When I try to sleep at night, I can only dream in red.
— Peter Gabriel, Biko
Just as when Thomas More wrote Utopia, his little joke was that the “ou” negated the possibility of such a place existing, the choice of the prefix “dys” to refer to societies run amok has always struck me as peculiar. I’ve always associated the prefix with dysmenorrhea—women’s painful periods—so that in addition to meaning “bad,” dys also carries with it the sense of being ill or painful; because the first word I attach it to is connected to menstruation, dys also triggers in my head the shedding of blood. Given the circumstances by which dystopias maintain their power over citizens—the torture used to maintain that power—dystopia also aligns with the idea of a society maintained by blood and pain.
As I have watched the current fascination with dystopia take hold in literature or in political discussions, I have been struck by how the notion of what comprises dystopia and how close we may be to living in one is an understanding that may be influenced by the writer’s experiences, which in turn may be gendered or coded by race. Gottfried Leibniz insisted that we must believe that we “live in the best of all possible worlds,” his attempt to wrestle with the problem of theodicy: how could an omnipotent God permit evil to exist? Voltaire composed Candide as his satirical response to the size of the horse blinders that Leibniz must have been wearing to assert such a thing.
One can’t help but notice that the placing of dystopias in some uchronic future or on planets far, far away fails to take into consideration the gendered and racialized experiences of dystopic societies in our immediate past or present.
For me, the threat of dystopia has felt present since I was old enough to form political thought. As a child living in the north of the United States with my father, listening to stories of black children being assaulted with dogs, or the killing of black men, I had a rudimentary sense that I was living in two different countries. In 1970, when students were killed at Jackson State, I had just turned seven years old, but I have a distinct memory of crying over their deaths. My father was about to get transferred to another state for his job, and I remember saying: “Daddy. Please do not move us down south. All they do is kill black people down there.” While the sentiment was maudlin, it spoke to my own sense that as a white girl, I was living in a country where the color of someone’s skin meant that they were living in a different system. I did not know the word dystopia then, but the system of surveillance and violence used to prevent people of color from agitating for their rights were clearly aspects of a dystopic system.
As a white adult, I am aware that the north was complicit in racism that also denied to people of color their full rights. As a white feminist, I know that I still benefit from entire levels of privilege in 2017 that my feminist sisters of color should be able to access but can’t. That even though I’m a working class kid who grew up with instability at home, my white skin afforded me protections that are not really about privilege as understood as entitlement as they are basic expectations of how to be treated as a human being.
As feminists of color have made me look at in a different light, the dystopic future that I fear most—one in which women lose all control of their reproduction, is actually a past nightmare that has been experienced by black women. Black women who were brought as enslaved workers to America were raped by white men on the plantations and were forced to labor—both the labor of the work that was extracted from them for the economic benefit of the plantation, and the labor of birth—which was also extracted from them, and which also produced enslaved children, additional economic benefit to the plantation owner, many of whom were willing to sell their own children for a profit.
A version of that nightmare scenario was experienced by the women in the former Yugoslavia, who were held in rape camps. Bosnian Muslim women and girls were sexually brutalized nightly so that the Serbian paramilitary men who raped them might impregnate them and create Serb children, a form of genocide through rape.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a civil war raged for twenty years in which women were raped by Rwandan soldiers, Congolese soldiers, Ugandan soldiers, and various paramilitaries, who wanted to destroy the spirits of their enemies by violating their women. Not content with raping the women, many of the women were permanently injured when gun barrels were placed in their vaginas and bullets fired. Those who were not killed face years of surgery to repair the damage.
So the dystopic futures dreamed up by writers such as Margaret Atwood have historical precedent—in some cases, history being within the past twenty years. But if I want to imagine a dystopia where part of the population has been stripped of all personhood, forbidden to go outside without concealing their existence as humans, forbidden to work, to be treated by a male doctor, or to play music, or to go to school, or to even laugh out loud—in short, to be denied all rights and to be made to disappear or else face the consequences of harsh punishments and public executions, then I realize I have described the lives of women under the Taliban, a regime that is attempting to reassert itself in Afghanistan and whose corruption of the Quran has been taken up by ISIS and Boko Haram, as evidenced by testimony of survivors of kidnappings.
