Tag Archives: feminism

My Dad and Donald Trump


By Paula R. Stiles


My dad died three years ago this fall and I’m about 99% sure he would have voted for Donald Trump if he were still alive. Even after Trump’s epic fail at the first debate (the second one is tonight) and the recent infamous bus video, my dad would never have chosen a woman over a man, ever, certainly not a Democratic woman over a Republican man. He actually believed the crap Rush Limbaugh spouts and felt himself very hard-done-by in this PC society. I still remember the day he absolutely forbade my mom to take me to see Bela Abzug talk.

He and my mom were only a few years older than Trump and Hillary Clinton, and therefore in that same generation and attitude. My dad was well-educated, with a Masters degree in History, and he married a well-educated, assertive feminist in my mother, who had a Masters in Nurse Midwifery. He served seven years in the Navy and twenty-two years in the Coast Guard, before retiring and becoming an English teacher in Poland. By all accounts, his students loved him. He was also a Peace Corps Volunteer in China. You would think he’d have been smart enough not to vote for Trump, but there you go and here’s why.

My dad had no respect for women.

In addition to the above accomplishments, my dad also abused my mom and his children, and he cheated on my mom endlessly during their marriage. In fact, my mom was in the process of filing for divorce when my dad was thrown out of Peace Corps a year and a half in for punching a guy in a traffic altercation. The “provocation” involved the guy calling my dad’s then-30-year-old, grad student Chinese girlfriend a “slut.” She was my age. And I was also in grad school at the time.

So, needless to say, my dad did not respect women, and made various nasty and demeaning comments about our gender over the years. Oddly enough, I don’t think he was as bad as Trump. He was more between Bill Clinton and Trump in that I don’t believe he ever engaged in sexual assault. He prided himself on charming the pants off women and all of his girlfriends that I met (he liked to introduce them to me when I was a kid) thought he was a great guy – which he was, during the Honeymoon period. Just as Clinton had grown up poor, my dad grew up respectably working class. Unlike Trump, he didn’t have the assumption that he could do whatever he wanted because he was rich and anyway, I think he liked the chase. He liked them willing. Trump, obviously, doesn’t see women as even that human.

It would be easy to wonder why my mother didn’t just up and leave my dad. Where was her self-respect? I have wondered that and asked her about it many times over the years (when you’re one of the direct victims of that refusal, you get to ask). The most chilling response she ever gave me was that she worried he would show up at the door one day with a gun. She had a point. Attitudes and services for battered women are not too great these days, but they’re a cornucopia of support compared to what was available in the 1970s. Abused women, especially educated abused women, were expected to put up with it. And hope he didn’t kill them and their children.

The attitude was that if you were an educated, professional, working woman getting out there doing a “man’s” job, then you deserved what you got if he felt intimidated by your accomplishments and beat you or cheated on you. If you couldn’t be a “good” wife, you could expect another woman – a younger, hotter, more-accomodating model – to come along and steal him away. Smart women were supposed to compete over men, not the other way round.

People ask the same questions about Hillary Clinton and look down on her for things her husband did to her. They actually use it against her that there’s no evidence Bill has abused her or treated poorly aside from cheating on her incessantly for decades. They make victims out of the women with whom Bill cheated. They are willing to listen to the dumbest excuses and most egregious lies made up by some of these other women to justify that cheating because those women are only chasing after powerful men and not after power itself. It’s still more okay, in our society, for a woman to take another woman’s man than it is to take that man’s place. And we’re all for feeling lots more “sympathy” for hot, young college girls who fangirl Bernie than for “over-the-hill” women who favor Hillary Clinton.

Too many people are happy to believe that Hillary was a cold-blooded political pimp for her husband rather than a victim of a sexual Catch-22 where she couldn’t win whether she kept him or dumped him, just as there were people who were happy to believe my mom deserved my dad treating her like dirt because he resented her success. My dad liked strong women and he liked to break them down. There were a lot of guys in his generation like that and too many, still, who are young enough to know better.

