A perennial question about utopian fiction is whether it can move a reader to action that might change the reader's world towards the utopian ideal--and if so, how. To the extent that the fiction simply portrays an achieved ideal, it cannot model a process that might take us from where we are to where we want to be. Still more problematic is the question of what use is a single-sexed feminist utopia in particular when feminists have to work in a two-sexed world?
Because I had to shorten this I'm collapsing the first section which develops the theoretical answers to my question. Basically, I use Tom Moylan, who builds on Fredric Jameson to argue that the efficacy of utopian texts is not in providing a blueprint for an ideal society but in breaking up the totalizing hegemonic ideology, so that a reader can imagine alternatives to what might have seemed inevitable. A singlesexed utopian fiction that succeeds in raising a reader's awareness that the gendered identities that seem inevitable in our culture are not so can stimulate a reader's movement towards feminist goals, even if not towards a world from which men are absent. I also use Jean Pfaeltzer's observation that the feminist utopia, with its reversals of readers' expectations about parenting, sexuality, work, etc. can be understood only by reference to the reader's world, so as the utopian feminist world and the real patriarchal world interact in the reader's consciousness, the proximity and possibility of feminism are reinforced (282, 284).
Pfaeltzer also points out that a single-sexed society may be simply a metaphor for a society without gender categories and without the dominance patterns associated with gender. As Joanna Russ says of her Whileaway, "I can't imagine a two-sexed equalitarian society and I don't believe anyone else can either .... Yet in the end we will have to have models for the real thing...,and that is why Whileaway is single-sexed." Feminist utopias are worlds in which women are not limited either by being constructed as men's opposite or by the domination of men and their hierarchical institutions. Women enjoy the full range of human opportunity and accomplishment. The violence associated with masculine drive to dominance is absent or at least much reduced in scale. Perhaps the most compelling question these texts raise and leave unanswered is whether male violence can be eliminated without eliminating men.
I use a reader-response approach to look at two features of three texts: Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975), Sally Miller Gearhart's The Wanderground (1979), and Joan Slonczewski's A Door into Ocean (1986). I taught them last fall in a course on feminist utopian fiction, so my students' responses inform my thinking. I use Wolfgang Iser's conceptualization of literature as an activity in which the reader must co-create in response to gaps or areas of indeterminacy in the text, because it relates to activity in the world and it also supports the feminist pedagogy that gives credibility to the multiple readings of students in the classroom. No text that I teach makes me more conscious of these varied readers than single-sexed utopias. Teaching them makes me acutely aware of subject positions based in gender, sexual orientation and understanding of feminism. I think of the heterosexual male who is sufficiently knowledgeable about feminism and sympathetic to feminists to read these texts without hostility, the one who isn't, the equivalent positions of heterosexual females, and those of homosexual males and females similarly subdivided. Of course, subject positions are infinitely various: attitudes towards violence especially inform readings of all three texts.
Leaving aside various other ways in which these texts can stimulate real-world action--like modeling conflict-resolution processes that are not in the dominator mode--I will concentrate on two aspects of the texts: the way in which their multiple protagonists offer different kinds of connection to the feminist project for readers of different subject positions, and the way in which the texts' conclusions work to propel readers across the gap between the utopian fantasy and their-own world.
A Door into Ocean features an ocean world where the people--all women--form communities on living rafts. In the absence of metals, they have developed highly advanced biotechnology. Pacifism is basic to this society, whose people call themselves Sharers. SIonczewski depicts an ecologically aware, non-violent, non-hierarchical society. The nearest planetary society resembles our own in technology, militarism, capitalism, and patriarchy. All-too-familiar dominance battles among various patriarchal societies culminate in a military invasion of the peaceful Sharers' world, and the novel traces the complexities of the conflict between the philosophies and practices of the Patriarchs and the Sharers.