If I imagine a dystopia where half of the society are crippled during childhood in order to prevent them from feeling sexual pleasure, I’m describing the clitoridectomies, infibulation and excision of young girls’ genitals practiced among certain peoples of Subsaharan Africa and the Middle East. In cases of infibulation, where the vagina is sewn shut except for a small passage where menstrual blood may pass through, there is a lifetime of deinfibulation and reinfibulation in order to allow the passage of a child through the vagina, followed by a re-sewing of the opening. Each time.
If I want to describe a dystopia where the breeding half of the population must remain perpetually pregnant and must be willing to sacrifice their lives—although if the women are unwilling to do this, we might consider it murder in order to privilege the lives of fetuses—where all abortion is illegal, I’m describing life in 2017 Catholic Ireland.
It may be a failure of my imagination, but any dystopia that I try to imagine to write about as part of a science fiction future draws from a documented history of the abuse of women in nearly every culture.
When writers who are lauded and given their places within the canon—writers such as George Orwell, Aldous Huxley—they have imagined political futures in which surveillance by government would invade private space. The government would know what you were saying in a private conversation. But abortion restrictions across the United States dictate what doctors may tell a woman seeking contraceptives or an abortion. In Texas, legislators distrust women so much that they want a law that would mandate that physicians must lie to women about the results of tests that might reveal birth defects, even catastrophic birth defects that make life outside the womb impossible. In Utah, doctors are supposed to tell patients that abortions are reversible.
The South Dakota Department of Health, paid for with tax dollars, has a web page devoted to an invented psychological condition that it claims is as severe as post-traumatic stress syndrome—thus tying the decision to go to war, where soldiers are expected to kill enemy soldiers—as the moral equivalent of an abortion. This condition, called“post-abortion syndrome” by anti-choice groups across the country, is the condition of “paralysis” or “post-abortion numbness” which is noted to be “similar to shell shock” that befalls 40 to 60 percent of women who have abortions. According to the Iowa site that I’m quoting from, abortion becomes an operation that deprives women of sexual pleasure—one that leads to “loss of pleasure from intercourse, increased pain, an aversion to sex and/or males in general or the development of a promiscuous life-style.”
The website uses the term “aborted women,” but the women were not aborted—embryos and fetuses were. In the infantilizing language of the anti-abortion misinformation purveyors, the woman herself has become the aborted fetus. Their claims about abortion center men—their ability to purvey sexual pleasure from women and their control over women’s bodies. It would be interesting to know if this “study” upon which these numbers are based didn’t include women who were raped who may have felt some antagonism toward their attacker, or bi-sexual women or lesbian women who were less likely to want to have regular sex with men.
The site also lists a series of other penalties sure to accrue to women who choose abortion, but it is the linking of the loss of sexual pleasure to abortion and the promise of the psychological torment of having been to war that demonstrates that those who would install the type of Decree 770 as existed in Romania under Ceausescu—who sought to increase his population by decreeing that all abortion and contraception, except for women over the age of 45 who already had five children in their care, was forbidden—never think beyond the insistence that all pregnancies must be carried to term regardless of circumstances.
In Romania existed a dystopia in which women showed up for work and took pregnancy tests in order to determine each month whether they were carrying fetuses. This was to prevent women from having abortions. Forced to carry pregnancies to term, Romanian women left newborns on the steps of orphanages, which quickly became overburdened with the vast numbers of children who these women either did not want or could not take care of. When Ceausescu fell and was executed, journalists covered the orphanages in which children, confined to cribs since they had arrived there, lived in inhumane conditions. The further tragedies came later, as some of those children arrived in adoptive homes broken by failure to thrive and an inability to bond.
The dystopic state is one in which the vast majority of human beings must be controlled in order to benefit the few who run the society. But in the dystopic states that exist both in historic terms and currently, that control of vast number of the population is predicated on difference. Difference is determined by race or gender.
In some cases, race and gender are inseparable. My intersectional feminism tells me that the types of oppressions that are aimed at women are intersected by oppressions based on race, sexuality, sexual identity, nationality, age and categories that are used to create difference. In America, some of the anxiety about contraception and abortion is being driven by racial anxieties located in white men’s fears of having to share power, and of a fear of being “outnumbered” by people of color, currently projected to occur by the year 2044. Babies who are born to parents of color now outnumber those born to white parents.