So, the next time, boys, you start going on about “Billary” and “Hitlary” and how evil she is, and holding her to an insanely higher standard than the no-standard-at-all you hold Trump, please stop. Just stop. If you’re going to vote your sexism and your misogyny this election, own up to it, already. Stop blaming Hillary. Stop blaming my mom. Stop blaming us.

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High School Politics and a Woman’s Ambition: Female Power in “Election” (1999)


By Paula R. Stiles


Election (1999). Director: Alexander Payne. Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell.

[Spoilers ahoy]


Election is a black comedy about a young woman (Witherspoon), Tracy Flick, who is running for school president for her senior year of high school. She is opposed by her math teacher (Broderick), Jim McAllister, who fears she will turn into some kind of female Hitler, or at least a Madame Defarge, so cold and manipulative and ambitious is she. I’d been avoiding it for a while, since I’m not really into teenage femmes fatales who ruthlessly take down hapless older men (and that’s precisely what the poster and tagline promise), but I figured, Well, what the hell, and gave it a try.

It’s not quite what I’d expected. I’m not too sure that’s a good thing.

You see, Jim was friends with another teacher, Dave Novotny, whom Tracy seduced to get ahead and then reported to the Principal when she was done with him, getting him fired via a note her ball-busting mother found. Since Tracy is running for Class President unopposed, Jim decides she needs a run for her money and persuades another student, affable Paul, to run against her. In the process, Paul’s closeted lesbian sister Tammy also decides to run and it becomes a three-way in which Tracy might conceivably lose. She doesn’t. In fact, she triumphs over Jim, and gets him fired and disgraced. He also ends up divorced and leaves for New York, where he sees her years later, getting into a car with a wealthy politician. He engages in one final act of defiance by throwing his soda at her car.

And that’s the way the film presents things (almost entirely from Jim’s POV, save for a few Tracy and Tammy and Paul voiceovers that could easily be the way Jim imagines they think), except that there are a lot of details that completely change things round from the above summary.

See, first of all, the reason why Jim hates Tracy is rather disturbing. Tracy was 16 when she had her affair with Dave, a guy played by an actor who was 48 at the time the film came out. Also, Dave was married with a new baby. So, Dave’s “indiscretion” was hardly without collateral damage and the idea of a 40-something married guy getting it on with a 16-year-old would be very off even without the statutory rape aspect and the fact that he’s her teacher.

Second, the way the “affair” is portrayed makes it look like a clear-cut case of statutory rape, which, in light of Tracy’s age, it is anyway. Tracy doesn’t seduce Dave. It’s the other way round. Granted, this film came out in 1999, but grooming by pedophiles (albeit Dave is technically an ephebophile) was known by then, largely thanks to the then-growing sex abuse scandals surrounding the Catholic Church, and he definitely is grooming her in those seduction scenes.

We get a voiceover from her in which she insists she’s not looking for a father figure and that what she likes about the affair is their “talks,” juxtaposed with Dave regaling a disgusted Jim with pornographic details about the affair that clearly show he’s thinking with Little Dave not Big Dave. We even get a scene where Dave slowly pulls Tracy through a door in a hallway. Her face is childlike and passive. Somebody’s in charge and it’s not her.

When she finally tires of it and ditches him, Dave goes full-on stalker and starts bombarding her with notes, one of which her mother finds and reports to the Principal, who fires a weeping Dave on the spot. Dave is spared prison, though, and gets to leave town to embark on his career as a box store employee without a criminal record.

Third, Jim is angry about Dave’s getting fired, but pretends he’s not. He decides Tracy is at fault because Dave was just chasing his youth or some such midlife crisis nonsense, but tells himself he’s going after her because she’s genuinely dangerous and must be stopped now and anyway, it’s not democratic for her to run alone. He talks about worrying about Dave, but never bothers to contact him. It’s his duty to report Dave’s behavior, but he never does (and is never called out for his inaction, either, even though he’s a mandated reporter of the abuse). He even has an affair with Dave’s wife, which is what actually blows up his marriage.

