Everyone tends to name 1984 as the dystopian book most often misinterpreted by the Internet (like this), but hoo boy The Handmaid’s Tale is hot on its heels, and Femlandia may be one of the casualties of this.
I will in part blame the TV adaptation–the 2010s perspective on a 1980s text often messily translates. A book written examining the 1980s evangelical movement doesn’t always commentate effectively on our contemporary world of Christian bloggers and alt-right tradwives. In the novel, Gilead has state-sanctioned racism, with the Handmaid system designed to repopulate the world with white children. But the TV show, perhaps worried about the optics of an all-white cast, created a raceblind Gilead, which just doesn’t seem plausible in a society that endorses child brides and public stoning. So it’s at least understandable that people misinterpret The Handmaid’s Tale, especially bolstered by Hulu’s production steeped in #girlboss imagery.
But this misinterpretation has negative effects beyond just a middling TV show. The group that really loves Handmaid’s Tale analogies and imagery are TERFs, or trans-exclusionary radical feminists. While the ‘Handmaid’ costume is popular for pro-choice rallies in the US, the costume is often used by anti-trans groups in the UK to represent their idea of what ‘gender ideology’ is doing to young women. TERFs take it further too, using the in-universe insult of “gender traitor” (which is the official criminal charge for same-sex attraction in Gilead) to describe trans youth, especially young trans men. Does The Handmaid’s Tale even feel like a feminist text anymore when this is such a popular interpretation?
Feminism is always evolving, as are feminists themselves. But the tricky politics of Christina Dalcher’s new novel Femlandia feel like a direct result of the misappropriation of left-wing activist language to create so-called “feminist” texts.
FEMLANDIA focuses on Miranda and her daughter Emma, dealing with personal loss in the wake of a financial crisis in a near-future United States. What started off as bad recession is now a lawless hellscape, and Miranda has to think fast after their house is repossesed. So she and Emma decide to venture to Femlandia, the women-only colony Miranda’s mother Win started decades earlier.
Their relationship was always strained, often due to Miranda’s rejection of Win’s particuarly man-abhorrent brand of feminism, prefering instead more ‘girly’ interests like makeup and dating, eventually marrying and becoming a stay-at-home mother.
Setting these two characters in opposition to each other illustrates much of the central problem I had with this book–it shows feminism in its most simplified, 4chan-y iteration (hairy legs, “man-hating”, etc), and puts Miranda in opposition to this feminism because she spent her pre-recession life getting blowouts and manicures. It just felt very… reductive. This interpretation reminded me of my freshman year of college, when I spent a lot of time wondering if wearing dresses and flicked eyeliner meant I could still be a feminist. Then I realised… that’s not really the biggest problem we’ve got here.
Once Miranda arrives to Femlandia, she and Emma are examined to prove their biological womanhood. The leaders talk so much about biological women (and oh yes, they use the term “womyn”) a lot that this novel starts to feel like a diatribe. Is Christina Dalcher a TERF? I don’t actually know. But she certainly seems keen to use her writing as a way to throw her hat into the TERF ring, JKR-style, and it doesn’t bode well for the future of her work.
Femlandia is established as being a dystopia, but the novel doesn’t really do enough to critique it. There are some truly henious activities going on here (spoilers ahead) including abducting boys to harvest their sperm, but the climax is mostly concerned with branding the leaders as misandrists. And the passages about that particular twist are extremely uncomfortable to read, continuing to haunt me weeks after finishing the book.
There is some really intriguing content buried in here–especially how Win created Femlandia in its early days and passed the baton to its current leader, who became a model “daughter” for Win at the expense of Miranda, but it all fizzles out. Instead, I suggest picking up Shon Faye’s nonfiction work The Transgender Issue to understand why feminists should be on the front line for all women, cis or not.
RATING: 1.5/5 stars
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