Are We Living in a Dystopian Novel?

February, 2021
Lilly Stewart, Blog Correspondent

‘Dystopian’ is defined as “relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice.” To say that we are threatened by becoming this version of ‘dystopian’ would be to say that the society we live in now is not violent or full of injustice. But it is. So, under the vague dictionary definition, we are living in a dystopia. But the key word that jumps out in this definition is ‘imagined.’ For me, ‘dystopian’ conjures up images of a dark grey filter overlaying a desolated, toxic wasteland or slums full of leather-clad teenagers who team up against the gaudy, corrupt, and wealthy leaders. It’s specific, a reality that makes permanent the injustices already present in our world, taking away any possibility of progression or change. This imagined version of a dystopia isn’t quite our reality.

America (and Canada) are societies where there is great suffering and injustice, despite their shiny coatings of democracy (and in Canada’s case, democratic socialism). Any country whose police target people based on the color of their skin, where people go without health care every day, where women and girls are subjected to sexual violence, where people go hungry or go without shelter, just to name a few examples, fits this dictionary definition of ‘dystopian.’ But, the common understanding of  ‘dystopian’ has become synonymous with an imagined totalitarian state where people’s freedoms and civil rights are stripped completely, with no legal or constitutional protection. The ‘dystopian’ future we all fear is one of totalitarianism defeating democracy. 

Margaret Atwood, author of dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, stated that when writing her book, she had a rule that she followed: “you can’t put anything in that hasn’t already happened.” In other worlds, she wanted the world of Gilead to be a realistic alternate version of America. It examined the question, what if America wasn’t a democracy? What if America had a totalitarian regime? The Handmaid’s Tale is based on the idea that a coup of terrorists attack the capitol, murder all the members of congress and the president, suspend the constitution, and replace America’s democracy with the totalitarian state of Gilead. This is hauntingly familiar to the capitol riot on January 6th. 

To give some context, on January 6, 2021, a mob of white supremacists, QAnon conspiracy theorists, Proud Boys, and Trump supporters stormed the capitol building in Washington, D.C. As more information continues to come to light, it has become clear that there are congressmen who were aware of the attack, and even helped the instigators during the siege. New Jersey congresswoman Mikie Sherill witnessed GOP members giving unauthorized tours to Trump supporters on Jan. 5. Sherill aptly named these tours ‘reconnaissance tours.’ Representative Ayanna Pressley noted that the panic button installed in her office had been torn out prior to the capitol riot. Former President Trump incited the riot (along with other GOP members of congress) by spreading false information about supposed voter fraud in the 2020 election, and Trump directly called on his supporters to storm the capitol on the 6th in a tweet (that was quoted on several ‘Stop the Steal Rally’ ads) that stated, “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. ‘Be there, will be wild.’” And, as most of the world witnessed, he told his supporters who were part of the riot “we love you, you’re very special.” 

During the siege, rioters erected a gallows with a noose hanging from it–a clear image of violence and insurrection, but more specifically, a symbol of violence against Black people in the form of lynching. Many of them carried confederate flags, and one man even brought the flag inside the building, which is the first and only time the flag has been seen in the capitol (it didn’t even make it there during the Civil War). The confederate flag is a symbol of white supremacy and a representation of hundreds of years of slavery in America. The fact that rioters were able to essentially walk into the capitol unimpeded and stand around, trash offices, trod on the senate floor, break windows and scale walls–which was unnecessary since there were stairs–shows us how deep white supremacy and white privilege runs in America. In the aftermath of the attack, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez expressed the fear she felt for her life, and rightly stated: “[The insurrectionists and congresspeople involved] are willing to light a match and set our whole democracy on fire to uphold the social order of white supremacy.” This isn’t just an American problem. For instance, one of the founders of the Proud Boys is Canadian-born Gavin McInnes. Canada loves to sneer at their downstairs neighbour, but how different is Canada, really, when it comes to systemic racism and white supremacist ideologies? I’ve seen regular groups of Trump supporters walking down College street waving the Trump flag, and there are many areas in rural Ontario where the confederate flag is flown openly. Both flags are symbols of white supremacy. Black Lives Matter is just as important in Canada as it is in the states. 

It’s important to remember that white supremacy doesn’t start in one single place–it started with colonialism, and it continues with everyday microaggressions, institutional violence, and imperialism. The American government has overthrown numerous democratically elected leaders in South American countries, The Republic of Congo, and Iran (to name a few) and instated conservative and totalitarian leaders in their place. This was mostly done to ensure access to certain commodities in those countries such as oil, fruit, minerals, etc. These right-wing regimes inflicted human rights violations upon their citizens. America has created dystopias in other countries, in a sense. And yet, America comes close to experiencing a coup on their own front lawn, and thinks–oh my god, it’s so dystopian!