Oh, and he also likes to watch porn involving teenage girls.

And how does he blow up his career? Well, when the student in charge of counting the votes tells him that Tracy has won by one vote (despite Jim’s active interference all the way down the line), Jim makes sure to dump a couple of them in the trash so that she loses instead. Only, he’s busted because he’s managed to act like a jerk to the janitor, who rats him out to the Principal.

So, Jim, who is the narrator in the film, turns out not to be the protagonist but the antagonist. Sort of. And that right there is the problem with the film, because not only is this second narrative entirely subtextual, but the first narrative is presented as entirely valid, with Jim pathetic and sad-sack, and Tracy cold and vengeful. It doesn’t help that this is a black comedy, in which, if the Hero loses, it’s to be expected. So, when Jim loses, that just emphasizes that we are really supposed to sympathize with him. Never mind that he is a rancid, bitter man who perceives his students as pawns at best and enemies at worst. The best you can say about him is that he’s Ferris Bueller all grown up.

This isn’t the first film ever in which we are supposed to sympathize with a repellent male predator or dictator when he meets a young woman who is more than a match for him. Witherspoon plays Tracy, not as a seductive Lolita, but as a painfully awkward, earnest kid from the wrong side of the tracks who is just trying to work and think her way out of poverty. One might almost see her as having Asperger’s.

But the film treats her unsympathetically as cold and lacking in compassion. We are invited to mock her and see her least fault as something awful (which, in light of this recent expose about the creepy misogyny behind the scenes during the making of the film, is probably not unintentional). The film seems afraid of Tracy’s power and, especially, her anger.

She is also contrasted with the affable, totally unambitious, and profoundly stupid Paul, and not in a good way. Paul is a golden boy and a One Percenter. Until recently, he’d been a star athlete, but an injury blew his chances of a college sports career. His father is a rich contractor, making him town royalty, so of course he’s pleasant to everyone. He’s started out very well in life. Paul may be a “nice guy” on the surface, but he trails privilege behind him like a wedding gown train through mud. He’s totally oblivious, for example, to the reasons why Jim wants him to run, or why his sister’s opportunistic lover, Lisa, quickly switches to him. As long as she’s giving him blow jobs, it’s all good.

Paul would have made a horrible leader, but the film passes over that very lightly.

Tammy isn’t much better. She’s a lesbian, but insists she’s not. She sucks off her parents’ money every bit as much as her brother, only enters the election to spite him when her ex gets with him (Jim allows it, even though Tammy is technically too young to run for the office), and turns a bit stalkery on them both. Tammy’s lies eventually do let Tracy off the hook, but in no way is Tammy lying for Tracy. It’s all about her own ends.

Probably the character who gets the shortest shrift is Lisa. When the best thing you can say about a character is that she’s a thoughtless slut, that’s problematical. Yet, even though we see her do nothing but use her sexuality to get ahead (aside from a brief scene where she goes a bit Lady Macbeth on Paul’s “behalf”), the film implies that even she is a better person than Tracy. What the hell?

In case you hadn’t noticed before, the women in the story are treated much more harshly than the men, even though the men are just as bad, or worse. So much for equality.



Mommy’s Burning on the Ceiling: Mary Winchester in “Supernatural”


By Paula R. Stiles


I’ve made no secret over the years that Mary Winchester (Samantha Smith), the fridged matriarch of the Winchester family on CW show Supernatural is one of my favorite characters. I’m also quite partial to Meg, both versions. I liked Jessica, Ellen and Pamela. I like Amara, as well as Jody and her adopted brood. And I’ve warmed to Rowena. Clearly, my tastes run toward older, experienced and spiky, played by talented actresses. Jessica wasn’t the first three, but Adrianne Palicki is definitely talented (still sad her Wonder Woman series never took off), so she gets a pass.

Mary’s popularity increases with me in that she is now the longest-running character on the show, even appearing before her sons Sam and Dean. Plus, the show has teased us over the years with versions of Not-Mary played by Smith (most successfully with Eve in season six episode “Mommy Dearest), and the younger Hunter version of her played by Amy Gumenick in season four’s “In the Beginning” and season five’s “The Song Remains the Same.”

