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Morgan Jones: Reproductive dystopias and the world after Roe v. Wade

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The news that Roe v. Wade is to be overturned feels in some way like an aftershock; a thing for so long feared that some of the poison and urgency had seeped away. As politically demobilising as it might be, the blow landing so long after the initial panic over the Trump presidency’s impact on reproductive rights does let us see the cultural digestion of this first panic clearly. What did the culture pre-emptively make of the moment that has now come to pass?

Many things, is the answer, but one of the things that marked the years following Trump’s election was a slew of feminist dystopias of varying qualities, many of which were concerned with reproductive rights. Books like Future Home of the Living God and The Power had things to recommend them; the likes of Vox did not. When it comes to anti-Trump resistance culture, the high water mark was probably the 2017 television version of The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name. These dystopias, along with pussy hats and RBG hero worship and Curtis Sittenfield’s troublingly horny Clinton counter factual Rodham, form part of a cultural moment that it is very easy to mock, and almost as easy to legitimately critique, something many on the political left have done. The things this moment resisted and feared were demonstrably legitimate; I think those who target their ire at Elizabeth Warren-supporting wine moms are aiming their fire in the easy rather than the right direction. Whether you agree with this statement or not, however, I think it is fairly safe to say that little from this moment can be regarded as good art.

It is possible to posit that this is because it is art premised on the hyperbolic idea that political shifts create totalising change; that there is something called normality, and there is something called dystopia, and that in the instance of changes to certain material conditions, the former will become the latter. As such, they catastrophise, overblow, lose the details that make such a circumstance brutal.

In reality, the world sans Roe—with harsh prison terms for abortion and the apparatus of women’s health care and sexual lives subject to undue religious or political control—already finds popular artistic representation, not in dystopia, but in a series of books barely thought of as political at all. I am speaking, of course, about the novels of Sally Rooney and the other young Irish women writers who are inevitably compared to her. These are books about the personal and sexual lives of young women in pre-(and in the case of her latest novel, very directly post-)Repeal Ireland. We know what Rooney thinks about the legal status of abortion, because she told us, in a 2018 article on the topic in the London Review of Books. Her novels, however, are never polemical. The injustice, rather, is worked into the grain of the characters’ lives; there is nothing showy or overwrought about its depiction, and for all the protagonists’ musings on class and Marxism, it is not overtly discussed. It is simply the world that they inhabit. In Beautiful World, Where Are You, a character admits that getting a girl pregnant as a teenager is the worst thing he ever did (“her mammy had to take her over to England”). In Conversations with Friends, protagonist Frances muses on whether she might be pregnant, and sketches out plans accordingly, considering whether her finances will allow travel. For all that these are depictions rather than diatribes, it would be a mistake to consider them apolitical. The unaffected way in which Rooney writes sex (primarily heterosexual sex) is often commented upon. These are also books, however, that are keenly aware of the world around them, where interpersonal mores bristle against legislative circumstance. A similar effect can be found both in Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times (where the main character travels abroad on money from her “abortion fund”) and Megan Nolan’s Acts of Desperation; books by and about young Irish women that register and allude to the restrictive nature of the worlds in which they take place, without centring the politics of abortion. As such, they have a nuance, a level headedness in their rejection of the system, and an understanding of what that system means for people’s everyday lives, that is lacking from the histrionics of The Handmaid’s Tale. One senses, also, that these politically literate, internet literate authors know it. In Beautiful World Where Are You, the protagonists attend a poetry reading where an unnamed character reads what is identified as bad poetry about Donald Trump.

Rooney was famously, clickbaitily, dubbed “Salinger for the snapchat generation”. This epithet suggests a kind of placelessness; that these are books for a generation which eschews specificity to find commonality on the internet. As others have written elsewhere, this is not the case; these are books grounded in a very specific place and time, an Ireland where socially liberal attitudes around sex and relationships coexist with draconian legal constraints. Implicit in the post-2016 rush to dystopia is the acknowledgement that although such restrictive regimes might exist in other places, these are places that look sufficiently different so as to necessitate a return to the drawing board when making relatable political art. “It can’t happen here” can also mean “it can’t happen in a Western, English speaking democracy that looks in many ways much like ours”. Few American liberals can have watched Normal People and thought it an articulation of their worst political nightmares; the tendency to view Rooney’s books as generationally rather than nationally specific erases the fact that, in some ways, it is.

After the news about Roe broke, a fan tweeted, “Someone please ask @MargaretAtwood what happens next”. Atwood responded; “Working on it”. The relationship between politics and culture is slippery; they push and pull, lead and follow one another at different junctures. The repeal of Roe—and to a degree the project of the enormously successful conservative legal movement in the United States as a whole—is an attempt to bring culture to the heel of politics. It is not to understate the impact of this decision to say that you cannot stamp sexual mores into a populace by decree, as one might stamp writing into soft wax. For a sense of what happens next when law departs drastically from how people live the most intimate parts of their lives, you are much better off asking Sally Rooney than Margaret Atwood.

Morgan Jones lives in London and works in Labour politics. She is originally from Ireland and is a contributing editor of Renewal.