The Handmaid’s Tale was long hailed as a ‘cautionary tale’ about patriarchal structures and sexism. But it’s not ‘cautionary,’ because, as Atwood remarked, there’s nothing there that hasn’t already happened–including concentration camps, sexual slavery, exploitation, child brides, and the general restriction of social and political freedoms for women. From my reading, the story was more of a metaphor for real life than anything. For example, in Gilead, women are viewed as objects whose sole purpose is reproduction, and they are often sexually assaulted. That doesn’t sound too far off from reality. The frist loss of human rights for women in Gilead was that their ability to own property was taken away, to which the protagonists’ husband responded by saying ‘I’ll take care of you.’ This scene (which also appeared in the TV adaptation) highlights the fact that instead of being outraged on her behalf, her husband slid easily into the role of the patriarchal spouse who owns and controls his money and his wife (women being considered property). This is why women during certain protests such as the women’s march decided to don the red dress and white bonnet–to show men in power that like the fictional Gileadean women, women now still face systemic oppression and violence. 

 At the same time, the novel, as well as the show, uphold white feminist rhetoric by completely ignoring race, and how, realistically, if a Gilead-like structure were to be instated in America, white supremacy would be at the heart of it (as it already is).  In the novel, Atwood skates over the idea of racial inequality in Gilead, and ignores an intersectional approach to the imagined dystopian state. The specific experiences of Black women are not considered, and instead the novel seems to stem from a general notion of shared oppressive experiences all women have. The race of the narrator, Offred, and any of the supporting women in the novel is not explicitly stated, so it could be open to interpretation. But certain aspects of the world of Gilead reference the history of the enslavement of Black people in America as a sort of parallel to the enslavement of women in Gilead. For example, the escape route for women to take into Canada is called the ‘Underground Femaleroad.’ This might have been a clever phrase if Black women (or Black people in general) were given a specific voice in the novel. The show goes even further so as to completely ignore race through means of a diverse cast. 

On the surface, diversity seems like a progressive move for an adaptation of a novel written in the 80s, but it actually makes the white feminist aspects of the story harder to ignore. With a diverse cast including women of color alongside the main character, June, played by Elizabeth Moss, Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale depicts a society where all the women are having the exact same experience of enslavement. Shalini Shankar, an anthropologist who studies white supremacy in advertising, remarks that “Diversity is often paired with ‘inclusion’ but without any mention of the power imbalances and racial inequality that underpin exclusion.” Here, Shankar is talking about instances of diversity in advertising, a seemingly trivial but actually very harmful aspect of our dictionary-defined-dystopian world. This idea can be applied to TV shows as well. For the world of Giliead, the diverse on-screen cast creates a false reality of inclusion that not only ignores the specific struggles that women of color experience in real life, but would surely experience in an even worse, ‘dystopian,’ version of society. It sorts struggles for civil rights into categories–Black, woman, gay, etc. In other words, it ignores the overlapping identities present in real life. And, as dystopian novels are supposed to be worse depictions of real life, removing these realities almost makes worlds like Gilead strangely utopian in one sense, while extremely dystopian and violent on the other. To go even further, the white feminism in both the novel and the show are forms of violence on their own, as it allows white audiences to forget about racial injustice, and gaslights Black audiences by ignoring intersectionality that should be and is present in feminism. 

I recently read The Handmaid’s Tale (and it’s more recently published sequel, The Testaments) for the first time, and I find it to be the perfect example of an imagined ‘dystopia’ that people are comfortable with. It allows us to imagine a future where there is a perfectly even playing field, only for an evil group of terrorists to disrupt that field and create suffering, so that a group of diverse heroes can fight against the system and restore peace. Again, that presumes that there ever was peace and harmony before totalitarian regimes come into place, which is a fantasy. Totalitarian or otherwise dystopian states emerge as a direct result of injustice and violence that are present in democracies, and that become powerful enough to overthrow governments (with or without the help of other nations). In this way, authors can go forth and build worlds that fit whatever narrative they are trying to highlight, while ignoring others that they ‘don’t have time for’ or that complicate their main message. 

I’m not trying to completely dump on The Handmaid’s Tale, though. The book does have several extremely important moments, which characterize women’s struggles in subtle and brilliant ways. Atwood’s writing is, of course, prolific, and there’s a reason why her novel has endured for so long in conversations about gender. There are experiences that all women have, but even within those conversations, intersectionality is essential. 

The attempt to undermine American democracy with the capitol riot on January 6th, and the attempt to essentially overthrow the government with direct plans to harm members of congress, looks like the final push into a dystopian society on face value. America may not have a totalitarian regime in place right now but totalitarian regimes have and still do exist.

While we might not be under a totalitarian rule, as we saw on January 6th, it is possible. We might be living in a world full of injustice, but we aren’t quite in the full dystopia that novels and other media allows us to imagine. At the same time, the word ‘dystopian’ loses its meaning when we remember that any form of suffering that can be imagined by a writer has probably been done before, even if it hasn’t happened to us.

America has created dystopias in other countries, in a sense. And yet, America comes close to experiencing a coup on their own front lawn, and thinks–oh my god, it’s so dystopian!

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