A few weeks ago I was bingeing on YA novels, probably because I was in the middle of exams and wanted to read something that wasn’t a peer-reviewed journal article. I felt like being futuristic, so I found a couple of futuristic ones at the library. Most of them were forgettable, but there were two that really stood out, Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien and its sequel Prized.
I’m not going to go into much detail about Birthmarked, because it’s Prized that really got me thinking. For a brief synopsis of the first book, you can check out the author’s site here. I really liked the depth of the first book, and the genetic crisis that’s going on, because hey, genetics is really interesting.
But onto Prized. This book really, really left me thinking. At first I thought that it was brilliant and absolutely feminist. Then I completely turned on that thought and got really mad at it. Now I’m still left trying to figure out exactly what this book is saying to me. The plot is this: a young woman (Gaia Stone) flees an opressive society with her baby sister and finds herself in a new world, run by women. It’s a matriarchy, where women’s bodies are simultaneously sacred and revered, but only sacred for the fact that they can bear children in a world where less girls are being born every year. Men are forbidden from voting, even though their population is much larger. Women who choose not to have children are shunned. Women are expected to not have any sexual contact before they choose a partner, in the name of fairness and not leading men on. If a woman kisses someone who is not their chosen partner, it is seen as rape on the part of the man, with severe punishment. Even if it’s consensual.
Gaia speaks out against this, of course: she argues that calling a consensual kiss a rape diminishes the actual act of rape and sexual assault/violence. I completely agree with this, because it’s like rape jokes in our society, like when celebrities say having photos taken is like being raped. They’re so incredibly offensive because they trivialise the experiences of actual rape survivors.
I loved those scenes. They made my feminist happy. But there’s more to this novel. One one hand, it’s very interesting to look at in terms of the patriarchy’s view of women’s bodies as public property, as something that can be ogled, wolf-whistled at, groped, taken advantage of, because it’s completely the opposite. But the thing is, it’s still an opressive society. And what really peeves me is that it is so much easier to see the oppression in this matriarchal society than in the previous book’s patriarchy.
It’s because, when I was reading the first book, even I took the patriarchy for granted. Of course, I bristled about babies being taken away from their mothers, but it’s only once you go back to the first book after reading the second that you realise that it’s a patriarchy. That the same discrimination occurs there, but it’s less visible because it’s normalised. All the inequality, it’s all so much more obvious when it’s the men who are being discriminated against. And the women who don’t want to have children. Or have sex before marriage. And everyone else who doesn’t fit into the paradigm.
It makes me really angry, because I know that some people reading this book will miss what I got from it: pointing out how all gender inequality is ridiculous, and how we accept the patriarchy as normal and don’t realise how oppressive it is. And at the same time I’m grateful to the author, because she has caught me out and made me really think about the novel. I don’t know what her intent was in her portrayals of this matriarchal society, and to a certain degree, it doesn’t matter, because it’s out of her hands now. But I’m worried about how I read this, and how other people will read it. I’m not sure whether it tries to say something but stumbling in saying it, or whether it says something so profound that you’re not sure you’re reading it right.
Maybe a third read-through will clarify things. Or just complicate them further.