Here's a story for you. It's an old story, and it goes like this: There's a place where we're in charge. You've never seen it. You can't visit. It doesn't exist—it's in the future, or it's in the past, or it's just sideways, outside our borders, somewhere no one has been. But us, the girls, we run everything there. There aren't any men. Or: There were men, but we kicked them out. Or even: There are men, but they answer to us. This place is always threatened. This place is always on the verge of being invaded. This place is always just about to change. By the end of the story, the world of men will have reached us, and things will be different. But right now, here, at the beginning, there's just us.
It's not news that sci-fi and fantasy are about wish fulfillment. Nerd-dom—which we'll define, generously but maybe not widely enough, as the ability to escape into one's own obsessive interests, to claim realms of expertise and map them with care and detail and a certain degree of detachment from the reality that no one else cares as much as you do and everyone would like you to care a little bit less—has long been one of the culture's most valuable escape hatches for the brainy, the young and the frustrated. Speculative fiction is aimed at nerds, and nerds want to find a place they belong. On the Enterprise, no one cares that you're into space travel. It's also not revolutionary to note that speculative fiction is basically sociology's dream journal; when people tell stories about places and societies that might be, they tell us what they think societies are. What changes, what doesn't and what should. But when girls get involved, stuff gets weird.
When we see the word “nerd,” we don't think of women. We almost can't. All of that geeky energy, that willingness to dive totally into your own anti-social obsessions, is diametrically opposed to our idea of what girls are for. There's science involved, for one thing. And for another, girls aren't sorted into cool or uncool; they're sorted into likable and unlikable. The idea that a girl might follow the lonesome path of the nerd—not trying to fit in, not trying to be accepted, not trying to do anything but fight on the Internet about which "Doctor Who" was better—just contradicts what we all know, which is that for men, life is a sales job, and for women, it's customer service. And yet! The girl nerds, they exist! And they tell their own stories. Stories about escape, about what changes, what doesn't, and what should. And when it comes to lady nerds, those voluntary or involuntary gender rebels, those girls whose brains just don't fit the template, they tell stories about the specific discomforts and desires of that situation. One of the oldest stories is the one where dudes don't run things. Or, you know, exist.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman put the idea forth as early as 1915, in Herland, a novel about three dudely explorers who enter the not-at-all-subtly named Land Without Hims. Their first discovery consists of the fact that the women have short hair. Also, they wear pants. They soon find that not all of the women are hot, or young, which disturbs them greatly. By this point, the reader has made a discovery of her own, which is that these men are not very bright.
They do, however, demonstrate admirable patience when it comes to letting the women of Herland endlessly explain their society. If the revelation that women can put pants on is a shock, just imagine how startling it is to learn that, in Herland, boners are obsolete. Women reproduce parthogenetically—which is to say, with no need for a visit from Mr. Sperm. Here, a sample from the conversation:
"It would be so wonderful — would it not? To compare the history of two thousand years, to see what the differences are — between us, who are only mothers, and you, who are mothers and fathers, too. Of course we see, with our birds, that the father is as useful as the mother, almost. But among insects we find him of less importance, sometimes very little. Is it not so with you?"
"Oh, yes, birds and bugs," Terry said, "but not among animals — have you no animals?"
"We have cats," she said.
Yes. That is actually in there. They never have sex—their lack of sex drive is a major plot point – and they all love cats. WELCOME TO THE FEMINIST UTOPIA.
Goofy as this seems, Gilman was ahead of her time. Andrea Dworkin, notoriously, suggested that what women needed was “land and guns.” (Or non-violent resistance, but that gets less press.) Mary Daly wrote, in Gyn/Ecology, that “many feminists are actively interested in exploring the possibilities of parthenogenesis.” (They were?) Both pointed out the obvious fact that they didn't need to stop having sex in order to stop having sex with men. The desire for a world where women were in charge was so powerful that some weren't content to leave it for fiction, or even for the future; they projected it backward, into the past.
