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Dystopian/Scifi stuff with strong female characters?

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers:

I watch a lot of dystopian/post-apocalyptic movies, and one RECURRING theme is “once there are no laws, women are cattle” in one form or another. I find it a. ridiculous, and b. a sad commentary that it is just assumed that with no one to stop them, men will just rape and enslave women to their heart’s content.

I really want to see a (non-sketchy or “omg they rule by being sexy”) matriarchal dystopian/post-apocalyptic setup, just for a change of pace, or a “hey, even though things got crappy, there is still a shred of humanity in more than JUST the protagonist of the movie”

The friend who forwarded me this question said someone else had mentioned Octavia Butler and Ursula K LeGuin, but feel free to explain why they fit below for those who aren’t familiar with their work. Still, they can’t be the only people to have explored this type of dystopia. Does anyone have any suggestions of movies, books, games or other media that fit the bill?

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Terri has a PhD in horribleness, assuming we can all agree that web security is kind of horrible. She stopped working on skynet (err, automated program repair and AI) before robots from the future came to kill her and got a job in open source, which at least sounds safer. Now, she gets paid to break things and tell people they're wrong, and maybe help fix things so that people won't agree so readily with the first sentence of this bio in the future. Terri writes/tweets under the name terriko, enjoys making things and mentoring others and has a plain ol' home page at http://terri.toybox.ca.

66 thoughts on “Dystopian/Scifi stuff with strong female characters?

  1. Devon

    I don’t know about movies, but you might take a look at The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan, which is a YA post-apocalyptic zombie thriller. It has a female main character who grows up in a village ruled by a religious order called the Sisterhood. They’re repressive, and a large part of the plot involves the protagonist’s escape from them, but I still think it fits your criteria. :)

  2. A.Y. Siu

    Doesn’t equating matriarchy with shreds of humanity just reinforce the originally objected to stereotype that men are savages?

    1. Terri

      I’m pretty sure those weren’t intended to be equated, but as a suggestion of two things (this OR that) that would both be nice changes of pace from the most common dystopian visions.

  3. Becky

    I didn’t like the series that it starts, its more pagan fantasy than post-apocalyptic anything, but the first book, “Dies the Fire” by S.M. Stirling, is a great picture of civilization collapsing and beginning to rise again. There is some rapine, but the majority of the rising societies are not that kind.

  4. supernaut

    Joan Slonczewski’s Elysium Cycle books, especially Brain Plague and Door into Ocean would be good to read, also her newest, The Highest Frontier. Charles Stross’ Glasshouse or Saturn’s Children might also, as with some of China Miéville.

    Also looking through the James Tiptree Award will likely have something.

  5. Cthandhs

    I totally know what the writer means, I started watching Jerico, a couple years back. Small modern day town survives a vast nuclear strike against the US. It was a pretty good show for the first couple episodes, and then the first time the town of survivors go into a larger settlement, they see women chained up as sex slaves in a tarp brothel. This takes place 3 months after a nuclear apocalypse. 3 months! I didn’t bother watching the rest.

  6. Molly

    I just watched the most recent Underworld, and it’s brilliantly feminist. Though I don’t want to spoil it, it’s a lot more post-apocalyptic than previous entries in the genre (it starts with humans discovering the existence of vampires and werewolves and deciding to wipe them out; the rest of the movie is about being a supernatural creature in a world where humanity wants to destroy you and has the means to do so.)

    Selene, the Kate Beckinsale character, pull the Ripley trick of being kick-ass and female without falling into the Strong Female Character trap–for instance, she’s wearing a black body suit but you mostly only ever remember because you’re seeing her shoulders, and the full body action shots are done with “action hero” camera angles rather than “sexy lady” camera angles. The movie’s full of gendered twists on standard tropes, and OH BOY does it pass the Bechdel test.

  7. Jairus

    There is a novella by the name of “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” by Alice Bradley Sheldon, written under the (male) penname James Tiptree Jr. that has some of these elements in it. It won both the Hugo and the Nebula, and is absolutely worth reading.

