Fans of The Handmaid’s Tale will still be reeling from Sunday’s episode of the dystopian thriller, one of the most relentlessly bleak hours of television ever to air, and certainly the bleakest to feature a Blondie soundtrack. Depicting America’s slide into autocracy via a series of devastating flashbacks, the third instalment in Bruce Miller’s savvy update of Margaret Atwood’s novel was pure horror from start to finish, taking in a police massacre, a hanging and a clitoridectomy without so much as a ‘Hi, how are you?’
Even Atwood has struggled to keep her shit together through the darkest moments of the show, which she called “horribly upsetting” in the New York Times. But for many, its unnerving depiction of a totalitarian regime where women’s rights have been brutally curtailed will feel too timely to pass up. Atwood and Miller’s vision isn’t the first feminist dystopia to stick it to the man, though: here are five other cult sci-fi classics that kicked back against the patriarchy.
THE SURVIVALIST (2016)
In Stephen Fingleton’s sci-fi slow-burner, society has collapsed after the world’s oil wells run dry, leaving the remnants of humanity to duke it out amongst themselves in the deceptively lush green wilds of Northern Ireland. The film opens with a montage of our survivalist (Martin McCann) going about his daily routine – foraging for berries, burying a corpse, washing clothes in a stream, and tending to the plants with his own special brand of Miracle-Gro (eww). His solitary existence is interrupted when he encounters two women, whom he agrees to shelter in exchange for a night spent with the youngest of the two (Mia Goth). What follows is a brute tale of survival in the raw and a surprising exploration of sexual power dynamics that makes us question who the survivalist in the group really is. Sort of like Bear Grylls’ The Island, then, but with more light drizzle. Interestingly, Fingleton refused to identify as feminist “because it’s not (men’s) right to be”, adding that the actresses in the film did believe it “conveys feminist themes”.
THE POWER (2016)
In Naomi Alderman’s explosive fourth novel, women all over the world discover their power to unleash bolts of electricity from their bodies, ushering in a new era in sexual power relations as they cast off the shackles of their male oppressors. But will all women be created equal in this electrically powered gynotopia? And how will men fit into this picture? These are questions that Alderman, a protege of Margaret Atwood who dedicates her novel to the Canadian author, ruthlessly explores in a socially charged thriller that gets right to the heart of the human impulse to bully and subjugate. “The power to hurt is a kind of wealth,” muses a character in the novel, listening to her male colleagues blather ineffectually soon after she learns of her powers. “She could kill them. That is the profound truth of it.”
BORN IN FLAMES (1983)
Most works of feminist dystopian fiction imagine a society that has lurched fatally to the right, or else collapsed altogether. With Born in Flames, Lizzie Borden does just the opposite, using a post-revolutionary socialist America of the future to argue for a cultural radicalism that transcends politics. Concerning the exploits of an activist group called the Women’s Army, Borden’s lo-fi vision drips with 80s New York sass even as it grapples with some pretty heavy concepts, and many of its insights ring painfully true in the States today – when a female newspaper editor complains of the Women’s Army that “the demand for equal rights for one group alone hurts our struggle for the equal advancement of all parts of society”, she unwittingly foreshadows the racist troll’s go-to battle cry (‘All Lives Matter!’) of today.
SWASTIKA NIGHT (1937)
Before The Handmaid’s Tale, there was Swastika Night, Katherine Burdekin’s hellish vision of a Nazi-fied future set some 700 years after the Second World War (which hadn’t even happened at the time – the novel was published in 1937). First published under a male pseudonym (naturally), the book sees women rounded up as livestock and kept separately from men, who procreate with them only through a gritted-teeth sense of duty to the fatherland. Its shrewd feminist critique of Nazism saw Burdekin’s novel circulated among the hugely influential Left Book Club in the UK, where it reportedly became an influence on 1984.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Subtle it ain’t, but as a bare-bones allegory for the ongoing battle for women’s reproductive rights, George Miller’s gas-guzzling addition to the Mad Max canon is bang on the money. Coolly upstaging Tom Hardy in the title role, Charlize Theron excels as Furiosa, who enlists the help of Max in leading a feminist uprising against Immortan Joe, a gross-looking oligarch keeping the local womenfolk under lock and key along with the city’s precious water reserves. It’s comic-book stuff, but Miller knows how to make an image count – like the moment one of Joe’s ‘breeder’ wives, Angharad, puts her pregnant belly between her fellow wives and a band of war boys in hot pursuit. Or the way Max takes aim with a rifle only to hand it to Furiosa, who nails the shot first time, with no bullshit ‘badass’ line of the sort that mere mortal blockbuster directors would have been incapable of resisting. Or the bit at the end where a victorious Furiosa is hoisted aloft as the city’s water supplies are cranked on for the masses, an astute echo of Christopher Hitchens’ line about female reproductive rights: “The cure for poverty has a name, in fact. It’s called the empowerment of women.”
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