Consider Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon. Published in 1982, it's faithfully feminist, and stunningly weird. Influenced by Marija Gimbutas-y mythology (once, there was a peaceful agrarian society of Goddess worshippers; then, monotheism wiped it out, co-opted its iconography and invented sexism), separatism (let's all go to an island and get in touch with our girl power), and apparently Dune (psychic, politically ambitious nuns engaged in selective breeding to bring forth a male Messiah), it hangs them all on the legend of King Arthur, explaining that he was a male Messiah brought forth by psychic, politically ambitious Goddess worshippers who lived on Girl Power Island, AKA Avalon, that he and his sister Morgaine (as in “le Fay”) were mystically duped into having sex for selective breeding purposes, that they both reacted poorly, and that he subsequently went all Paul Atreides and rejected the Goddess worshippers, thus ensuring that Christianity and sexism would reign until the women's spirituality movement emerged and ladies started writing books like The Mists of Avalon. Morgaine, an Avalon supporter, is the protagonist. She is not pleased.
The book says that the problem with Christianity is that it won't tolerate other religions. It implies, however, that the problem with Christianity is that it's a stupid jerk religion for assholes. The ladies in Avalon get psychic powers and meaningful jobs and top-notch liberal arts educations, whereas we manage to make it about three whole chapters into the book before a Christian dude beats his wife and things get all “be silent, you accursed scold” this and “have you put some spell upon my manhood, you accursed bitch” that and “you see what comes of your willfulness, my lady” the other. To argue that the book ultimately teaches religious tolerance is like arguing that old movie serials ultimately taught the importance of cooperation between virtuous maidens and dudes with capes and handlebar moustaches who enjoyed tying maidens to train tracks. Of course, medieval Christianity was deeply misogynist and intolerant, and so was medieval Britain. The crucial addition is a magic island full of twentieth-century Women's Studies majors who can tell everyone else what they're doing wrong and allow readers to feel superior in between the many sex scenes.
The fantasy of Girl World often feels like the feminist imagination taken to its most self-indulgent, hypocritical extremes. We stand for tolerance and egalitarianism, whereas the people who disagree with us are IGNORANT WIFE-BEATING MONSTERS. Women, if left on their own, would eliminate war, poverty, heartbreak and pets that are not cats. But, here's a question for you: Why shouldn't it look like this? What's wrong with a wish-fulfillment fantasy that tells women they could do well with power and without oppression? What's wrong with girls geeking out over the idea that they're special?
Of course, stories can be dangerous; one of the most popular science fiction novels of the twentieth century is by a woman, after all, and it would be a completely harmless tale about a dystopian future and a death ray and a team of heroic scientists, except that it's Atlas Shrugged. Taking writers' work at face value can be dangerous too; Marion Zimmer Bradley spent the end of her life in court, accused of knowingly covering for her ex-husband's pedophilia, which should serve to point out that no side of any debate has a monopoly on hypocrisy. And it's easy to point out the flaws of the books themselves, political or otherwise.
But then, men have always told stories about female worlds too, from Hercules and Hippolyte to Queen of Outer Space to that one "Futurama" episode with Femputer, and these stories have usually ended with the women either voluntarily dismantling their society for boyfriends or being killed. The women who read these books want a break from reality like everybody else, and it's no surprise that their fantasies look just as unfair and silly as men's. Unfair, silly fantasies are one of the ways we're all equal, it turns out. Speculative fiction is sociology's dream journal; nerds want a place to belong; on the Enterprise, nobody cares if you're into space travel. All women want from these stories is a place where nobody cares if they're girls.
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"The Smartest Thing She Ever Said" is a Tumblr based digital storytelling art project featuring four teams of two-one artist and one story editor-between now and the end of the year. For three weeks each, the teams were asked to interpret the phrase, "The Smartest Thing She's Ever Said." The current team features photographer Amanda Merton and writer Alice Gregory with support from project curator Alexis Hyde. ArtSheSaid.com and its artists are entirely supported by Ann Taylor in collaboration with Flavorpill.
Sady Doyle is the proprietor of Tiger Beatdown. This is part one in a series of three.