    I haven’t watched it in a while, but the ‘V’ series from the 80s had strong female characters, although it wasn’t a matriarchy (or very gendered at all, if I’m remembering it right).

    There was also a dystopian movie called ‘FAQ’ from 2004 which had a matriarchy called ‘the sisterhood of metacontrol’ running the show, but sadly it’s not very good.

    1. AMM

      by Alice Bradley Sheldon, written under the (male) penname James Tiptree Jr.

      Minor nit, but: I’m not sure why you put it this way. Normally, if a person is best known under a pen name, that’s what people put first, e.g., Mark Twain, George Orwell, George Eliot, etc. It comes off as a bit patronizing to me to put it the way you did, but maybe I’m just oversensitive.

      1. Noelle

        not the OP, but while James Tiptree Jr is kind of a pass-word in my geek circles (there is a JTJ literary prize, for Sci Fi that explores gender roles well – http://tiptree.org/) but I think in other areas of nerd-dom Tiptree is only known by the pseud and her female-ness is ignored. My take is OP is wanting to present first Tiptree-under-her-own-name. :)

  8. ithiliana

    This is where I insert my standard rant about film (and television) sf being decades behind written sf!

    Octavia Butler’s work in general is fantastic: her two postapocalyptic series are the XENOGENESIS trilogy and the PARABLE (duology?). I haven’t read the second series (too busy), but am a huge fan of the first.

    All her work has African American women as protagonists:

    http://io9.com/5556972/octavia-butlers-dystopias-are-more-believable-than-orwells-or-huxleys

  9. ithiliana

    Ursula K. LeGuin’s canonical THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS isn’t really a dystopian (if one is being genre purist) novel, but features a human species that has ‘evolved’ into hermaphrodites (of a sort), but the protagonist is an earth male who is visiting/narrating (it’s considered part of the “70s utopias/dystopias” that are the feminist sf canon.

    http://www.greenmanreview.com/book/book_leguin_lefthand.html

    1. Prosthetic Conscience

      Came here to recommend The Gate to Women’s Country. It’s post-apocalyptic, but not (on the whole) dystopian.

    1. Josephine's Readers Advisory

      (bemused) Just noticed I got a referral from this site; thank you! (I’d add McIntyre’s Dreamsnake and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time to the post-apocalyptic science fiction subgenre concerning gender issues, though neither is feminist in quite the same way as Charnas’ Motherlines)

  10. ithiliana

    Although I’d also note that I do not believe we will ever see any movies made about these works, at least not in my lifetime (I’m in my fifties)–they’d never get by Hollywood, not only because of the focus on women, but the lesbian separatism of many of them; the presence of old women in them (celebrated), or, in Butler’s case, women of color.

  11. Emmers

    For “shreds of human decency,” I recommend Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. The female characters are a little pathetic/shrieky, unfortunately, but considering it was written in 1959, it’s got a decent display of race relations — the highly sympathetic (Gary Stu?) protagonist is big into equality and stuff. It’s basically “Survivalism, But With Gun-Toting Liberals.” I liked it a lot (problems aside).

    I enjoyed N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, although that’s not really post-apocalyptic…I mean, it sort of is, but the apocalypse is very distant. It’s not at all in-media-res-apocalyptic.

    Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor has a female protagonist, but she still lives within a pretty sexist society. (And racist, hoo boy.) It’s a good book, but it doesn’t really fit your specs.

    My favorite post-apocalyptic book is A Canticle for Leibowitz, but it fails the Bechdel test in so many hilarious ways (ooh! ooh! Rachel and Mrs. Grales could talk to each other…err, wait, maybe not) that it’s not really relevant here. But I mention it because I seem to recall that the sequel had women in it? (I read the sequel when I was about 13 or so, and all I remember is being horrified by the (s-e-x) that occurred. Also I think there was FGM? Not sure.) Anyway, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman might possibly be an interesting read. In theory.