Slonczewski's multiple protagonists engage the interests of different readers in various ways in what is not our 'future' but a metaphor for the relationship between any number of liberation movements and the hegemonic patriarchy. The Sharers are female and, of course, homosexual, but they are additionally 'othered' by color and minor anatomical differences, and by a culture ours rates as 'primitive' for its lack of money-based economy or metal-based technology and the people's preference for going unclothed. What appears to the Patriarchs to be the 'witchcraft' of the Sharers' surprising abilities and the incomprehensible stupidity of their non-violent methods of combat is gradually explained for the reader, though it remains beyond the grasp of the Patriarchs. The multiplicity of grounds for 'othering' makes the opposition in A Door into Ocean not simply one of women vs. men. The enemy is not men but dominance mentality. The most vicious of the military invaders is a woman, and of the two Valedonians who attempt to adopt Sharer ways, the male seems more successful than the female; the explanation seems to lie more in class difference than gender.
The struggles and learning of the five major characters offer various opportunities for engagement of readers of different subject positions. For me, as a racially and economically privileged heterosexual female with a patriarchal upbringing and a desire to unlearn its effects, Berenice was the key character. I regarded the temptations of patriarchy expressed in her attachment to Realgar and her fall into violence as the way into this complex text until I realized that many of my students seemed puzzled by this approach, and indeed, Berenice's absence from all but two pages of the last 65 suggested otherwise. Other characters offer other readers equally profitable learning experiences about resisting patriarchy.
The conclusion to a utopian text marks the reader's exit from the fictional world and reentry into the everyday world, with an opportunity to reinforce the connection between them and prompt the reader to move his or her own world towards utopia. Slonczewski's last five pages exploit this opportunity, focussing on the two characters who are trying to make the fundamental and difficult changes of moving from patriarchal to Sharer philosophy and practice. "Well," Spinel says, ashamed of a misstep, "I can't change what I am overnight." "Nor can I," Berenice agrees, "And yet, one can't stop changing either" (402). A reader who is also engaged in the process of change is encouraged not to be so sensitive to inevitable failures as to stop trying. Finally, Spinel must choose between returning to his violent, patriarchal culture to share his learning about Sharer ways and remaining with his beloved Lystra and other Sharers as an alien 'malefreak.' A reader who hesitates between the impulse to work towards converting others and the impulse to strengthen the community of likeminded people may be moved by Spinel's choice to build on the strength of love rather than pursue the battle against fear, and those who hesitate between the comforts of familiarity and the attractions of a more ethical life, however alien, may be emboldened to opt for the latter. A Door into Ocean suggests that the pragmatic choice for separatists in lesbian communities, religious communities, or any other, is make the best lives they can for themselves and develop nonviolent ways to combat occasional invasions from others who cannot be persuaded to share the ways of the community. Slonczewski reminds us with references to cities and whole worlds that have been incinerated in patriarchal conflicts that a peaceful society can hardly do worse than a violent one.
Unlike Slonczewski, Russ and Gearhart concentrate on the domination of women by men. While the development of Slonczewski's female society is lost in time and its particulars seem to have as much to do with the physical nature of the planet as the absence of men, the successes of Russ's and Gearhart's societies are attributed to the absence of men. Russ's utopian Whileaway occupies a relatively small portion of the The Female Man, but it is no less attractive for that, given the contrast it provides with the other three societies, one of which is Russ's own 1969. A virus is said to have eliminated the men from Whileaway centuries earlier. Individual freedom is emphasized, and girls are liberated from family bonds at puberty to roam the planet without fear of others. Hunting and duelling are sanctioned, but there is no war. Women have access to a full range of occupations and experiences, and technology is advanced. There is no threat of intrusion by men, since they can come only from elsewhere in the spacetime continuum, and the women of Whileaway control access.
Like Slonczewski, Russ provides multiple protagonists as counterparts for different readers, though since her men are all cartoons, it is female readers she reaches in this way: heterosexuaI and lesbian, repressed, combative, freespirited, or questioning in interactions with men. The text brings a protagonist from each of its four societies into contact with the others. Whileawayan Janet visits Joanna in our 1969, modelling unconventional behavior in situations the reader is likely to find familiar, like dealing with objectionable men at a cocktail party and relating to a teenaged girl whose desires are repeatedly frustrated by her society.
Russ addresses the disparity between the fantasy of the single-sexed utopia and the reality of our two-sexed world in two ways. One is metaphorical. "Whileaway is the inside of everything else," we are told, and the literally impossible ways in which Janet and Joanna sometimes blend into each other allow the reader to see the freespirited Janet as an aspect of Joanna, a potential in the contemporary-world character. This strategy narrows the gap between the utopian world and the reader's, suggesting ways in which a real-world woman may choose to act freely even within the constraints of a male-dominated society and so move her society incrementally towards utopia.
