This fall, the books Sleeping Beauties by Stephen and Owen King and The Power by Naomi Alderman were released. Both make an attempt at viewing what the world is like for women by depicting plagues that affect them while leaving men (mostly) unharmed. This is not a new mechanism in genre literature, with the popular comic Y: The Last Man being a prime example of earlier explorations of a gender-based malady. However, the basis of these two novels, an illumination of inequality through a natural phenomenon that only affects one gender, hurts discussions of intersectionality and feminism more than it helps them.
In order to suspend our disbelief, the authors create a biological reality that necessitates a select population being affected. In Sleeping Beauties, women are struck by a fierce and quick-moving plague that removes them from the world they know and sends them to a shadow world. In The Power, something is awakened in women that enables them to inflict harm on others with electricity-based abilities. In both cases, I’d argue that the mechanism of hinging these afflictions on a biological gender is harmful.
Gender isn’t biologically determined. Nor is it binary. These stories, though they can illuminate aspects of misogyny and sexism in our world, also eliminate trans, genderqueer, and intersex people from their narratives. In order for the plots to operate, and for us to understand what the authors want to highlight, one must either ignore a vast community or declare that community’s identities somehow false.
While the thought experiments these books present us are striking—in The Power, for example, Alderman has us imagine a world in which men are scared to go out alone for fear of being harmed—they run the risk of more deeply entrenching us in the strict definitions of gender that they attempt to subvert. Sleeping Beauties, which ties the plague to biology while also assigning it a gender, necessarily invalidates the gender identity of anyone who doesn’t fit the profile it creates. At the core, it declares anyone who has a certain biological trait to be a woman and anyone who doesn’t not to be one. This is damaging, bordering on hostile.
Erasing the lives and challenges of trans, genderqueer, and intersex people in order to try to show what someone believes to be a truth about how society treats women misses a key part of the picture. Sexism relies on strict gender roles and enforcement to survive. Any challenge to the gender binary as we know it challenges that worldview. A meaningful, long-lasting gender revolution would not be simply the liberation of cisgender women—it necessitates the dismantling of how we relate to gender as a whole.
Women face oppression that is often invisible to the naked eye, and these works are attempting to pull back the curtain and create a window into what society truly looks like and what transformations it needs to make. However, in order to free all people on this planet of the damage sexism causes, we need to embrace an intersectional approach that not only allows for but includes non-cis people. Literature, and especially genre fiction, allows us to use a variety mechanisms to explore our society. The current discussion happening about society’s complacency in regards to harassment has permeated public spaces, but it is not spontaneous. Publishing timelines are long; they take time. The emergence of books isolating gender relations through horror or fantasy shows that these questions have been lingering in the cultural consciousness.
While we may find power, strength, and catharsis in these stories, it is our job to also look at who they exclude, why, and what that means for the movements we create.