Women and Silence
Vox: dystopian fiction, and the power of our voices.
Remember back in September when a whole lot of us feminists turned our Facebook profile photos black?
I just read a book that totally made me rethink that tactic.
At the time, I felt empowered, showing my 4-year-old daughter my friends list, explaining to her that each dark square was someone protesting. That there are lots of ways to protest, and this was one attempt, to be visible through our absence.
My favorite part of the whole thing was that the men in my life didn’t know about it beforehand. My husband didn’t know. My brother didn’t know. My dad didn’t know, though he doesn’t know much of anything that happens online.
I knew about it because I received numerous Facebook messages the day before, from women I’d befriended in all different phases of my life: childhood, college, parenthood. White women and women of color. Cis women mostly, and trans women too. We women were able to secretly communicate — even if we were using a huge corporation to do it — and in this, I felt powerful.
“Tomorrow, female blackout from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Its a movement to show what the world might be like without women. Your profile photo should just be a black square so that men wonder where the women are. Pass it only to women … It’s for a project against domestic abuse. It is no joke. Share it.”
And so it was with much confusion that, when I lurked Facebook on Blackout Day, I saw lots of women who were angry about the whole thing, who were urging others to never be silent. I thought,
“Well, sure, never be silent, but… this is a sort of general strike, and, historically, general strikes work! And the reason the USA doesn’t have more strikes is people come up with excuses for why they’re impractical or hard to envision, rather than just trying them. And, besides, this Facebook blackout doesn’t involve lost income or other barriers to entry, so it’s a perfect way to start.”
I didn’t post these thoughts, of course, because I was being purposely silent online that day. I also thought, “Well, if some other women feel the need to talk right now, maybe it feels more imperative to them to be heard than it does to me?” I had a lot of unwritten thoughts that day.
I liked the black squares with words printed over them, taking part in the strike while still being heard. But, mostly, I just didn’t get what anyone was complaining about.
Then yesterday I picked up this novel: Vox by Christina Dalcher.
This essay is light on the Vox spoilers. In fact, I’m writing this before I even finish (difficult, as I’m tempted to tear through the entire book in one sitting). I don’t want to spoil it, because I really want you to read it too.
The premise of Vox is females are limited to speaking 100 words a day. Women and girls, even babies, wear counters around their wrists that are trained to their voice and count every word they speak. If you speak more than your allotted amount, you receive electric shocks, increasing with each infraction.
The men in power are creating a theocracy in the USA, with men firmly in charge, and no place for anyone who doesn’t fit rigid gender roles. LGBTQIA people and female adulterers have all been sent to prison camps; females there have been completely silenced, with a maximum of 0 words, rather than 100. The dogma includes,
“When we obey male leadership with humility and submission, we acknowledge that the head of every man is Christ, and that the head of every woman is the man.”
We start reading at one year in, and Dalcher expertly introduces details slowly, dropping us into the mind of a character who has a doctorate in neurolinguistics, and is a mother (to 3 sons and a daughter), and now is forced to be a basically mute housewife, who also isn’t allowed to read or write.
The book is a total page-turner, and I keep having to catch my breath; imagining if my own child and myself were wearing these counters; if I had to bite my tongue while men taught her to be silent, had to wordlessly teach her myself to be silent. What if all I could do for her was tuck her in, without any bedtime stories, and save my words up all day for, “Goodnight, I love you.”
Our narrator chooses to hide from her young daughter what happens if you speak more than 100 words (excruciating pain), so she instead uses positive reinforcement to train her daughter to be silent: ice cream for nodding her head rather than replying. Purposely incentivizing silence: I’m shaking just thinking about it.
The males in the family talk freely but know that they are only to ask yes or no questions to the mother and the 6-year-old daughter.
In real life, I am constantly advocating for my daughter, for her to have her ideas — her voice — heard.
I watch people (usually men) suggest things for her to agree with rather than asking her open-ended questions. She’s only 4, but, when given the space to talk, she has so many creative ideas and nuanced feelings. Sometimes, people start with an open-ended question, but then they answer it themselves before she has a chance.
Grown-up: “What’s your favorite animal?”
(My daughter opens her mouth and is about to answer.)
Grown-up: “You probably really like unicorns, huh? Yeah, my daughter just loves unicorns. It’s just a little girl thing. You can’t do anything about it. Just everything pink and sparkly and unicorns.”
(My daughter gives a silent nod of her head.)
My daughter does like unicorns. But it sure is tough to tell what she likes because she likes it, and what she likes because the world is selling her a package of what she’s supposed to like, and sometimes it’s just easiest to nod your head silently.
My husband read The Handmaid’s Tale,
and Vox as well. But he didn’t watch The Handmaid’s Tale TV show past a few episodes. (I’ve watched them all.) His reason, the reason of so many, is that it’s torture porn, that it’s just too much.
Atwood, meanwhile, said of The Handmaid’s Tale, which came out in 1985:
“When it first came out it was viewed as being far-fetched. However, when I wrote it, I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that human beings had not already done somewhere at some time.”
It might not be your reality, but it’s reality for someone.
Okay, so, we’re not literally wearing counters like in Vox, but it’s true that men speak way, way more in movies than women. For data, see Amber Thomas’s Women only said 27% of the words in 2016’s biggest movies, or this huge analysis of 2,000 major motion pictures, by Hanah Anderson and matthew_daniels. Check out these stats; they’re chilling.
If we don’t notice this in films, is it because we’re used to it? Do men speak more than women in real life? The trope is that women talk more. My experience is that when I sometimes talk “too much” about something, it gets commented on; I get made fun of for it. This was especially true in my childhood. (I’ve learned to talk less.) I frequently notice men talking at me, and I don’t say anything about it, because I don’t want to be mean.
My mom, definitely a feminist, peeked at Vox’s book jacket and said, “This is just some of this Handmaid’s Tale stuff you’re gonna read and get all riled up and mad at men?”
Whenever I try to discuss a broad feminist topic with her, like emotional labor, she tells me I’m unfairly blaming my dear, sweet husband. From the sound of it, she’s constantly afraid I’ll mess things up with my husband.
I think about the mom in Vox giving her kid ice cream when she nods instead of speaks, and I think of my own mom saying with a sigh, “I just don’t see it like you do. Let’s just concentrate on happy things.”
The mom in the book doubted her tactics, but her intent was to raise her kid to survive as best she could in the world that was, not the more equitable world that wasn’t (yet?). I guess my mom, consciously or not, is approaching things the same way. I hear her voice in my head, from my childhood:
“You get what you get, and you say thank you.”
It’s not crazy advice, right? In some contexts. But is it enough?
I tell my kid about so many things that are wrong in the world. I tell her they’re not fair, they’re not right, and we don’t need to pretend that they are. I tell her it’s getting better, but we’ve got a ways to go. I tell her our voices are powerful. I tell her so much. Countless words. And I try to listen as well.
Here’s something else I wrote: