I spent most of last week revising a chapter for an edited collection due to be published in 2017. I wanted to explore how desert-land in California can work as an important backdrop in feminist dystopias such as Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve (1977). Oftentimes in these narratives a transformation occurs when the protagonist journeys into the desert, which can be read as ‘an environment with a great power to change the form and behaviour of organisms’ (Limerick 5). As a peripheral location that is separate from the central catchment area of civilisation, it allows for the subversion of fixed definitions. But at the same time, the extreme environment of the desert setting can create a division of social power that causes the district to become a self-governed region of great disparity with much discrimination amongst its inhabitants. As a result, desert life often becomes an exercise in survival as old identities are replaced with new identities.
To begin, I considered the nature of the feminist dystopian narrative; In 2011, Margaret Atwood coined the term ‘ustopia’ to describe the correlation between utopian and dystopian narratives. She explains that one can find ‘within each utopia, a concealed dystopia; [and] within each dystopia, a hidden utopia, if only in the form of the world as it existed before[hand]’ (Atwood 85). The two categories then act as opposites to each other with dystopias relating specifically to a ‘nightmare’ version of society and often functioning as warnings ‘against the repercussions of current social and political trends and reveals their anxiety over the female body’ (Wilson 3). Atwood echoes this sentiment in her admittance that her most famous novel (and feminist dystopia), The Handmaid’s Tale, “contains incidents that have already happened [to women] in real life” (Atwood, cited in Wilson 2).
In order to discuss feminist issues relating to female identity in Carter’s tale, I applied Laura Mulvey’s theory of the ‘male gaze’ to explore the male influence on the construction of womanhood as demonstrated by Evelyn’s careful observation of (his lover) Leilah’s daily beauty ritual. Mulvey’s concept stems from the ‘sexual imbalance’ of a ‘split between [an] active/male [onlooker] and [a] passive/female [recipient]’ (Mulvey 19). She claims that the function of the male gaze is to project man’s ‘fantasy onto the female figure, which is [then] styled accordingly’ and ‘coded for strong visual and erotic impact,’ so that she can ‘play to and signify male desire’ by being ‘on display [and] sexualised’ (Mulvey 19-21). Leilah’s creation of a false public face while under the male gaze then personifies the female manufacture of a “not-self’ [that] is specifically designed to suit masculine taste [because she] constructs herself as a reflection of a masculine view of what makes her erotically desirable’ (Day 10). In other words, she transforms into a more sexualised version of herself. The imbalance of power in relation to sex and gender in this theory both perpetuates essentialist notions and highlights how women are trained to rely on men for the validation of their sexual identity while simultaneously recognising their role as a passive recipient and sexual object of the male subject.
Soon after the breakdown of his relationship with Leilah, Evelyn finds himself stranded in the desert where he is captured by a group of female rebels who take him to their laboratory and force him to undergo a sex-change operation that will destroy his male physicality and force him to experience the remainder of his life as a woman. His rebirth is instigated by the cult’s deity and figurehead known simply as Mother, whose very physicality is a literal personification of the female body as a constructed patchwork of gendered subjects. She represents the maternal aspect of Carter’s presentation of womanhood within a dystopian setting and is depicted as a scientist/surgeon who has ‘made herself … reconstructed her flesh painfully, with knives and with needles, into a transcendental form as an emblem’ (Carter 57). Her self-assembled physicality also symbolises the collective principals of the female cult which seeks to create a female utopia where the mother figure is recognised and revered for her role as a (female) creator rather than as a (male) creation. She wishes to construct a female utopia where the male hegemonic position has been demoted and deconstructed to a point where only women have power.
Evelyn is told, in very precise terms, how the transformation will change the physicality of his gender by castrating him and then adopting him into womanhood by excavating ‘the “fructifying feminine space” inside you [to] make you a perfect specimen of womanhood. Then, as soon as you’re ready, [Mother will] impregnate you with your own sperm’ (Carter 65). This process would make him the ‘first of all beings in the world [to] seed yourself and fruit yourself … [to be] entirely self-sufficient’ (Carter 73). Immediately after the procedure, he is referenced in female terms as Eve. Eve recognises the complexity of her new identity by noting a disconnection between her (wo)manmade female form and natural male psyche, which suggests a residual presence of both sexes within herself. The performative struggles that she will soon encounter as a woman illustrate de Beauvoir’s concept of how femininity is a social construction rather than a natural state of womanhood. She claims that ‘[o]ne is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature‘ (de Beauvoir 1997, p.275). De Beauvoir’s notion of womanhood as a social construct is further exemplified by Eve’s inability to see herself as female despite her new physicality. Her inability to recognise herself as a proper woman is due to the fact that she lacks the training to perform in a correlating feminine manner. She manages to escape the desert compound before she is impregnated to become a mother herself but her freedom is short-lived as she is immediately captured by a poet and villain called Zero, a ‘stereotyped, phallic figure … of wicked, irredeemable misogyny’ (Rubenstein 107), who forces her to become a part of his harem of wives. Her new circumstances ensure daily interaction with people who have no knowledge of her previous masculinity and so demands a very compelling act of femininity on her part. In order to survive, she must resort to earlier (male) practice of careful observation of ‘feminine manners’ (Carter 97) in order to mimic the other wives and present a convincing masquerade of womanliness.
Zero secures his status within the hierarchy of his household by inflicting physical, mental, and sexual abuse upon his wives on a daily basis, which in turn allows Eve to experience the powerlessness of a woman who is subject to the perverted desires of a misogynistic man. His actions also subvert Eve’s earlier sadomasochistic relationship with Leilah by now enforcing her to experience the other/female perspective of sexual violation. Eve likens the traumatic effects of his actions to a horrific type of enlightenment into womanhood and even considers it to be a fitting punishment for her previous crimes:
I had spent three months as a wife of Zero. It was as savage apprenticeship in womanhood as could have been devised for me and, if Mother had selected me, however arbitrarily, to atone for the sins of my first sex vis-à-vis my second sex via my sex itself, I would say that … I had become the thing I almost was. The mediation of Zero turned me into a woman. (Carter 104)
While the hopelessness of Eve’s future eases by the end of Carter’s novel, her overall experience of female identity signifies the bleak state of womanhood that exists within the world of many feminist dystopias. Even Mother’s attempts to create an ironic version of woman is reduced to female suffering as Eve is subject to the same hardships of performance and sexual violation as her female counterparts. As explored in this paper, gender inequality and performativity is the underlying medium of discrimination in these texts. Feminist dystopias therefore present versions of womanhood that relate to gender performance and reproductive ability in an attempt to expose the root of the problem and instigate a dialogue through literature that might, in some way, contribute to a more equal future for women.
Atwood, Margaret. In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. New York: Anchor Books, 2011. Print.
Carter, Angela. The Passion of New Eve. London: Virago Press, 1992. Print.
Day, Aidan. Angela Carter: The Rational Glass. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998. Print.
De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. London: Vintage, 1997. Print.
Limerick, Patricia Nelson. Desert Passages: Encounters with American Deserts. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001. Print.
Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.
Rubenstein, Roberta. “Intersexions: Gender Metamorphosis in Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve and Lois Gould’s Sea-Change.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 12 (1993): 103-118. JSTOR. Web. 7 Feb. 2014.
Wilson, Sharon Rose. Women’s Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. Newcastle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013. EBook.
The Passion of New Eve cover art image: Copyright of Virago Press – Lana del Rey image: Copyright of Bryan Adams.