plain sailing.

How can a world without men be sexist?

A simple question, you might ask. Unfortunately, we have very recognisable character tropes trotted out, or in the case of World Without Men by Charles Maine (yes it was written in 1958, no it’s still not ok), apparently the only reason society has made no significant advances since all the men disappeared is simply because women lack the originality of thought to question or innovate. Add to that, they’re not even running the society, machines are. Excuse me while I go shout at the nearest person (apologies) or kick the hell out of a treadmill in order to vent my frustration. Surely the whole point of this type of fiction is to move outside the limits we’ve set ourselves? Just a thought.

It can go too far the other way…

If we look at something like Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, we’ve become so drunk on our own oestrogen that it’s all got a bit silly. The clothes are perfect, the money is perfect, they look perfect, everything is damn perfect. Until the men rock up, of course. A book that usurps any dominant power has a tricky line to tread. Yes, of course we want to see them get their comeuppance, but to imply that the society that replaces them will be completely flawless is just silly. That’s why, in some ways, Y-The Last Man was great, because some of the women were still murderous power-crazed idiots.

It spends too long telling you things

Then she walked into the room, and I just need to tell you a little bit about how the government works now, and, you know, other changes that I thought up when coming up with my idea. This is a tricky one. Creating an alternative universe takes a while (trust me, my massive pile of notes, and the people I’ve been bothering with my idea). When writing, it’s very tempting to let the reader know that you really have done your homework, that you’ve thought through every detail of this reality absolutely perfectly, and by the way, isn’t it great? Well, yes, but I’ve now lost the thread of the story. Books like The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood are fantastic, because they manage to immerse us into this new world without making us feel like we’re being told a whole load of useless information. It happens as part of the story (note to self/all writers penning their new bestseller).

They forget about character

In World Without Men, I had no feelings whatsoever about the lead characters. In Y-The Last Man, I found most of the characters unbelievable. Yes, you need to create a brilliant world, yes, you need an exciting story, but you’re not going to get very far on premise alone. If Game of Thrones has taught us anything, it’s that you can create a fancy world with dragons and castles, but what makes your story compelling is the creation of complex characters, and the interest an audience gets from watching them change and grow as a story develops.

I’ve just started reading The White Plague by Frank Herbert, and early indications are that it’s pretty good. Perhaps it will give me a bit more hope than the last few.

It may well be that you have experienced some wonderful gender-based dystopian fiction that manages to completely sidestep all of these issues. If so, do please comment below! Would be great to hear about them. If you’re working on a bit of fantasy writing yourself, you can take this list as a bit of a backwards ‘how-not-to’ list, to make sure the world gets to read some brilliant stories that don’t fall foul of these unfortunate issues. Happy reading!

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I'm a writer, teacher and drummer based in London. Short fiction and reviews are my main staples, along with some dabbling in novel writing.

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