Thursday, April 28, 2011

No Man's Land

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was a writer, sociologist, and utopian feminist. After supporting herself as an illustrator for several years, she married Charles Walter Stetson in 1884. She suffered severe postpartum depression following the birth of their daughter, Katharine Beecher Stetson, in 1885, only to be dismissed as just another hysterical woman. The "treatment" she received became the basis of her famous short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper." Charlotte and Charles separated in 1888 and legally divorced in 1894, although their relationship remained amicable. She remarried her cousin Houghton Gilman in 1900. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1932, Perkins, a longtime advocate of euthanasia for the terminally ill, committed suicide three years later.

Throughout her career, Charlotte Gilman was active in socialism and other reform movements, making her living as a speaker and lecturer among similar-minded activists. Fame as an author came with the publication of In This Our World, her first volume of poetry, in 1893. She also wrote many essays and short stories. The 1915 novella Herland is her longest work.

Three young, adventurous American men are exploring the South American jungle when they hear rumors of a hidden, all-female civilization. Intrigued, they investigate further and are promptly captured and sedated. Upon awakening, Terry (├╝ber-masculine womanizer), Jeff (chivalrous Southern gentleman), and narrator Van (sociologist with a scientific mind) find themselves in the care of a group of matrons entrusted with their education. As the months go by and they learn the language, they discover that the men of "Herland" were wiped out some two thousand years ago by a combination of war and natural disaster. The women reproduce by parthenogenesis, each becoming pregnant automatically at age twenty-five and bearing five children each unless they direct their energies to other tasks. Still, whatever they do comes from a feeling of divine, universal motherhood on which their entire society is built. They are, without fail, entirely selfless, nurturing, and practical and focused not on their individual selves but on the world they are building for their daughters.

In terms of its structure, Herland takes a predictable route as primarily utopian exposition. The main female characters spend most of their time explaining how their world works to the ignorant outsiders who also stand for the reader, much like Dr. Leete to Julian West in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, 2000-1887. As with Bellamy's future Boston, there is little description of Herland beyond that it is very clean and lovely and orderly. Terry exhibits no character development whatsoever and exists solely as a foil to the empowered women of Herland. You can see his Moral Event Horizon coming from practically the first page. Jeff does little besides occupy the other end of the spectrum, falling for Herland without a look back. Van is the straight man who balances skepticism with an open mind and desire to learn. The inevitable romantic subplot waits patiently for the last act, once we've gotten Gilman's fantasyland well established.

See, the problem with utopian fiction is its inherent narcissism. At the basis of every perfect world is the simple fact that it is perfect because everyone follows the author's ideas. Perfection is fulfillment, consummation, transcendence, completeness, the Platonic ideal beyond the grasp of physical reality. The very word "utopia," coined by Thomas More who was in fact writing a satire, means "no land." It is the secular version of the postmillennial Kingdom of God, the end of history and the final state of things. The future United States of Bellamy's Looking Backward actually came about following a mass conversion experience and America's subsequent rebirth as the ultimate society. (This also happened to humanity in Star Trek following first contact with an alien race.) Which they did by implementing every single one of Bellamy's theories, of course, which places him in the ancient role of messiah. Or even God, if you want to get metafictional, since he is the literal creator of this world.

Herland, as another utopia, faces similar drawbacks as a reflection of its maker. Gilman may have been a radical in her day but feminism has since been criticized as historically concerned only with the plight of white, middle-class, able-bodied, straight women (of which I am one, BTW) - a generally comfortable bunch who seek to be equal to white men pursuant to their racial privilege. Thus, feminism, the argument goes, has been a homogeneous movement that has erased the voices of women who do not fit a narrow mold. It has been, like Gilman's Herland, cut off and isolated from the majority of the world, seeing Western conceptions of gender as the only relevant form of oppression.

From start to finish, Herland reveals everything wrong with early feminism. It is racist, heterosexist, and ableist. The country is in South America, yet the women are explicitly described as white and indeed Aryan, with their perfect, advanced civilization in stark contrast to the primitive brown savages inhabiting the forests below. Gilman, through narrator Van, also lumps hospitals in with vice, crime, and poverty as the evils of our civilization. Disability and illness have long been vanquished in Herland. This may seem positive at first, but this is basically saying that disability is some kind of offense. Many people who are deaf or on the autistic spectrum (such as myself) will tell you that they are quite happy with who they are and would not wish to change. Really, what is "disability"? Who defines what it means to be able-bodied or neurotypical? I'm doing just fine - do I and others like me need to be purged in order for society to progress?

We also learn that the "sex instinct" has atrophied after two thousand years of no men and any woman who exhibits an "atavistic" sexual nature is denied motherhood. That female sexuality exists only in relation to the male, and vice versa, is obviously homophobic but there are darker implications here as well. Women who do not fit a certain mold are forbidden to have children. Women who do have children happily allow theirs to be raised by professional specialists. This is the era's Progressivism talking, with its emphasis on a rational approach to everyday life that effectively steamrolled traditional ways of childrearing, particularly those rooted in other cultures which tended to be marginalized in the American social hierarchy. As womanist blogger Renee Martin puts it,
It was White women who sought independence that organized the tenement movement. They came up with the idea of scientific domestic labour, and used their standards to attack poor immigrant women. Their racial biases can clearly be seen in the reports that they wrote. Families that had yet to be categorized as White, such as Italians and the Irish were constantly found to be substandard, even though these women were raising their children in a manner that was culturally appropriate for their countries of origin.
(She's written about this topic quite a bit.) At the vanguard of the Progressive movement were white, middle-class, native-born Americans who had grown disillusioned with their Victorian way of life and sought to improve things and "uplift the weak" according to their own standards. As a college junior I remember reading a report from a female volunteer at a local settlement house who quite arrogantly turned up her nose at the dirty Polish mothers who could not properly care for their children. And this is to say nothing of the Native American children taken from their mothers and sent to boarding schools under the care of white women or the forced sterilization of women of color and disabled women. Charlotte Perkins Gilman is so focused on gender oppression she can't recognize where she does have privilege.

