In January, I posted to this blog on the subject of utopia, a perfect place. Is such a society possible?
Do certain conditions, such as the absence of crime, poverty, racism and other inequities make for the perfect place? Utopian narrative is a place to explore these questions, but these same narratives could be termed dystopian. Who decides what conditions are the most important, and how can these conditions be established and maintained without creating new modes of oppression?
One way to approach the inherent teetering between utopia/dystopia is to acknowledge and use that tipping point as a point of departure. In feminist utopian literature, narratives often complicate the easy answer, avoid closure, or look to examine multiple perspectives but provide no simple solution.
I hope I don’t have to explain or defend “feminist” here, but I welcome relevant dialogue.
Let’s just say by way of definition that feminist utopias are concerned with the search for equality in the ideal community. They consider both the existence of social stratification based on difference (sex, race, race, class) and the humanist ideal of sameness to be problematic. Gender inequalities are part of the exploration but not the totality. Feminist fiction tends to project its desires for perfect community and to investigate problematic elements of those desires. As such, some may seem neither utopian nor dystopian per se.
Three perfect examples are Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (she even subtitles it “An Ambiguous Utopia”), Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. These works look at social inequalities and suggest structures or processes to enable more equitable ways of living, but they’re not easy.
In The Dispossessed, the protagonist Shevek is forced to travel from his anarchist/socialist world to a repressive capitalist one to share scientific ideas which are deemed disruptive and self-serving to the functioning of his community. In The Fifth Sacred Thing, factions within a radically democratic city disagree about how to peacefully resist attack from militaristic invaders. Piercy’s novel presents an alternate society that may or may not be the hallucination of a mentally ill narrator.
Compare these narratives to utopias such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which projects a desire for the perfect human community or dystopias like Orwell’s 1984 which predict extreme, dim futures as cautionary tales. Their approach is humanist, focused on repression of citizenry, not issues specific to women's social roles and intersections of identity.
What are your thoughts on these intersections, and what other texts explore this?
What's useful about this kind of literary exploration?