In the final section of the text, the reader encounters a crux that is likely to force her out of the fantasy of the single-sexed utopia and back to work on improving her own life. The last world we have met is warrior Jael's, in which Manland and Womanland are literally at war. After a machoman from Manland has spent some time ignoring her views and insisting on his, including his belief that despite her indications to the contrary, she wants him sexually--all of which echoes the earlier cocktail party scene in Joanna's world--Jael coolly rips him apart with her steel claws and says afterwards, "I don't give a damn whether it was necessary or not .... I liked it" (184). There may be the occasional reader who applauds Jael's emphatic self-expression, but most reject it, and readers are free to choose Janet's Whileaway over Jael's war zone until the crux of the last section.
Here Jael tells Janet that the plague that supposedly killed the men of Whileaway "is a big lie. Your ancestors lied about it. It is I who gave you your 'plague,' my dear ..... I and the war I fought built your world for you, I and those like me, we gave you a thousand years of peace and love[,] and the Whileawayan flowers nourish themselves on the bones of the men we have slain" (211). How will readers respond to this revelation? It is useful to consider it in the light of Jameson's observation that Utopian discourse can be considered "analogous to the riddles or koan of the various mystical traditions, or the aporias of classical philosophy, whose function is to provoke a fruitful bewilderment, and to jar the mind into some heightened consciousness of its own powers, functions, aims, and structural limitations." The effect on one reader may be to deny Jael's claim that a single-sexed bliss is unattainable without genocide, as Janet does, and decide to seek a separatist lifestyle as much like Janet's as possible. Another reader may decide that the cost of utopia is too high, and it is better to battle the daily frustrations of male dominance with assertiveness, humor, and the feminist pen like Russ herself. A third will opt to fight the battle against male dominance at whatever level is required, preferring the warrior Jael to the passive Jeannine. Whatever the response, this passage urges the reader out of the fantasy into her own world. The fantastic status of Whileaway is underlined, and Janet is identified as an inspirational ideal but only that; she is "Janet, whom we don't believe in...living...in a blessedness none of us will ever know" (213). The closing passage, beginning "Go, little book," completes this transition and forecasts another, anticipating a realworld future when the book will be incomprehensibly old-fashioned and "we will be free" (214)--with no hint of whether this future contains one sex or two.
Gearhart's ecofeminist utopian Wanderground will seem to many readers to be farthest removed of all from real-world possibility. Her Hill Women have developed a society marked by respect for each other and for other forms of life--and even natural elements like rock and air. No one forces another and all are attentive to the needs of others. In this climate, the women's awareness blooms into telepathic communication, and a sense of life as a mutually supportive network creates other extraordinary abilities. Psychic powers explicitly replace technology. Not far away is the City, where violence is rife and women are sexualized and vulnerable to an even greater extent than in our own society. The Hill Women's utopian existence is possible only because men are impotent outside the City, and their machinery does not work, so they have no weapons or vehicles. This effect seems to be weakening, so City men threaten the utopia. Apparently peripheral, but pivotal, are the Gentles, men who respect the women's wish to be left alone and who work with them to keep City violence contained.
The stories that compose The Wanderground are entirely too fantastic for some readers, and some feminists are sufficiently resistent to depictions of woman-close-to-nature-with-witchlike-powers to reject this version of a feminist utopia, just as some are resistent enough to female violence to reject Russ's. But many will suspend disbelief in the psychic powers and the cameraderie with rocks, trees, and fish to embrace a women's community where women's traditional talents for empathy and communication are highlighted by being intensified into unusual powers. Gearhart's unusually clinical descriptions of psychic practices in three stories at the center of the book give the powers surprising credibility.
For the reader who has suspended disbelief through most of the text, wondering all the while what it is that accounts for the impotence of men's sexual and mechanical equipment outside the cities, a koan-style crux like Russ's occurs when the explanation is provided more than 3/4 of the way through the book. It is the account of the Revolt of the Mother when "once upon a time there was one rape too many" and "the earth finally said 'no,'" (158) creating the safe area outside the cities in which the Hill Women's communities developed. For this reader, at least, this is so incredible as to force me finally to face the impossibility of the Hill Women's utopia if it is dependent on a fundamental change of natural law to keep male violence against women in check.
