Incidentally, all of my last few posts have been based on the readings from SF and Fantasy course on Coursera. Things are a little hectic in work and in life otherwise, that I am reading little outside of the course syllabus. The course is coming to a close, and as insightful as it has been, I am also eager to resume my regular reading.
A couple of weeks back, we were reading Charlotte Gilman’s Herland and Burroughs’ Princess of Mars. The two books could not be more different, and yet there were some common threads running between them. While Princess of Mars was a dominantly ‘masculine’ book – with heroes, fights and men saving damsels, Herland was feminine, even if not in the traditional sense of the world.

It is about the second book, Herland, that I felt more strongly. (The first was a little over the top – you would know what I mean if you see the movie John Carter which is based on Princess of Mars). In Herland, four men accidentally discover a land where only women live. These women run an efficient and apparently a highly developed nation. They reproduce on their own, and the basis of society is a strong maternal instinct for providing a better life and future for their children. 
Gilman was a woman way ahead of her times, who recognized that she was not an ideal mother and hence gave up the bringing up of her child to her husband and her best friend. She also recognized that she was not compatible with her husband and therefore actively encouraged a relationship between her husband and the above mentioned best friend. These acts might seem less revolutionary now, but in her times (1860-1935), it would have been very difficult to gain acceptance with such actions.
Her ideas in Herland depict that women achieve much if they can live outside the boundaries defined for them in a masochist world.  She also advocates that motherhood is not a right but a great responsibility and only the worthy should be allowed to bring up a child. It is a developed thinking, but in aiming for higher ideals, Gilman seems to have sacrificed the femininity of her characters. 

Stereotyping of Women in Herland In Herland, Gilman imagines a world in which women exist independent of the burden of ‘femininity’ placed on them by men. Mostly through the voice of Terry, sometimes through Van, she highlights how men stereotype women: jealous, incapable of invention, weak, long-haired, shy, maternal, etc. In a largely male dominated world, women fall in accordance with these expectations and get defined by this ‘femininity’. What Gilman shows through her story is, that in the absence of these expectations (denoted by the Utopian Herland), women can explore their true potential. They can build highly civilized societies; rise above personal feelings and take knowledge and learning to unprecedented levels. However it is curious that the only suitably defined characters in her story are the three men. The women exist as abstraction, part of a collective whole. They all have short hair and able-bodies; they are all ‘fair ladies’. They show little human emotion and have almost no drama (“The drama of the country was—to our taste—rather flat”). They are also asexual beings, repelled or uncomfortable with the idea of physical proximity. In other words, Gilman has stepped away from giving any emotional depth or individuality to these women. The only time some personality differences are mentioned are when the girls align themselves to the three men – even there the individuality is centered on the men. It seems that Gilman has replaced one idea of femininity with another, and is still looking at women to confirm to some norms/ stereotypes. The only difference is that these norms mostly stand in opposition to those defined by men, and therefore are a rebellion to the male dominance. This rebellion still falls short for not recognizing women as separate individuals with emotional depth.

I strongly dislike the idea of feminist movements where women run ahead to stand at the opposite end of how they have been ‘defined’ (by burning bras, or adopting unflattering attires, or choosing not to marry to proclaim ‘freedom’) It still keeps you defined by someone else, and you are still an abstraction. While I feel very strongly against the secondary status of women in many societies, particularly India – where even liberal men congratulate themselves on ‘allowing’ their wives to work, I desist these caricatures of feminists which discredit the different and individualistic nature of women. So, I did not like what Gilman wrote – I don’t intend to be a superwoman, nor assert that one has to be brilliant to be recognized as an individual. 

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