The model of a dystopia is that of a bleak grey world of tortured, bound souls, ruled by cruel authoritarian powers. Dystopian societies are mostly created in critique of present social and political conditions and incite a sense of probability, however scant, of this becoming a reality. Though most dystopian works feature male leads, a sub-genre known as feminist critical dystopia has evolved since the latter part of the 20th century, that focuses on stories in dystopian settings narrated by a woman. All novels in this subgenre have been penned by female authors who are feminist activists. With the desire for a more progressive society gaining ground through feminist movements, subtle and outright, each such story has an undercurrent of reality, stemming from personal experiences of discrimination, fear and also hope.
The most popular novel that centres around a female protagonist in a dystopian setting is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred’s insight into the workings of Gilead, a society that depicts a scenario wherein men have successfully ‘repurposed’ women as objects to bear their babies. It has a grim poignancy that resonates profoundly with the fundamental philosophy of misogyny. Gilead became a place which horrified every reader because of Offred’s seemingly detached outlook, carrying a tone of suppressed disbelief at the occurrences around her and gave us a grave alternate, and sady not too unbelievable, reality. Atwood’s tale is comparable to the intense narration and brave acts by Katniss Everdeen within the petrifying world of Panem, in The Hunger Games, coupled with moments of real vulnerability, making her a heroine to readers. Similarly, there is Beatrice Prior from the Divergent trilogy, herself a warrior legend. These texts have become stand out works within the genre, creating a tie between dystopia and the female narrative voice.
Characters in a dystopian setting always have a sombre aspect to their personalities. On one hand, such novels narrated by male characters are mostly centred around themes of aggression, as seen in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or conformity to social norms, as seen in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. On the other hand, female narrators typically have a softer but more impactful connection to the world in which they live, reacting in seemingly passive ways but with an undercurrent of a deeper rigour for change. More often than not, reproduction, and use of the biological synonym of the word ‘sex’ is intentional, and depicted as the primary ‘purpose’ of a woman in most of these fantastical worlds. Another recurring theme is dominance of the society by male leaders due to ‘greater’ strength and intellect. These themes are not too far from the traditional ideology behind sexism, which is a social construct rooted in a basal fear of domination by women on the part of men. Female protagonists in dystopian novels tend to be subversive towards such misogynistic rule-setting and find some manner of liberation at the end but not without having suffered intensely at the hands of the male-dominated societies and looming future repercussions. Such narration can be a powerful message of feminism.
Every woman’s mind has that eerie dark corner that fears and questions whether society is truly becoming more equal rather than regressing into worse patterns of male-dominant behaviour. The fictional works that use women’s voices as the mode of narration make for essential reading for everyone who believes in an equal society, as they help in understanding their own roles in a society, as millennial women and men. Dystopias are worlds that portray societies at their worst and unless the present, ‘real’ society becomes more proactive in negating such adverse thoughts, there will always be an undertone of regression.