  12. Lisa Hirsch

    Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy has some strong women in a dystopian future, but make sure to read through to at least the second of a grim set of books.

  13. CJ

    Y: The Last Man is an amazing comic book series! It fits both your criteria, and all the characters except one are women.

  14. Joseph Reagle

    I too love post-apocalyptic stories for some reason (and also love the Underworld series!), so you should check out Pamela Sargent’s “The Shore of Women.”

  15. Lee

    I’d go and read Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring and Midnight Robber, primarily. These are great examples of an alternative to patriarchal dystopias that dominate (and white, heteronormative ones, too).

  16. Anastasia

    Not sure if your friend reads graphic novels, but really “Y” is pretty much THIS. It’s about what happens after every male mammal (including fetuses and sperm and stuff) on the planet dies. Of course, our main character is the only surviving male (along with his pet monkey), but the whole world is being run by women now because there are no more men. It’s not cheerful or anything, but it was very very compelling.

  17. Karly

    Basically anything by Sheri S. Tepper fits this – she has amazing stories, great female characters, dystopia, and various commentaries on society. She is an eco-feminist sci-fi author, if one is using labels..

  18. Meredith L.

    When I think of post-apocalyptic and strong women, I immediately think of the Resident Evil movies. Good, campy fun, with a kick-ass heroine and lots of crazy zombies.

  19. Marina Berlin

    Kameron Hurley’s “God’s War” and “Infidel”! I love those books IMMENSELY and they’re both set in dystopias with women protagonists! And they do not rule by being ~sexy~, they rule by being scary and awesome and religious and scared and selfish and generous and brave.

  20. Cathy B

    It’s hard to find, but I like Emergence by David Palmer. It tells the story of a genius 11 year-old Pollyana character. She survives a holocaust in a fancy fall-out shelter and then goes on walk about with her pet parrot to see if there are any other survivors.

    1. Ms. Sunlight

      Emergence even specifically addresses the issue of the “rape camp” trope, then shoots it down. It’s not a bad book, but it does suffer from an increasingly silly plot in the second half and a ludicrous deus ex machina ending. I liked it when I was 14, but don’t think I could recommend it unreservedly now.

  21. nobody.really

    While the main character in Anatham is male, the story has two strong female characters — one of whom ends up being the general — and is post-apocalyptic. But VERY post-apocalyptic. As in, civilization has imploded and regrown a variety of times.

    I guess it’s more relevant to say that the story is pre-apocalypic.

  22. Heather

    The Zombies vs Unicorns anthology, edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier has a number of dystopian stories with complex female characters in complex societies.

    It’s a kick ass entertaining read from cover to cover which I would totally recommend!

  23. Keith Ealanta

    Ursula le Guin’s always coming home seems to be set in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s narrator comes from a moderately matriachal society, but her society/tribe is challenged by more patriachal societies around it.
    The book is facinating in it’s structure as well as the world it portrays. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Always_Coming_Home

  24. C.

    The Hunger Games is a YA dystopia, but it’s pretty good. At least the book is — the movie seems really white-washed.

  25. Gryphon's Egg

    The Hunger Games seems to qualify– it’s dystopian and post-apocalyptic, it has shreds of decency in more than just the main character, most of the violence is not sexual, and while sexual abuse is briefly addressed in the second and third books of the series, it’s not treated as something that inevitably happens to women or that only happens to women. The movie based on the first book comes out this year.

  26. Debbie Notkin

    Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (also called Daughters of the North) is not only a dystopian novel with strong women; it’s a novel about a women’s enclave in a dystopian world.

  27. BLS

    Margaret Atwood has a few dystopian books featuring strong female characters. The first one that springs to mind is Toby from The Year of the Flood.

  28. Trish Fraser

    Marion Zimmer Bradley is maybe a bit dated now, but the sisterhood sub-series of her Darkover series is both dystopian and strongly feminist, and still a pretty good read.

  29. Steve McMahon

    Sherry Tepper: The Gate to Women’s Country. At first, it may seem that this falls in the ‘women as slaves’ category. But, as with real social life, things are not always as they are proclaimed to be.

