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Herland in Retrograde in “Femlandia”

Herland in Retrograde in “Femlandia”

  • A review of Christina Dalcher's new book, "Femlandia."

Gender dystopias and utopias are a long-standing thought experiment, and increasingly popular of late—worlds of only one gender, worlds where women (or men) are nearly extinct or second-class citizens. Christina Dalcher’s Femlandia is the most recent addition to the genre. Dalcher notes Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915) as a reference; I suspect that Wrangham & Peterson’s Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (1996) might equally well be an influence. Seemingly poised to launch a devastating indictment of the patriarchy, with a feminist utopia as an alternative, Femlandia instead charts a strange and ultimately backwards course.

Following a national economic collapse and the suicide of her tech-venture husband, Miranda Reynolds seeks shelter for herself and her teenage daughter in the one place she swore she’d never go: Femlandia, a woman-only separatist commune founded by her estranged mother, Win. Alternating between Win’s backstory and Miranda’s journey from post-apocalyptic danger to the stranger challenges of Femlandia, the novel brings the two women towards the conflict that’s been brewing for all of Miranda’s life—this time, with survival at stake.

Femlandia is a weird novel, politically, and the weirdness starts as soon as you open the book, with its set of four epigraphs. There’s an excerpt from Samantha Allen’s “what misandry means to me” (while the essay is archived, if you go looking for it you’re likely to find it on men’s rights websites, which is a bit of red flag), followed by a Doris Lessing quote about little boys suffering because of simplistic feminist takes. That’s from the same speech where Lessing claimed that feminism had “pretty much” achieved equality for women. Then there’s Bertrand Russell’s claim (well, out-of-context aside, anyway) that “All movements go too far,” setting us up for the big finale: attributed only to “Twitter,” the hashtag #KillAllMen.

Because there is a such a rich tradition of feminist utopias and dystopias, and because Dalcher spends a lot of time reminding us of how awful men can be—serious word of warning, there is a lot of rape and child abuse in this book—it took me a while to figure out why the work contained so many currents running the other way. I kept waiting for Miranda to have some kind of revelation, some kind of compromise or reconciliation with the women of Femlandia, but chapter after chapter kept hammering it home: Miranda is right, and her mother is wrong. The point of Femlandia, you see, isn’t that men are bad, it’s that hating men is bad. The novel’s implied but obvious response to those anonymous Twitter haters, and I invite you to wince along with me here, is, well, not all men!

Once you see what the novel’s not doing—that it’s not endorsing any kind of systemic critique of the patriarchy, much less a separatist utopia—some of the things it is doing become painfully clear. For starters, it’s a mean-spirited caricature of feminism straight out of a ‘90s sitcom, painting Win as a shrill and hysterical monster who spells “women” with a “y” and is “turning as much as she could of the English language’s lexicon into a forced gender-neutral soup.” Even after the societal collapse that leaves them wondering how they’ll avoid starvation, Miranda thinks that “the last place I want to be is in my mother’s conception of some radical feminist utopia where everyone eats wheatgrass and screams about shitty men and plays angry Janis Joplin tracks on endless repeat. That’s just not me.” And again, this is a position the novel reinforces, rather than subverts or examines: Femlandia proves to be even worse than Miranda imagined, rooted in a cultish lust for power and engaged in horrific atrocities.

Alongside this anti-feminist take, the novel is engaged in another, more subtle kind of moral or political argument, one that’s ultimately just as repugnant: a bizarre kind of passionate centrism welded to a grievance-powered feeling of Boomer-flavored righteousness. Miranda’s mother, as we have seen, is a cartoonish villain, and Miranda’s daughter is an ungrateful and easily-brainwashed brat; both of their problems, the root problem of Femlandia, is that they tried to change things. Remember that epigraph: all movements go too far! Dalcher might equally as well have used another Twitter quote: “better things aren’t possible.” As Miranda puts it, “anything even marginally pleasant is doomed to be a one-hit wonder.”

The combination of anti-reform politics and a constant centering of Miranda’s character as justified—in disowning her radical mother, in hitting her daughter, in choosing to be a housewife (unlike her snooty academic friends)—connects, gratingly but logically, with many of the novel’s off-hand cultural cues. In one of the greatest bits of unintentional character-building I’ve ever encountered, Miranda reveals herself to be the kind of person who tips at Starbucks by rounding up. She also never misses a chance to use “Venezuela” as shorthand for “atrocities that result if you try to reform anything,” mocks men who eat kale, and thinks that part of the reason the government collapsed is that NGOs “took our cash and handed it over to the more needy.” Those monsters.

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The novel is done no favors by its use of very short chapters (four pages, on average), which is not too strange for a thriller but falls flat here. Chapters end mid-action for no discernible reason, only to pick up again in the same scene. The effect is often like a television show using commercial breaks to artificially increase tension, and Femlandia tangles up its own pacing by throwing in flashbacks and digression that derail its momentum; it’s not clear until the very end of the novel that Miranda doesn’t know the information revealed in Win’s backstory. Furthermore, it’s plagued by too many reality-breaking plot and character problems to list here, from Miranda solving a decades-old murder on the logic that “no one drafts a suicide note” (and, apparently, a compulsion to do the pencil-rubbing trick on any pads of paper she finds laying around) to an unintentionally comic gun-juggling finale.

It is very hard to figure out who Femlandia is for. Its painful litanies of all-too-believable rape and abuse are an obvious and believable prompt that “things need to change,” except that Dalcher is simultaneously making the case that change is bad and will inevitably lead to the worst kind of human rights abuses. The novel is firmly in the genre of the Handmaid’s Tale’s successors, with that genre’s problem of fixating on the torture of women, sometimes above and beyond its call for change. Indeed, Femlandia doesn’t want to make that call, would have us go back a bit: its epilogue, where the women and men of the renamed “Landia” community (really) are rediscovering gendered labor, is supposed to be a happy one. That might be the most dystopian moment in the whole dreary book.

By Christina Dalcher
Berkley Books
Published October 19, 2021

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