Dystopia, Apocalypse and Contemporary Women’s Writing by Susan Watkins

Our guest writer on this International Women’s Day is Professor Susan Watkins from Leeds Beckett University. She is an expert in contemporary women’s fiction and feminist theory.

In a recent interview in The Guardian, Margaret Atwood claimed that ‘I am not a prophet, science fiction is about now ’. In June 2017 women dressed in handmaid costumes in order to protest in Washington against President Trump’s policy change removing support for planned parenthood organisations. This proves the point that visions of the future can resonate many years after they were written (The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985.) This blog focuses on the ways in which women writers have contributed to an apocalyptic and dystopian trend and also transformed it.

Firstly, I wonder why so many novels, films and TV programmes that are set in an apocalyptic future focus on men, men trying to survive, men trying to protect women, men trying to rebuild things the way they were before, men who are nostalgic for the world before things changed? In a novel like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example, the focus is on the father-son relationship – the emblem of civilised values – and whether that will survive. It is this that particularly interests me about the dystopian and post-apocalyptic imagination: why does it tend to rely on familiar gender narratives and how are women writers moving beyond those?

There is actually a long tradition of women writing in this genre. This includes early books such as Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s Herland, first published in 1915, and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s 1905 Sultana’s Dream. Hossain was a Muslim Bengali writer who created a feminist utopia (called Ladyland) in which women’s role is in the public sphere and men are secluded – the opposite of the traditional South Asian practice of purdah. In this country, Gloriana, or the Revolution of 1900 was written by Florence Dixie, a campaigner for the vote for women, in 1890. As a girl, her heroine imagines a future when women will no longer be second-class citizens, will be able to vote and can have careers.

I’ve recently been researching the period 1945-1975, rather a neglected one in terms of women’s writing, but one in which women’s science fiction, dystopian and apocalyptic fiction was still flourishing. You might have heard of Angela Carter and Doris Lessing, but perhaps not of Margot Bennett, Jacquetta Hawkes and Anna Kavan. Anna Kavan’s Ice imagines an ice-age overtaking the world, but is also about a man’s obsessive search for a woman. The end of the world also means that no one else can have the woman he is pursuing, so it seems to be the logical outcome for misogynistic stalking!

In The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood transforms classic male-authored dystopias like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. She argues that ‘the majority of dystopias … have been written by men and the point of view has been male … I wanted to try a dystopia from the female point of view.’

Dystopian visions that draw on Atwood’s ideas are immensely popular right now with YA readers – witness the huge popularity of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, as well as Veronica Roth’s Divergent series. Arguably these books and the film versions do focus on female protagonists as the heroic central figures, and are potentially beginning to challenge the idea of women as victim. However, they tend to do little more than show women in traditional masculine roles (‘kicking ass’, as it were), and sometimes still make use of romantic love interests in pretty conventional ways.

There are lots of contemporary women writers writing interesting apocalyptic novels, including Lionel Shriver, Nnedi Okorafor, Emily St John Mandel and of course Margaret Atwood, who has returned to the speculative mode in her recent trilogy of post-apocalyptic fictions, MaddAddam, which is set after a genetically-engineered virus has wiped out almost all of humanity. The word MaddAddam is a palindrome, a word that reads the same backwards as forwards. There is an important clue here, as in this trilogy of novels Atwood deals with the end of human civilisation, but also the creation of a new humanoid species, the Crakers (named after their creator, the same guy who deliberately creates the fatal flu virus). At the end of the novel the remnants of humanity and the small group of Crakers learn to co-exist, reproduce and survive. And the Crakers learn to read and write. Nearly all women writers, including Atwood, imagine humanity surviving, but also changing, after the end of the world as we know it. None of them are nostalgic for the past, or concerned to preserve earlier literature; instead, they are all about embracing change and transformation in the written word, literature and culture and society as a whole.

Susan Watkins is Professor in the School of Cultural Studies and Humanities and Director of the Centre for Culture and the Arts at Leeds Beckett University. She is an expert in contemporary women’s fiction and feminist theory.

She co-edited The History of British Women’s Writing, 1945-1975 Volume NineHanson, C. and Watkins, S. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).



This blog was part of a longer talk given by Susan as part of the Cultural Conversations programme run by Leeds Beckett University. You can watch the whole of it here:




Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend and the Northern Short Story Festival. She continues to be its Director.

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