  30. Crissa

    I rather liked Steel Beach by John Varley. Actually, I prefer the short stories he wrote in that universe rather than the big novel, even though their histories sometimes overlap or conflict. He kinda pulls a fast one, introducing you to the main character while she’s in male drag. His stories are often filled with fluid gender and sexual expression as almost an afterthought, yet central to the characters’ lives. Not exactly female, but feminist in its mores.

  31. Mischa

    The second book of the Birthmarked series by Caragh M. O’Brien’s features a society run by women. It’s YA, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian. I’ve enjoyed the series so far and am really looking forward to the next book.

    The main character is a midwife and is approached about helping with an abortion. The characters musings on the subject kind of made me wish this series was as popular as Twilight.

  32. kai

    Yay! I have a thing for post-apocalyptic lit, and I’m excited to look up some of the books here. For more, you might try…

    *”Califia’s Daughters,” in which most males die of a disease in early childhood, resulting in amazing matriarchal cultures. Amazing main character. Lots of play with gender roles in what became a mostly female world.

    *”The Fifth Sacred Thing,” (Starhawk) which rules on so many levels. It’s my favorite book, period.

    *”The Gate to Women’s Country” (Sheri Tepper) which was interesting but not terribly realistic.

    *”The Wild Shore” (Kim Stanley Robinson), and “Earth Abides,” have male protagonists but are definitely outside the ‘rape camp’ of post-apocalyptic literature.

    I just finished Parable of the Talents (the sequel to Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler) and it was OK. I thought it was a little stiff, and there’s a lot of rape in both books. Hopefully that will keep you busy for a bit…

  33. Beth

    Elizabeth Bear’s Hammered isn’t totally distopian, but it is set in a world that’s not a patriarchal boys-will-be-boys Lord of the Flies rapist-apologia that so often results.*
    Y: The Last Man comes to mind on the comic book side.
    Octavia Butler’s series is the only one I can think of that is explicitly matriarchal, and it is very much in the second wave vein of everything-would-be-better-if-women-were-in-charge brand of feminism rather than an oppressive matriarchal society.
    Elizabeth Bear has a non-distopian novel attempting to explore an actually oppressive matriarchal society, but it end it comes across as contrived (because it is). Fundamentally men get something out of controlling women’s bodies: children. Women don’t get anything by control men’s bodies in particular, rather than using class or race or caste to oppress.
    We see this in the real world: there are societies where women, for example, own all the property, but they have never dehumanized, oppressed or inflicted systematic violence on men the way patriarchal societies do to men. Thus any novel suggesting that that is what would come about either comes across as creepy-MRA propaganda, or as in Elizabeth Bear’s case, an intellectual exercise.
    Personally I think a separatist empire is far more likely, believable and interesting anyway ;-) In response to many patriarchies exclusive spaces emerged, often protected by religion (though not necessarily: we saw the same pattern emerge at OWS).

  34. Amy

    I agree, it makes no sense that women would become “cattle” without gov’t or laws. Women hold they key to the reproduction of the species & I think men stifle their fear of our power by inflating their idea of how important physical strength would be. Last time I checked, women can swing an axe or shoot a gun, so I guess that makes men feel worthless (ie. truly only a dozen men are necessary to continue our species).

  35. Hellianne

    Rachel Swirsky’s “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window” definitely includes dystopias and the fall of more than one society. At least one of the societies portrayed is matriarchal, and women are in charge in ways that do not merely mirror patriarchy. But the main characters do tend to be selfish and quick to anger, and there are acts of brutal vengeance, so it might not score so high on the “shred of humanity” scale.

    It’s available free online here. IIRC, it’s novella length.

  36. Simon

    “Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women” by Sally Miller Gearhart qualifies I guess. I read it years ago so don’t remember it very well.

    The Goodreads reviews are mixed.

  37. MadGastronomer

    Gate to Women’s Country by Sherri S Tepper has a postapocalyptic matriarchal society that certainly thinks of itself as preserving the last shreds of humanity. I found it highly dystopian. Not everyone will agree with me on this, though.

    1. Terri

      Sorry about that! Our spam filter got rather overzealous and ate 30+ posts, which I think I’ve now recovered. Tried to skip the obvious duplicates but there may be some anyhow!

  38. Butch Cassidyke

    Regarding TV series, while I am no big fan of it personally, Dark Angel seems to fiil the criterion of strong (cis) female characters + post-apocalypse. (Though I must say that I personally stopped watching after an episode where one of those cool characters appeared quite transphobic towards a trans woman)

    Maybe Dollhouse does too, if it qualifies as “dystopian”?

    As for books, I remember that Snow Crash from Neal Stephenson had quite a good female protagonist (though I read it a long time ago and was less exigent back then :o) )

  39. Karla Korkodilos

    Sheri S. Tepper’s novels are just amazing! Several of her stories are post-apocalyptic, others are based on some other world, and the most satisfying to me are the ones with a gender-based twist to them. I would give specific examples of what I mean but I am tired, I’m not sure I’ll remember the book titles correctly, and won’t do it justice. But those of you who have mentioned Sheri S. Tepper above in your comments, you know what I speak of, eh? This author packs a punch at the end of her stories where there is a revelation of some type that changes your understanding of what you’ve been reading so far, and it’s something that you just don’t see coming. The stories that include different ways to solve our present world’s biggest issues (gender inequality, hypocrisy in politicians and law-makers, the fighting in the Middle East and their repression of the women, our notions of sexuality, etc etc) are my favourites, and they end with some very satisfying results and plenty of jaw-dropping, gob-smacked incredulity. =) Can you tell I’m a big fan?

    1. AMM

      I very much like Tepper’s earlier novels, such as The Gate to Women’s Country and the Arbai series. The stories and characters are interesting enough that I don’t mind the ways that her characters aren’t really like real people.

      In her later books, though, she seems to lose all discipline. The plots get just too contrived and the characters are just sock-puppets in some radical eco-feminist screed. At some point, I just lost any interest in what would happen next. Not that I object to radical feminist screeds as such — The Female Man is one, but it is well-written enough that I consider it one of the great works of science fiction.

  40. loo

    Agree with the John Varley rec above though I don’t know that you could say his writings were entirely dystopian – I’d kind of like to live in that universe!

    The one novel that jumps immediately to mind for me is The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner in having a central female character who is smart and wise. In John Gibson’s Neuromancer, Molly is one of the most redoubtable beings you could ever encounter. I can’t think of too many that have female hierarchies, but then I think if it’s a dystopia I guess I’m more likely to see the male half of the species as being amply capable of being the architects of such societies…

  41. Wu Chuyun

    There’s the feminist utopian/dystopian classic “Unveiling a Parallel” by Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant. Note that it has been published 1893 and thus reflects contemporary issues of femininity and gender issues. Still, it’s a classic (and on my “to-read-shelf” to expand my knowledge of the classics).
    Another classic is Perkins-Gilman’s “Herland” (1915), though it also (like “unveiling a parallel”) depicts a matriarchy and social system that is patriarchy reversed.

    In German, there’s “Downtown Blues” by Myra Çakan: Cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic and a woman who can kick ass! Unfortunately, it hasn’t been translated into English yet…

  42. Maninahat

    I suspect a big reason for it is, like in Wild Western settings, once law goes out of the window, only the physically toughest and strongest will survive. Because of the assumptions of women being a weaker sex, this inevitably means that these genres portray women as weak, vulnerable, and in desperate need of a big, strong, manly man.

    Of course the stereotype doesn’t make sense for a second; not least because the real wild west wasn’t even quite like that. I’m personally working on a story that mirrors wild west settings, but is North African in location. The protagonist is a tuareg woman, and an expert tracker (Berber societies are unusual in their reverence for women and they have the closest thing to a human matriarchal society).

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