Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Feminist Futures: Herland

Dossier: Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland [The Forerunner, 1915]

Filetype: Book (Originally Serialized)

Executive Summary: Three men — Vandyck, our narrator; Terry, a burly, brawling adventuring and conquesting-type; and Jeff, a milquetoast friend of theirs — are on an adventure in one of the remote parts of the world when they begin to hear rumors of a land populated entirely by women. On the return voyage, they concoct a plan to come back to the area secretly, and reconnoiter it by means of a small biplane. This they eventually do. During their flyover, they discover a geographically isolated plot of land apparently populated only by women, but the adventurers refuse to believe that the structures and systems they observed could have been built entirely by women. They decide there must be some corresponding society nearby exclusively of men, who do the designing and building and keep the race going through means of procreation.

Upon landing, the three men are immediately captured by a group of martial-looking women they nickname “the colonels,” and they awaken in some type of fortress prison, although in reality it seems more like a closely-watched dormitory than a prison. Over the next several months, the men are treated essentially like young children, being taught the language and basic fundamentals such as the history of this Herland society, in order to be able, ultimately, to communicate. Their spheres of contact with Herland are limited to their dormitory, tutors, and a guard of “colonels” to keep watch over them. The men attempt escape, and develop theories and plans, each in their own particular idiom. Terry dreams of conquering these women and making them his sex slaves, assuming they will willingly bow down to the sight of his raw masculinity. Jeff seems to worship the women as goddesses, ready to become subservient to them and their culture. Vandyck occupies the middle ground, dutifully reporting the comings and goings and trying to be a good sociologist.

Many months pass, filled with questions from the tutors about the larger world and its society, the answers to which the women find utterly befuddling. These questions center on gender roles and societal structures. Eventually, the men choose mates, and the six of them make an attempt at some type of physical relationships. However, when Terry attempts to force himself on his “wife,” it is determined that the men are not compatible with Herland. Terry is expelled, Vandyck and his “wife” Ellador accompany him back to the wider world, and Jeff stays behind.

Feminist Future: Coming from the tradition of 19th century utopias, Herland offers less in the way of a vision of a possible future society than a vision of how society might be written differently if given a fresh start. This is a vision of a world unto itself that never endured what might be considered the original sin of — to use a more modern term — toxic masculinity. We are shown a world that has almost no want, no crime, a focus on rationality and sustainability, untouched by testosterone-fueled competition and desires for dominance displays, and into this world is injected Terry, who personifies the worst of all of these qualities. The implication is that Herland is a speculative society that could have been, but not one that can be. While the wide world yet has Terrys in it, the utopian vision of Herland can never be realized.

Hope for the Future: In the world of the novel, the status quo remains essentially unchanged. Jeff stays behind with his pregnant wife Celis, so Herland will soon see its first non-virgin birth in two millennia (as long as it's not a Terry, they should be fine), and Terry, Vandyck, and Ellador head back to America, with some trepidation as to how Ellador will cope. But as a blueprint for how we might shape our actual, real-world society, Herland does present a number of guideposts for ways in which we might change our thinking and practices to achieve a more balanced and equitable world.

Legacy Largely forgotten for half a century, Herland was re-discovered during the second wave of feminist science fiction (published as a novel for the first time in only 1979), and has become something of a scholarly touchstone in the fields of both utopian/dystopian fiction, as well as feminist literary fiction.

In Retrospect: When read today, Herland evokes a complex blend of insight (“Wow, that’s an idea way ahead of its time!”), disappointment (“Damn, how are we still struggling with this 100 years later?”), and cringing (“No! Those are very backwards ideas about race!”). On the one hand, it is a radical thought experiment that is executed with a tremendous willingness to question first assumptions that underpin the society that helped produce it. The three men are broad archetypes, but rendered in such a way as to serve their didactic purposes. The women, however, are essentially all the same. They may have a few variations in basic temperament, but it’s hard to point at any actually compelling characters. The women of Herland are presented as a monolithic ideal. There is a lot of value in looking at the ideas assembled here, even today, as so many of these questions still need answers. While society has changed a great deal, there are still some fundamentals that have not evolved nearly as much as they should have, and Gilman’s ideas may not be directly applicable curatives, but they can certainly inform conversations that still need to be had in the 21st century.

Where the novel must get seriously dinged, though, is in one of the areas where many feminist works are accused of short-sightedness, and that is the area of intersectionality. Gilman’s personal views on race, from what I was able to glean from a little biographical probing, were abhorrent, and in keeping with many of the prevailing views of her time. Not H.P. Lovecraft bad, but certainly in the context of a writer who was willing to re-visit basic assumptions of how society is structured and organized, envisioning radically different power structures, the lack of vision when it comes to racial prejudices is indefensible. The other intersectional area in which omission is particularly glaring to today’s reader is sexuality. While Terry is held up for derision for his belief, essentially, that the sight of a “real man” would turn the women of Herland into subservient sex slaves, Gilman does seem to imply that all of the women are latent heterosexuals. There is, in fact, no indication of any kind of sexual drive or exploration of any kind. Sexual relationships between the women of Herland are not even hinted at, and quite the contrary, the idea of pairing off in any kind of romantic way is held up as a strictly masculine construction. Any sense of sexual gratification by one’s self or with another woman is utterly absent from Herland. Such an omission does more than invalidate entire groups of people, it also undermines core arguments of the text. In supposing that jealousy, desire, and romantic relationships are the province of destructive masculine drives, much of the foundation of Herland’s vision of a better possible world seem Pollyannia-ish at best, and exclusionary at worst.


For its time: 4/5
Read today: 2/5.
Wollstonecraft Meter: 6/10

Published by Vance K — co-editor and cult film reviewer at nerds of a feather since 2012.