What follows takes readers who participate in the feminist movement, male and female, back towards their own reality. Though plot is as secondary to this poetic text as it is to Russ's postmodern one, what there is climaxes in the story "Meeting the Gentles," where some women's doubts about the advisability of granting any men, however well intentioned, credibility equal to women's are placed in conflict with the trust in them other women feel. Some readers will feel an affinity with women on one side of the conflict, some with those on the other; some will connect with the men who are being doubted. It appears in this story that the women can never withdraw entirely from the miseries of the City into the pleasures of their own society, because their strong presence in the City is necessary to keep the effect that controls the violent men working. Now, with the credibility of this 'effect' shattered, one is more likely to read the 'effect' as a metaphor for ecofeminist work in our society which creates whatever possibility there is for women to realize their potential in safety and the ecosystem to survive. It also appears that to be most effective, the women need the Gentles' cooperation, so they are faced with the question: are those who distrust all men right or are those who believe some men capable of true respect for women and seek their support for achieving feminist goals right? This is so familiar an argument among feminists that few readers will miss the real-world implications.
The question is not answered, and by extension, the question about whether women can ever succeed in stopping male violence against themselves and nature remains open at the end. There is no question, though, about whether ecofeminist action is worthwhile. The ritual that ushers a Hill Woman out of life is recorded in the final story, which also ushers the reader out of the text and back into our world. The ritual reinscribes the Hill Women's purpose: not to use violence against man, "the slayer," but to help him change, or failing that, to ease the death that must result from his failure to change. "Change" is repeated seven times by different women, as is "Death," the only alternative to change. Then each woman intones, "The task." And the one who is dying and passing the work of life on to those who survive her asks: "What is the task?" The ritual answer is
"To work as if the earth, the mother, can be saved.
To work as if our healing care were not too late.
Work to stay the slayer's hand,
Helping him to change
Or helping him to die.
Work as if the earth, the mother, can be saved." (195)
This task is clearly the reader's as well as the Hill Women's.
The women's utopia in each of the texts is a creative vision of women developing both individuality and community in ways that are not dictated by men, legislated by patriarchy or limited by phallocentricity. As Jean Pfaelzer puts it, this sort of utopia "relocates the source of woman's identity within a woman's 'community,"' "shatters the determinism of patriarchy and stimulates a rebellious subjectivity" (292). The responses of readers to a text will be as varied as the readers, but all three writers use strategies designed both to change readers' perceptions of their own gendered society and to encourage actions that will foster desirable change. I'll give the last word to Helene Cixous, whose "The Laugh of the Medusa" calls for just this sort of effort to write women into a reality that is truly our own. She urges women to free their writing from the phallocentric tradition and use their feminine voices, because "writing is the very possibility of change" (249). "A feminine text cannot fail to be more than subversive," she asserts. "It is volcanic" (256).
Frances Barrowski, Feminist Utopias, U of Nebr Pr, 1989.
Helene Cixous--(English: Signs, Summer 1976.) New French Feminisms, an Anthology. ed. Elaine Marks & Isabelle de Courtivron, NY: Schocken Books, 1981, 245-64.
Peter Fitting, "Reconsiderations of the Separatist Paradigm in Recent Feminist S--F--," SFS 56 (19:1) (Mar '92) 32-48.
Fredric Jameson, see Moylan, 40.
Sally Miller Gearhart, "Future Visions: Today's Politics: Feminist Utopias in Review," From Women in Search of Utopia.
Wolfgang Iser from The Implied Reader (1974) rpr in Reader-Response Criticism, ed. Jane Tompkins., Johns Hopkins, 1980, 50-69.
Tom Moylan, Demand the Impossible, Methuen, 1986.
Jean Pfaelzer, "The Changing of the Avant Garde: The Feminist Utopia," SFS 15 (1988), 282-94.
Natalie Rosinsky, Feminist Futures.
Joanna Russ Interview in Quest 2:1 (Summer 1975), 45, 47 cited in Tucker Farley's piece in Women in Search of Utopia, 235-6.
Patricia Waugh, Feminine Fictions, 1989.
Last modified: June 29, 1998
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