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Within days of the sudden disappearance of every last earthly bearer of XY chromosomes (fetuses included), things are pretty much back to normal. Trash collection in Los Angeles is up and functioning again. Cross-country flights are soon available, the subways run, and in one small town, things are even better than normal: A seemingly unlimited supply of pizza dough keeps people happily fed. The remaining XXers are so capable that they overcome, lickety-split, what might seem like fundamental obstacles to life without half the population—learning to operate new machinery, reupping the power grid and water filtration, and, though it’s never mentioned, presumably hauling in the year’s harvest. A few weeks later, Zillow creates a brand-new function to pair left-behind citizens with now-vacant houses; the CMS works like a charm, with excellent functionality and zero error messages. And that is how we know this is science fiction.
The left-behind women of Sandra Newman’s novel The Men can do it all. Who run the world? Girls. How do they do it? With an uncanny aptitude for systems management and an unlikely ability to maintain the amenities of modern life with 50 percent of the, er, manpower.
Such is the world Newman constructs in the gap where half of humanity once dwelled. When Jane Pearson comes down a mountain in Northern California after searching for her missing husband and son for 10 days, she hears “a faint, sweet clamor of voices in the air … They weren’t angels or children. It was the sound of a hundred women with no men.” The women are “drinking Bud from cans” and sunbathing in underwear while little girls are dancing to Elton John; the trauma of losing husbands, fathers, sons, and friends in an unexplained cataclysmic event isn’t enough to get in the way of a good time. “In that moment,” Jane thinks, “I was struck by how profoundly a scene was changed by the removal of the masculine element. It felt very sweet and fantastical: a world of lambs with no wolves.”
Relieved from the terror of prowling, howling beasts, these soft, delicate, no-longer-helpless women take back the night, and the streets, and the dark alleys, and all the places where they might have once clutched cans of pepper spray. Far-off problems occasionally float into view—truckers ambushed as they move supplies across the country, towns running out of food and resorting to violence—but this world of fluffy little lambs is billed as a paradise, if only its inhabitants would embrace it.
Except, for this reader, paradise is boring. (There’s a reason we relish Dante’s Inferno so much more than his Paradiso.) The defining feature of The Men, a snappy premise in search of a novel, is the utterly flat reality it imagines for its women. Building an entirely new world order of this sort ought to puff up dramas great and small. But pfffffft. Why does the air seem to go right out of them?The Men launches women into positions of uncontested power but entirely underestimates their complexity. It makes you long, against all your better instincts, for the men to come back.
There’s a big, ugly problem built into the foundation of The Men. The novel slices a clean chromosomal line through the middle of humanity, XX on one side, XY on the other, as if biology were destiny. Trans characters appear—though they don’t speak—but their presence is a moral badge for those who reminisce about disappeared trans friends or watch, with horror, while trans men are beaten in the street. Before publication, the book met with some controversy, based on some early readers and, in some cases, its premise alone. Goodreads reviewers showed up to one-star it, often admitting they hadn’t read the book. The essayist Lauren Hough was removed from contention for a Lambda Literary Award after she defended Newman and The Men on Twitter. But the novel isn’t transphobic as much as sadly ill-considered and unoriginal. Newman’s world isn’t binary, but her mechanism is, and no amount of shoehorned asides can shore up that rotting mooring. The history of feminist utopias in literature is long and fitful, with squabbles among renowned novelists and calls for a more expansive view of gender identity, but The Men lazily fumbles back toward simplicity.
Art is not required to be moral—and shouldn’t strive to be—but good art is never this careless in its conception. Utopias are ripe for wild imagining. Why not reckon with the reality of gender, especially when decades past have already seen this sort of utopian premise time and again? It appears the answer is that the gender-war narrative is too convenient to give up.
Novelists have been banishing men from the planet for at least a century, and Newman clearly nods to her experiment’s precursors in The Men’s acknowledgments. (Always read the paratext.) “Thanks to writers of feminist utopias who came before,” she notes, “especially Joanna Russ, Alice Sheldon, and Sherri Tepper, women brave enough to say, unapologetically, in a far more patriarchal world, that there should be no men.” Each of these writers built little paradises—Russ most ruthlessly with The Female Man, a 1975 time-hopping, rage tornado aimed directly at testicles—where women could live in harmony if not for the men who parachute in to observe, dissect, and, in some cases, try to destroy their idylls.
