Boys vs girls

Banished, vanished, plague-blighted, hunted to extinction, rendered obsolete: for more than a century speculative fiction has been inventing and reinventing ways to divest the world of men. It is one of the genre’s most durable thought experiments: what might women do – what might they dare to want or build or inflict or demolish – if they were freed from all that patriarchal deadweight?

In Sandra Newman’s The Men, they mostly watch videos. Some kind of genetic rapture has scooped up every human being with an Y chromosome – including gestating foetuses. (“Of course, you couldn’t know their disappearance was punishment, but who didn’t think it was punishment?”) There are some initial hiccups – unpiloted planes tumbling from the sky – but it’s not long before supply chains are repaired. , orderly elections are under way, climate accords are signed and the peer-review process is revived (a great relief). In the time it takes for real-estate apps to solve the housing crisis, canny geneticists have solved the looming sperm shortage. The power grid goes down, but the internet somehow never falters. When clips emerge of the missing XYs wandering some dusty Boschian hellscape, the heartsick XXs of America gather to watch, united in longing.

The turmoil is also short-lived in JD Beresford’s newly reissued A World of Women (1913), in which a rogue bacteria (which emerges in China, then gets its virulent hooks into Europe) takes out the bulk of the male population. This zoonotic bug spurs panic buying, doctor shortages, mass denial, lockdown squabbles and rank profiteering. Conspiracy theories and misinformation bloom. The British prime minister is a bumbler and the fretful masses are “sick to death of this bally plague”. It is easy to marvel at the prescience, but A World of Women shows how wretchedly predictable Covid and its fallout were.

A devoted Wellsian, Beresford luxuriates in the anticipatory terror, but his aftermath is swift. Most of the men die; the women bury them, then repair to the countryside to farm. The obdurate city slickers moan and wither, while the rest settles into the gentle agrarian rhythms of the harvest: “back at the work of the ancestors, praying once more to Ceres or Demeter.” But without a steady supply of children, this blissful life of matriarchal socialism is doomed. At the coast a young woman stars out at the bare sea and longs for a boatload of fertile saviors.

And so we have twin tales of bereft and yearning women – one conjuring a pandemic; the other written inside one – and two effortless utopias. There are 109 years between them, yet the language they use is strikingly similar. Relieved of the burdens of marriage – of their decorative lives of lace and ribbons – the women in Beresford’s book work together in “an eminently practical way”. In Newman’s post-rapture United States there is an air of “commonsensical nurture, women getting on with the business of life”.

There is not much literary grist in competence. When your cast is so sedately obliging – “a world of lambs with no wolves”, as Newman writes – it is hard to make anything interesting happen. In A World of Women Beresford hands his final act to one of the rare surviving men, Jasper Thrale, the journalist who first tried to warn the British press about the plague. Thrale once thought of women as mindless sheep – addicted to “frippies” – but mass death has mellowed this aloof chauvinist. Freed from social strictures and religious dogma, he finds himself capable, for the first time, of love and pleasure (and, even more startlingly, respect). A world of women, Beresford shows us, could be a paradise – for men.

In The Men There’s simply no question that the narrative belongs to women. The title tells us as much. This is a tale of absence, as perhaps most de-manned novels are – a means to trace the contours of misogyny in silhouette. How better to prove the existence of something dark and nebulous than to whisk it away? Consider Newman’s scene-setting incantation: “Gentlemen’s clubs. Men’s rights. Women’s magazines. Feminism. Gone … Footsteps behind you in the dark. Big hands on your throat. Not being able to stop him. Gone.

When the premiss of The Men It was announced, Newman’s book was pre-emptively criticized for its gender erasure, for the bio-essentialist message it appeared to send about where genderqueer people “belonged”. Binary cruelty is actually one of this novel’s themes, albeit a blithe and blunt one – “Just another way God fucked you”, the (non-binary) Newman writes of the trans women who are swept up in the great XY harvest – but the Cultural discomfort the book aroused is one indication that this ageing thought experiment may have reached the edge of its utility.

Reading The Men alongside A World of Women, we are tempted to question whether gendercide has ever been all that useful a literary theme. This is not to say these books are uninteresting: Beresford’s novel offers a critique of fascism, social Darwinism, urban sterility and the consumptive churn of capitalism. And lurking inside The Men (though you’ll have to dig deep) is a tale of white guilt, climate inaction and the gravitational pull of grief; of what – or who – we are willing to sacrifice to stay comfortable. But this pair read as novelties, anachronisms, time capsules.

Perhaps that’s the true value of this trope, as an evolving literary record. For as our political – and gender-political – conversations have evolved, and the feminist cause has shapeshifted, so too has our world-building. The first “men begone” novels emerged at the triumphant tail end of the women’s suffrage movement. Here were parables of lost boys and female capability (as well as the telltale whiff of eugenics: see Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Aryan paradise Herland, 1915). Second-wave feminism produced novels of delicious – and vindicated – revenge and exultant female power (as in the work of Alice Sheldon, writing as James Tiptree Jr.). And in our current era of debates about structural oppression and intersectionality, the latest crop of novels has largely dispensed with utopian dreamsscapes in favor of more morally knotty fare – tales of dark trade-offs, climate grief and fertility terror. (See Lauren Beukes’s Afterland2020, and Christina Sweeney-Baird’s The End of Men2021.) “They are not works of dogmatic certainty”, Newman commented in a recent piece for the Guardian, assessing her own new novel and various members of the tradition in which it was written (May 25, 2022). “They don’t even claim to know the nature of gender. All they know is that patriarchy is killing us, and something has to give.”

The brute equation that men = power has always been fraught, a lazy cultural shorthand that ignores all the insidious ways the status quo is upheld, all the sly forms of tyranny. Women are not soft-muzzled lambs, and it has never been possible to cleave the world neatly into boys and girls. The most resonant of recent novels play with the foundational assumptions of the trope, such as female goodness (see Naomi Alderman’s The Powerwhich won the Women’s prize in 2017) and the gender binary (in Gretchen Felker-Martin’s gloriously grisly Manhunt, 2022, a virus attacks high-testosterone bodies and gangs of organ harvesters hunt feral cis men). But it feels like no accident that the book that has been most widely celebrated is the most irreverent: Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) – a tale of sensual, polyamorous joy.

What’s perhaps most telling is that, after more than 100 years of literary gendercide – dozens upon dozens of examples – very few de-manned books have made a lasting cultural dent. Rather, it is the tales of unfettered patriarchal power that have echoed down the decades: tales of inventive brutality and quiet complicity. Their imagined futures feel all too possible. Who could forget the handmaids of Gilead? Their downcast eyes. Their plundered wombs. Their red warning.

Beejay Silcox is an Australian writer and critic

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