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However, the older I get, the less patient I am with the dire writing of women on television, to the point that even an irritating side character can turn me off to an entire show (The Flash and Arrow, for example). I doubt I’ll stop watching Supernatural any time soon, but it’s been on so long that its early seasons encompass a very different television landscape from the one (admittedly with its own imperfections) today. And one of the things that still seemed acceptable without comment in 2005 was bookending your pilot episode with a double-fridging of female characters.

It’s therefore still disappointing to see a character with so much potential as Mary initially introduced as Fridged Mommy, though in her case, she’s burned on a ceiling, instead. Even more disappointing is seeing Sam’s girlfriend Jessica endure the same fate at the end of the Pilot, simply because the show’s creator Eric Kripke was too lazy to think of anything else to do with her. There’s no doubt about it. That’s bad writing.

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So, it’s understandable that when the omnipotent goddess Amara rewarded Mary’s son Dean for helping her reconcile with her brother by resurrecting his mother, not all fans of the show were enthused. Bringing back a fridged character usually results in that character’s immediate refridging (often after she turns EVOL). But I’ve always wanted to see Mary back and hope springs eternal.

Let’s talk a bit about what makes a fridged character. I think we can all identify her fairly easily from back in the day. You’re watching Bonanza or Miami Vice or Magnum P.I., or reading a Batman comic or whatever, and let’s just say there aren’t a whole lot of regular female characters on the show or in the comic.

Then, one day, a female character who actually seems pretty cool shows up. She falls in mutual love with the Hero (eh, okay, whatever) and then, by the end of the episode, she’s dead, insane, evil and then dead, or moved to Timbuktu with a new boyfriend and ten cats. Either way, she’s gone for good. It’s like, “Hello, Female Character with Potential; goodbye, Female Character with Potential!”

And all the time, the male writers of the show are complaining that they’ve gotta put in female characters with “romance” plots because “chicks dig it” and that’s why they also write them out as quickly as possible, because they were forced into sullying their magnum opus with girl cooties. Why, if they had their druthers, the show would be a sausagefest 24/7 (except, like, not with any canonical slash overtones, c’mon, dude), just as it should be.

The nerve of the network making them do changes like that. The show would be perfect without them, don’t you agree?

It takes you quite a long time to unpack just how thoroughly misogynistic it is to resent having to include 51% of the population in a story. It takes you even longer to figure out that the real reason they put these love interests and doomed mothers/sisters/cousins into stories aimed at male audiences is because these female characters are not really characters — they’re plot coupons and rewards for the Heroes. Those female characters are actually necessary to the story the writers want to tell and insisted on by the writers themselves. They just aren’t meant for the female fans.

Everyone knows that the Heroes can’t be Heroes unless they are restless and miserable, so these rewards are constantly taken away from them, in a way that creates as much angst as possible. And the fact that women are not job promotions or cartons of Ben&Jerry’s ice cream — they are people — is never, ever acknowledged. In fact, it’s strenuously ignored.

Which brings us to the Women in Refrigerators website. It was originally based on an incident in the Green Lantern comic in which the Hero’s new girlfriend gets murdered by a villain and stuffed in a refrigerator for her boyfriend to find.

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Now, aside from the fact that this plot alone sounds incredibly stupid (and the art in the comic panels does it no favors), the author of the site’s point that this happens a lot to women in genre fiction is well-taken. I may not agree with every single entry on her list, but she’s dead-right that a disturbingly high number of female characters in genre media are introduced as Love Interests, Mothers, Hot Sisters/Cousins, etc., only to be brutally killed off or otherwise written out almost as soon as we meet them. The Green Lantern’s girlfriend, for example, is introduced a mere six issues before she’s killed off. So, these characters, on top of being horribly dead, have little audience investment because they are one-dimensional.