If I can offer an understatement: There’s a lot for women to be pissed about. Simmering resentment at our still-second-class existence is the de facto emotional state many of us exist in from moment to moment. Gender dystopias, in which men find new and creative ways to explicitly oppress women, have become outlets for that fury; there’s a Look what they’ll do to us if given the chance! snarl beneath every line of The Handmaid’s Tale’s descendants. Dystopian schemes grant men enough license and the right circumstances to keep women as if they were pets. Worst-Case-Scenario Fiction can feel like it’s doing the same work as worry, like we can ward off theocracies and maternal penal colonies by imagining them ahead of time.
The allure of the feminist utopia is that it dispenses with existential anxiety just as readily as it dispenses with men. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, the original American feminist utopia from 1915, citizens have achieved perfect health; they’re “a clean-bred, vigorous lot, having the best of care, the most perfect living conditions always.” The family units in Ursula K. Le Guin’s story “The Matter of Seggri” mete out child-rearing and domestic duties in harmony with larger governance work. On Whileaway, the single-gendered planet in The Female Man, the workweek is 16 hours; the planet is a place “so pastoral that at times one wonders whether the ultimate sophistication may not take us all back to a kind of pre-Paleolithic dawn age.” Women organize into efficient and congruous guilds. They get shit done, they have it all, they live out wellness mantras and T-shirt slogans. But their interpersonal struggles never seem to be enough to launch great stories. Men always appear, intervene, stir trouble. Once novelists create female bliss, they’re hard-pressed to do much with it.
The men of The Men are gone only for a short while. Weeks after their August 26 flash disappearance renders the first law of thermodynamics moot, videos begin to appear online that show the recently departed gathering in prison yards and by dried-up riverbeds. The setting looks like Earth, but it can’t be; it’s too apocalyptic. The men appear as if underwater, moving their lips in “the jerky, stylized speech motions of Claymation,” cognitively tasered and on a different plane of consciousness.
The clips spawn branches of academia, cults of dedication, and righteous protestations that they certainly are or are not a hoax. If this is a rapture, the women wonder, why have the men been taken instead of them? “If miracles were happening,” Jane posits, “there must be gods.” Might it be punishment, “after all the wars, the pollution, the rapes?” Women doggedly watch “The Men,” as the clips come to be called; they host viewing parties and hole up with their laptops, more immersed in the surreal digital version of the missing men than the tangible presence of other women. The integrity of the videos becomes a key talking point for the women running for president of the United States, including Evangelyne Moreau, Jane’s former best friend and almost-lover. The men are just as present when they’re missing as they were when they walked the earth.
Here is where the tension dry-rots. Rather than pivot toward the women, to the rush of possibility for a world full of ambitious, complex, at-odds women; rather than push sci-fi heurism to a new dimension by investigating the thrilling, unbearable prospect of a world now populated by the grieving, formerly oppressed class; rather than defy the cruel banality of a binary gender apocalypse, Newman gives men the narrative. She even gives them the title.
Because the men show up from the past too. As placidly as the women live—some in a lush, communal Los Angeles mansion, others on the road with an erudite girl gang—the histories of their violent and power-engorged relationships with men break through. In retrospect, some spot minor flaws that now loom larger: Blanca’s father brought home scores of women and barked at her to mind her business. Ruth’s son Peter, experiencing some variety of mental illness, perhaps made her life worse, and not better? Jane, the woman at the center of this story, reunites with Evangelyne, but then splices her “peaceful and joyous” time during Evangelyne’s rise to political dominance with the story of Alain, the grimy little ballet administrator who coerced her, as a teenager, into having sex with underage boys while he watched.
It’s only secondhand, through Jane, that the most vivid character of The Men comes to life. Evangelyne, raised in a bookish, small-time cult, has an intriguing back story: When she was 16 she killed two police officers who were involved in a raid on her community. She landed in prison, rather than Cornell, where she had just been accepted. This magnet of a woman, “the preposterous hope of the world,” writes a best-selling treatise on commensalism—her political theory, akin to communism, that wealth should be more evenly redistributed, “where eating the rich is a natural process”—from behind bars, and hopscotches through academic, artistic, and political circles. With the men gone, her ideas rip through masses of women eager to see power radiate through circles, rather than up ladders. She fast-tracks toward a nomination for president. Her story, a gay Black woman’s glorious rise—buoyed by an apocalyptic rapture—is the novel’s standout twist against convention. But I’ll let you guess what end Evangelyne meets. Here’s a hint: It’s at the hands of angry men.