As one might expect from such statistics, it doesn’t take much of a Google search to uncover websites that decry this failure of white women to sustain the race. Websites associated with Neo-Nazis, such as the Daily Stormer, but also right wing newspapers such as some of Britain’s tabloid press, speak openly about how white women’s pursuit of careers and delaying of childbirth is leading to “disasters” for the demography of both the United States and Europe. White women are portrayed as traitors to their race, who select such selfish pursuits as college educations or professional careers over marriage and family from an early age.
The argument that white women are destroying their race is also leveled against black women. In Iowa and other states, black women are charged with “black genocide” by choosing abortion. In this set of non-facts perpetuated by anti-abortion groups, Planned Parenthood emerges as a white supremacist organization that has at its heart a desire to eliminate babies who are not white.
But the other anxiety that goes along with the pressure on women to get pregnant and stay pregnant is also related to white male anxiety about having to share their preferred position within American and European culture. A recent dinner brought me into contact with a white man who spoke this anxiety out loud. I had been invited by my aunt and uncle to join friends of theirs after a theatre performance that was taking place in the town where I live. Since I don’t see family as often as I would like to, I accepted the invite. At dinner, I was asked by these new acquaintances what I did for a living, and I revealed that I was a writer. I was asked what I wrote about. I didn’t want to enter into any political discussions at the dinner table and much of my work is political in nature, so I talked about my writing about books and language. I mentioned that I had written an article for the Guardian about the use of “they” as a singular pronoun when gender wasn’t known, something that had recently been adopted by the Chicago Manual of Style. I was surprised when the white man across from me raised his voice. “That’s a load of PC crap,” he said. “There’s no reason to change the language.”
I was aware that everyone else at the table had stopped talking. “Perhaps as a man, you’ve never experienced what it’s like to be erased when the language labels everything as “he” when speaking about all of us,” I said. “But I can see that this is a topic that we’re not going to agree on, so I’m going to suggest that we change the subject.”
“Well we can change the subject,” he said, although he wanted to get one last shot in, “But I’m telling you right now. The most persecuted people in America right now are white men. They’re the ones being victimized.”
I chose not to respond, although I noted that nearly every woman at the table, most of whom were white and the same age as this man, rolled their eyes at me to indicate their belief that his statement was ridiculous.
It may be ridiculous, but it’s a common refrain. In July of 2016, while discussing the judicial murder of Freddie Gray, a black man in Baltimore who was killed by police while being transported to jail, FOX Business Correspondent Lou Dobbs denied that white people are the majority in the United States, even though those who identified as “white alone” comprised 77.1 percent of the American population. But according to rightwing narratives, the white male is not only the most persecuted population in America, he is also part of the racial minority.
In this anxiety, white men cannot get a break in the economic world because white women and people of color are being pushed to the front of the line. This paranoia about preferential hiring—which statistics do not bear out—has morphed into a generalized sense that white men are a literally endangered group, who are threatened with erasure from America through an understanding of competition in which “not winning” becomes eradication.
The election of Donald Trump, who garnered the majority of the votes among both white men and white women, indicates that white anxieties about being the persecuted minority in America are stronger than many of us could have predicted.
It bears asking: Is it possible for a dystopia to exist within a culture that doesn’t consider itself to be dystopic? In the United States, most people cling to an idea of American exceptionalism, believing that there is no other country like America on earth, and that our democracy should be an example to the world. But we live in a culture that understands its democratic system, supposedly built on merit and available to anyone who “applies” oneself to finding success, as a system in which biological difference trumps citizenship. In the formulation of many states, being born a female child means that when that child reaches reproductive age, her right to privacy, to body sovereignty, to the free exercise of her sexuality and to the ability to discuss ideas and her own care with medical professionals, should be limited by the state for her “own good.” But the “own good” turns out to benefit the state, which gains economic power with each worker that is produced or each soldier who grows up to claim the resources of another nation. If women are free to exercise complete control of their reproductive systems, those in charge of the state fear their loss of control.
Dystopia exists wherever the state exercises its control of the means of violence, as Weber understood the state, to keep human beings—from the moment they are born—to experience the full rights of personhood. While I could argue that other forms of dystopias exist even here in the United States, I know that my understanding of dystopia: A system that is drenched in blood and built on pain exists for women in the here and now. No dystopic fiction can trump what has been done to women.