Surprisingly, some of them turn out to be really popular because the writers, to save time, make them perfect and awesome (or get lucky with casting, as Supernatural did with Samantha Smith and Adrianne Palicki) so that the pain of losing them can be felt by the reader/viewer as it is by the Hero — you know, instead of actually developing them over time as real characters and then killing them off for reasons that are about them and not their boyfriends.

Many writers go another route. They have them “meet cute” in a way where the female Love Interest treats the Hero like dirt right off the bat (so we don’t actually like her that much after all) and usually interferes with his (or sometimes, her) main purpose in the story. This is why I call Love Interests “soft antagonists.” They are usually good people, but they create conflict for the Hero’s mission in the story and interfere with its continuation in some way. Therefore, at some point, they’ve gotta go.

Green Lantern’s girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, doesn’t like him initially and then doesn’t like it when he gets his Green Lantern ring, so she’s gotta go. It’s her or the superpowered Call to Action. In a comic, the superpowered macguffin always wins that war.

An equally high number of women with actual agency in these stories (i.e., protagonists) are depowered/turned evil/killed off through similar means. A Xena: Warrior Princess is quite rare. Sexual violence is especially favored, used in a tone-deaf way as a tool to create more angst or, worse, as an origin story for toughening up a female victim into a hero. Game of Thrones pre-season six fairly leaps to mind here and from the rape rumors surrounding the upcoming Westworld series, HBO hasn’t learned a thing. Joss Whedon even did a fridging with a lesbian couple in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. I can’t say I was thrilled about it.

I don’t believe in over-applying such tropes to the point of pointlessness, as it were, but I trust it’s not hard to see why the Mary of the Pilot, like Jessica, is a fridged character. Where it gets interesting is that not long after, Mary starts being something else.

For one thing, show creator Eric Kripke always claimed that he intended for Mary to recognize her demonic murderer (keeping in mind that none of the rest of her family had any clue about his identity for over two decades after her death), but decided to hold that reveal until near the end of season two. This would explain why, halfway through season one, we get the episode “Home” where it’s hinted that Mary wasn’t your usual sunny, innocent fridged woman, that she wasn’t killed to get her husband John out on the road, either. She was killed for reasons that had to do with her — and as a ghost, she has power.

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That storyline wasn’t about John. It wasn’t even about her sons. It was about her. In Supernatural, knowledge is power. Paradoxically, Mary had to die, not just to push forward John’s story, but because she knew too much. It was the same reason the show killed off John early in season two.

Jessica never stops being a fridged girlfriend (to the point where the prelude to the reveal of her gruesome fate is nearly identical to that of Alexandra DeWitt’s). That’s even emphasized in later seasons. But Mary goes from June Cleaver to Queen Gertrude to someone even darker, someone more like Sarah Connor, very quickly. So, there’s this mystery to her, a subtext that belies the innocent mother of the Pilot, that is intriguing.

Then we get to season four, where she turns out to be a badass Hunter (“Aha!” cries the subtext) and even fights one-on-one against an angel in season five. While pregnant with her badass son Dean, no less. And we find out that the Winchester tragedy of demon deals began with Mama — not Papa — Winchester, that he was the innocent civilian in that marriage while she was the one who knew about the supernatural world and was trying to retire from hunting all along. Like Shane, she brought the job home, despite her best efforts, and it caught up with her in the end. The traditional roles of the trope have been reversed and they never quite flip back.

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Unfortunately, the writers recast her (still leaving poor Samantha Smith in that damned nightgown). And once they were done with that past storyline, they promptly got rid of Young!Mary via a mindwipe, of all things, so they could ensure she walked into that nursery unaware. The worst part was that the writer of that episode, Sera Gamble, not only was a woman, but she became showrunner and then wrote another episode where she fridged a Love Interest with a similar trope. Ugh. We women sure can be our own worst enemies, sometimes.