With this we return to that question of homogeneity and the denial of other voices. Only in the most conformist culture would the restriction of dissenters' and outcasts' reproductive choices go without question.* It would take a completely uniform society to accept that other people can raise your children better than you can. To maintain such acquiescence requires isolation, which makes these issues even more troubling because it implies literal brainwashing. When presented with the opportunity to open themselves to the rest of the world, the women of Herland reject it despite their alleged curiosity and love of learning. Outside is messiness, a myriad complications and threats to the "exquisite order" of Herland. Even to hear of opinions and ideas foreign to their own - such as abortion or the Judeo-Christian Hell - causes near-violent reactions. And all this in juxtaposition to Van's constant rhapsodizing about the perfection of Herland which altogether evokes a sense of megalomania on Gilman's part. If only we could follow my ideas and get rid of everyone else and cut ourselves off from everyone else still remaining WILL WE CREATE OUR OWN HEAVEN YAY!

Herland is an archaic book. There is nothing in it that will appeal to anyone in the social justice movements today. Even from a literary perspective it is unremarkable. Herland's remaining value is as an artifact of American intellectual and reformist history. If monsters are physical manifestations of our fears and anxieties (vampires for sex, zombies for consumerism, Deep Ones for miscegenation), then utopian societies are their inverse, as imaginary worlds from which those things causing us fear and anxiety have been excised. Problem is, perspectives change and what was a threat or impediment yesterday is an accepted part of our lives today. It's time to move on.

* Update: I just realized I didn't phrase that very well. For a long time in the real world, the dominant culture has accepted these restrictions when it comes to marginalized women (arguably still does). But those women certainly did protest it, it's just that no one listened to them. What I'm saying here is that in Herland a woman in this position is completely alone. There is no recognizeable group of women targeted - it's on an individual basis in judgment of that woman's deviance from the accepted norm. Does that make sense?

A Year of Feminist Classics is a project started by Amy, Ana, Emily Jane and Iris, four book bloggers who share an interest in the feminist movement and its history. The project will work a little like an informal reading group: for all of 2011, we will each month read what we consider to be a central feminist text, with one of us being in charge of the discussion. . . What we hope to achieve is to gain a better historical understanding of the struggle for gender equality, as well as a better awareness of how the issues discussed in these now classic texts are still relevant in our times. We welcome all voices and perspectives, and we would love it if you joined in and added your own.


Emily said...

It's interesting how pervasive racism, ableism, and generally proto-eugenicist ideology is in utopian fiction. It's like people can only imagine a "perfect society" that's completely homogeneous. It's that way all the way back to More's Utopia, in which the Utopians feel justified in seizing and colonizing land on the mainland as long as the natives "aren't using it" (by which they mean, "aren't using it in the same way the Utopians want to use it").

I mean, if you think about it this is kind of a bizarre way out of the whole problem of social conflict: remove all human difference! Surely the perfection of a truly perfect society would lie exactly in its ability to accommodate difference and make the most of diversity.

E. L. Fay said...

That's why I wonder if utopian fiction is a dead genre. A perfect society is essentially entropic, having reached a point of ultimate stability. Without the influence of external forces - which in this case would be human diversity in culture, opinion, and so forth - there is no reason to develop responses to troublesome or potentially catastrophic situations. Cultural evolution has strong parallels in biology and ecology. A species with no genetic diversity, for example, or that has become too highly specialized, can be wiped out by a single plague or sudden change in environment.

And not to mention the fact that there exist today a few societies where the conditions for utopia would seem to exist. Japan, for example, is a largely homogeneous, group-oriented culture with little poverty, a low crime rate, an educated populace, a comfortable standard of living, and a high level of technological development. Yet their country is far from perfect - they are very patriarchal compared to other developed nations, their birth rate is far below replacement levels, there's been an economic malaise for the past decade, and so forth. Now immigration could solve the population issue, but they won't consider it because it means opening their society to foreigners (gaijin), which is precisely what a utopian society like Herland or Bellamy's future United States probably shouldn't do. Because these new people might find some things not to their liking and want to change.

I think the closest thing anyone could write today and still be taken seriously would a utopian subversion (what TV Tropes calls a Crapsaccharine World). Because really, the only way you create a universally happy, unquestioning population is through some very sinister means.

E. L. Fay said...

Also, there were several sequels to Bellamy's Looking Backward written in his own time by critics that illustrate exactly what I'm talking about. One dealt with a military threat from China that only Julian West, the 19th-century transplant, recognized as dangerous because the Americans of 2000 had reached such a level of comfort that danger seemed a remote possibility. Another sequel dealt with an overblown socialist bureaucracy on the brink of collapse.

Amy said...

What a fantastic review! Wow you really brought up a lot of things that I either skimmed over or didn't pull out as much. Scary scary scary stuff. I still like what she did in the book in examining gender but clearly it's not a utopia I'd be happy in, for the reasons I mentioned and all the ones you mention. Utopias really aren't very nice places at all are they? shudder

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