Becoming Well-Read: Herland

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Ashley: Only a few years ago, after the epically named The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 earned less than the previous movies in the franchise and the second-to-last Divergent film failed entirely, everyone talked about how the dystopian genre was dead. (The young adult branch of it, anyway.) Fantasy like George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones and Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind and realistic YA like John Green novels were “the next big things.” Now, with the rising popularity of older dystopias like George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, plus the publication of buzzed-about new installations in the genre, like Omar El Akkad’s American War and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore instead laments the death of dystopias as an artistically rich, relevant genre.

The Hunger Games is far and away one of my favorite books, and I naturally gravitate toward the pessimism of dystopias, but even I feel weary by the proliferation of mediocrity within the genre. While I disagree with some of Lepore’s conclusions (particularly that young adult literature killed dystopian novels), I can get behind her initial lament about the lack of utopian literature to balance out the helplessness of dystopia.

Lepore asserts that “dystopias follow utopias the way thunder follows lightning.” While we’ve been promised many utopian outcomes in the past few decades — social justice for minority groups, more connection and understanding thanks to the internet, better healthcare — all these dreams have been shot down. “Social justice warriors” are derided. The internet has placed us all in feedback loops, unable and unwilling to understand anyone outside our bubbles. Universal healthcare in America didn’t instantly solve everything. Hence the rapid publication of even more hopeless dystopian novels.

But where were all the utopian novels before that? If you asked me to tell you novels in the utopian canon, I could only name Utopia by Thomas More (obviously), Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. I’ve only read the Le Guin novel, which is the newest on the list with a publication date in the 1970s. You don’t get high-profile articles like this one in Entertainment Weekly about dystopia’s overshadowed counterpart. The amount of thunder we’ve been hearing in the dystopian genre isn’t justified given how little utopian lightning has preceded it.

Herland (ebook)

Which is strange, because it’s not like a utopia actually implies perfection. It always has a dark heart. In fact, Steven Pinker points out in The Better Angels of Our Nature that utopian thinking can be used to justify genocide, as a perfect society for some always comes at the eradication of those who don’t fit the mold of perfection. Utopian fiction grapples with the moral pros and cons of its perfect society. 

Though I’ve had lengthy debates with my boyfriend over what does or does not constitute a dystopia (post-apocalyptic fiction can be dystopian but is not by default! No, the book doesn’t need to pretend to be a utopia at first before revealing it’s a dystopia!), I can’t tell you anything about the tropes of utopias. So this month, I’ll finally pick up Herland, which I referenced in my The Handmaid’s Tale column and still didn’t bother to read after that. It seems appropriate to pick up a feminist utopia now that we’ve got women dressing up as handmaids in real life, after all.

What I Think It’s About: I claimed that “it’s a land full of ladies and no dudes” in my first column, and I’ll stand by that. The story gets propelled forward when men from elsewhere do arrive and question how this society functions. Outside forces pose a threat to this utopian society. One woman leaves to go become a superhero fighting the Germans in World War I. Wait a minute, that’s Wonder Woman… 

What It’s Actually About: Three men, all whittled down to stereotype (there’s the “gender differences are based in science!” mediocre one, the Southern gentleman, and the Bro, to be exact) stumble upon a land of only women, living in the Amazon forest in an area about the size of Holland. Their dude-minds are blown that women have learned how to govern themselves, procreate without men, have seemingly eradicated disease and poverty, and generally live in perfect harmony. The women of Herland are very excited to go back to a two-gender society, though, and try to integrate the men into their world. The relevancy of the stereotypes from a book written in 1915 will make you laugh or possibly cry. Probably a bit of both.

Herland (audiobook)

Why You Should Read It Right Now: Read enough dystopian novels, and you begin to think you could write an amazing one, too. It seems simple enough: Take something you find deeply troubling about today’s society, amplify that fear to its most terrifying conclusion, and base your story’s society around said horrifying logical end. The phenomenal dystopias tackle many troubling conclusions, but still, the formula mostly holds up. It’s easy for us all to buy into The Handmaid’s Tale and The Hunger Games amongst all the real-world media coverage of declining birth rates, growing inequality, and the multiple threats posed by climate change.

Utopias have to work much harder to get you to buy their premise, especially in this mass media and instant information day and age. Because the dudes in Herland are so shocked by how a society of women could possibly exist and survive (one refuses to believe it’s true long into the book), the story spends a lot of time explaining the country’s history and describing its idyllic present. This urge to show how good things could be comes from the same frustrated seed as our current dystopias with Gilman — the author wished motherhood didn’t mean having to give up one’s own ambitions to take care of another being, so Gilman created a society where only women lived and they all took care of each other as a community. It allows for both individuality and a strong society to flourish.

And honestly, such a hopeful, wish-fulfillment type story is a breath of much-needed fresh air in the otherwise dreary and polluted landscape found in most dystopian fiction.

Because as fun as it is that women in today’s society, both real and fictional, often jokingly lament issues like the lack of pockets in women’s clothing, I’d rather just have more women’s clothing with usable pockets. And apparently this has been something women have been wishing for for at least the past 100 years, as a passage in Herland reads: “I see that I have not remarked that these women had pockets in surprising number and variety. They were in all their garments…” We all want this, so why are pockets on women’s garments still the worst?

Reading Herland made me ponder which stories are more helpful to society right now: Ones that tackle hard issues (like climate change, mental illness, bullying, gun violence, etc.) head-on or ones that simple imagine a better future beyond all those issues. A book like The Hunger Games is a mixed bag of both: It’s a story about the injustice of massive socio-economic inequality, but one where that inequality is divorced from some of the real-world biases that often lead certain groups to suffer more from the wealth gap (namely gender, in this case). 

Herland author Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Herland author Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The answer is, of course, that the world needs both. (This should also be the answer to all YA dystopian love triangles.) You can’t start tackling an issue if you don’t see the issue. And often big issues like mental illness have a strong stigma of silence about them, making the problem worse, facilitating the need for stories that talk about the problem openly. Yet lately I’ve been yearning more focus on promising solutions. Culture has pumped me full of depressing dystopian tales, and for the most part, I’ve, uhhhhh, enjoyed(?) it. But I’m a bit fatigued, and Herland is a nice little break from the formula.

Does Herland portray a perfect society? Gosh, no, not at all. Do upsetting things still happen? Yes, of course. You can feel its datedness immediately, a story told at the tail-end of a bygone era of many Westerners laying down everything to go explore the unknowns of the Amazon. (It was admittedly helpful to have read David Grann’s The Lost City of Z recently.) But the things that the book gets right, it gets right really well. For instance, this passage struck me pretty hard and conjured up images of the recent controversial anthem protests: “Patriotism, red hot, is compatible with the existence of a neglect of national interests, a dishonesty, a cold indifference to the suffering of millions. Patriotism is largely pride, and very largely combativeness. Patriotism generally has a chip on its shoulder.”

In all likelihood, I’ll probably go read at least 10 more dystopian novels before I pick up my next utopian one. But I wouldn’t mind if utopias started having a cultural moment, and I think it’s important to balance our media diet. Herland is an easy introduction to the utopian subgenre that will deepen your perspective on today’s discussions of feminism. 

P.S. Oh, you thought I was going to read Gone with the Wind based on my last column? Do you know how long that book is?! Give me this whole holiday season, maybe I’ll make it happen...


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