Now, I’ve been dying to see Mary come back in her older form, especially since Smith’s turn as Eve the Mother of Monsters in season six’s “Mommy Dearest.” So, I’m thrilled to see her back. Granted, there are ways they could do horrible things with this, but the trailer (despite its unnecessary commentary by the most irritating fangirls the show could find) indicates we won’t be getting a return to Fridged Mommy in a Nightgown. It indicates we will be getting Sarah Connor. I am all for Sarah Connor, preferably with that stupid mindwipe lifted. That’s meaty. That’s fun. Let’s go there, show.

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Herland” and Feminist Utopias


By Paula R. Stiles


Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Moving the Mountain (1911). Forerunner Magazine.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland (1915). Forerunner Magazine.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. With Her in Ourland (1916). Forerunner Magazine.


Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that many dystopias are really utopias but from the viewpoint of a narrator who hates them. If you look at Brave New World (1932), for example, most of the people in that story are actually happy with their situation. Never mind that they’ve been both natured and nurtured that way, or that they are in a permanent state of shallow indulgence in seeking the next new pleasure. They like it. They aren’t suffering as the characters are in, say, We (1921) or Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

Sure, you’d hate the World State if you were deeper than a puddle or an outsider, but it’s questionable whether John Savage (or any of the other Alphas) is all that deep. This becomes especially true as our society’s tolerance wanes for whiny man-children who feel entitled to a girlfriend who understaaaaannnds them, or for Huxley’s reflexive assumption that all women can only be, at best, Betas. Gee, thanks, Al.

This is important to keep in mind when reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopian Herland trilogy. It comprises Moving the Mountain, the narratively unrelated Herland, and Herland‘s direct sequel With Her in Ourland.

Moving the Mountain is not set in the same world as Herland. It’s really Gilman’s version of Looking Backward from 1888 (her male narrator even mentions this early on) and is her vision of the mid-20th century circa 1950. Some stuff she gets so right that it almost elicits a shrug from the reader (Well, yes, of course regulated, cleaner food and water happened, and that was an improvement, but it hardly resulted in a utopian world). Other stuff (no more war in 1950? The Temperance movement was a success? Yeah, sure) she gets pretty wrong.

The male narrator, John Robertson, goes off to Tibet, gets bonked on the head, lives there in a state of amnesia for 30 years (which Gilman dismisses as of no account with an off-hand contempt for Tibetan culture), accidentally meets his sister Ellen, gets his memory back of his previous life while losing all memory of what he did in Tibet, and returns home, only to find that the wimminfolk have changed into emotional aliens and basically taken over society.

No, I’m not kidding. That’s really the plot.

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In Herland, in what sounds eerily like a precursor to Lost Horizon (1933) or even At the Mountains of Madness (1931), three male explorers travel up a river and past some kind of old lava flow to discover a country full of millions of women and no men. After the natural disaster of a volcanic eruption, these women somehow evolved two thousand years ago into giving birth parthenogenetically. To their chagrin, the male explorers are quickly captured and “educated” like children in the new culture, with varying success. Part of this education includes falling in love with three of their captors and getting married, which is written as natural, straight male aggression and sex drive, but comes off a little bit like Stockholm Syndrome.

In With Her in Ourland, two of the men go back home with one of the men’s Herlander wives, who is acting as a scout for her people to see if it’s worth opening up communications with the rest of the world. Her husband tries to explain to her how civilized his world really is and then they land right in the middle of WWI. Awkward.

Personally, I liked Herland better than Moving the Mountain, albeit in a lukewarm way. There’s actual conflict and it is written better as a story. While Herland and With Her in Ourland have a lot of the usual extended and wordy exposition about the culture that you find in utopian novels, Moving the Mountain is almost nothing but, save for the beginning and end of the story. Herland has more of a plot than Moving the Mountain and more of a story arc and structure.

The three men in Herland represent a continuum of manhood from Jeff the romantic lover of All Things Woman, through the milquetoast narrator Van, to Terry the creepy date rapist (Van even admits at one point that he and Terry’s other friends never let any of their female relatives be alone with him back in school. Nice). Needless to say, Terry doesn’t take being deprogrammed out of super-macho douchebaggery too well and things end rather badly for him.

(There is an unintentional irony in that in all three books, the POV is male, and the female characters are idealized and one-dimensional. Not only do the women of Herland dress alike, they also act alike for the most part (save for some distancing exposition about off-stage bad behavior here and there) and are blandly amiable. She even has her Herlander heroine bear a male child at the end of With Her in Ourland, signaling a sea change that probably wouldn’t bode well for the Herlanders in real life. Though Gilman writes the men in the story as overgrown children, it cuts into the feminist message just a tad to write her women entirely through the Male Gaze. It also cut down on my enjoyment of the stories.)

The Herland novels also don’t have quite as much “Good Lord, did she just say that?” stuff in them as Moving the Mountain. For example, the future society in Moving the Mountain advocates eugenics on the level of euthanasia for physical handicaps, long-term mental illness, and hardened criminals, but also women who like sex too much or alcoholics/drug addicts who flunk rehab after one try. And yet, when the men mention to the women of Herland that women in their own culture have abortions, the Herland women are utterly horrified. Hmm. Okay.

In all three books, Gilman also shows a general dislike of sex except for procreation and the women of Herland are obsessed with the ideal of motherhood, which also derails any discussion of why women who have spent two thousand years without men would be attracted to them, let alone what those women are getting up to together in the bedroom without any men around (for that, check out Joanna Russ’ unnerving and often wickedly funny “When It Changed” (1972)).

The women talk incessantly about how regretful they are that they can only have one child, due to having to keep the population down to accommodate their environment. They’d happily have the full five kids their unique biology allows them, so having just one kid is awfully hard. Even with Gilman’s enthusiastic endorsement of “It takes a village of women to raise a child” forms of child rearing, that she considered this idea remotely feminist, even in 1915, gets a Spock eyebrow from me. I mean, what if a Herlander doesn’t want to have kids? Does that make her some kind of freak?

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Also, they are all white – and by white, I mean Northwestern European. Gilman doesn’t beat away at this fact repeatedly, but she does make it very clear. Women of Color are absent from her two utopias for a reason (in fact, the only Man of Color we meet is near the end of Moving the Mountain and he’s a walking submissive stereotype). Even if she doesn’t rodomontade too much about that reason, her ideas of the genetic superiority of some women over others (who shouldn’t be allowed to breed) make the unpleasant extrapolation pretty easy.

Gilman also shows a distinct antipathy toward the messiness and chaos of nature in both books. In Moving the Mountain, most wildlife except for some birds (Gilman had a thing for song birds), vermin like rats, cats and dogs, and even cattle, have been eliminated. Herland has no dogs and no non-productive trees, just one big orchard. Cattle have been phased out. And cats have been bred to become complacent, never go into heat, and never hunt birds. Ha.

The trilogy hasn’t aged well post-WWII. The Nazis did an excellent job of killing the Eugenics Movement, while Prohibition did a number on the Temperance Movement. Moving the Mountain, in particular, puts forth some ideas that must have appeared entirely sensible to Gilman at the time, but didn’t play out well at all in the reality of the Nazi Fatherland.

What’s especially odd is how these books (which detail what Gilman saw as perfect societies) contrast with some of her other work, particularly the horror classic “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892). That story is told from the point of view of a woman suffering from postpartum depression and subjected to a chilling social isolation treatment by her dim-witted physician of a husband. Motherhood is not idealized in this story and the women on either side of the wallpaper in their violent and psychotic rebellion would not be allowed at all in either of the utopias of the Herland trilogy.

Gilman was perfectly capable of writing unruly women, as “The Yellow Wallpaper” amply demonstrates, so it’s a bit of a shock to see how placid and bovine the women of Herland frequently appear. Even the women in Moving the Mountain are spikier and fiercer than that. I suppose this is a classic example of why utopias are almost always so creepy. What seems normal and desirable to one person can have an unintended dark subtext for others. While I don’t think everything fictional should be grim or sturm und drang, I wonder if an attraction of horror (and of dystopias) is that intentionally and consciously grappling with our dark sides can evoke a certain honesty not present in utopian fiction.