Sexism creates its own reality, especially within the layers of illusion known as Hollywood. Here, as the powerful head of a major television and motion picture production company, Harvey Weinstein inflicted unchecked sexual harassment and assault for years. Yet what if Weinstein lived in an alternative world completely controlled by women? What if the feminist utopia of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1915 classic novel Herland were Weinstein's reality?
Herland opens with three young male archaeologists discovering a well-made textile at the bottom of a sheer waterfall. An indigenous guide notes that it came from the plateau above, a secret and isolated society of women. "This will be a bachelor paradise" is the men's first reaction, "easily conquered." Like Weinstein, the three explorers (Van, Terry and Jeff) perceive women first in terms of their sexuality. Gender and the potential for sexual intercourse bias their perceptions of women right from the start.
The explorers conduct a flyover and discover a highly organized agricultural civilization with neat fields of natural crops and simple, utilitarian, communal housing. Women of all ages have cropped haircuts, robust health, comfortable clothes and astounding athleticism. Despite these competencies, the men are convinced they can land the plane for a closer look without being detected or harmed, because they knew only to fear other males.
Upon landing, the three intruders are captured and jailed. In contrast to "male" culture's incarceration, Herland prisoners are subjected to language training, debriefing, and hours of acculturalization in attempt integrate the men safely back into open society. In short, the female system fosters while the male system outside of Herland inhibits a productive return to the fold.
Terry, Van and Jeff are unable to complete their training and instead attempt an escape one night, taking harrowing dives down waterfalls and brutal mountain terrain. Fortunate not to be injured or killed, the "free" men are convinced they now have the upper hand—once again a complete non-reality. The women simply watch them escape and then recapture them near the airplane a few days later.
Back in jail, the men are fed fresh fruits, nuts and cocoa cakes. Over the course of many weeks and months of conversation, the men gradually learn Herland language and discover multiple truths about this new society: Women work well together toward long-term goals and they are serious knowledge-seekers rather than sexual provocateurs. Women are not competitive egoists or catty like the men expected. Additionally, they discover that "Motherhood" is the responsibility of all Herland citizens, a communal task raised to a deity. "We do things from our mothers, not for them."
The men, in contrast, slowly reveal all of their ingrained shades of sexism. Jeff is the "nice guy" who sprinkles condescension into his acquiescence; Van plays dumb; and Terry, like Weinstein, asserts sexual entitlement. Left and right, the men's assumptions are proven incorrect: "Women are not built for heavy work;" "Without struggle, there is no life at all;" "Humans don't enjoy work and won't work without incentive;" "Women can't survive without men."
Prison time eases into an extended open courtship (absent nearly all sexual attraction) between Van and Ellador, Jeff and Celis, and Terry and Alima. Herland leaders recognize these pairs as the best teammates, yet Terry "never seemed to recognize his quiet background of superiority. When she dropped an argument, he always thought he had silenced her. When she laughed, he thought it a tribute to his wit."
Like Weinstein, Terry's unyielding and aggressively sexist mind forges a perverse lack of empathy with women, leading to the dark climax of the story. Shortly after marrying Alima, Terry attempts rape. He considers sex his right, an idyll of his lost culture. Terry is blocked and expelled from Herland. The remaining two men find Terry's complete ostricization and criminal treatment as somewhat excessive, because, "after all, Alima was his wife."
Like the elders of Herland, the NYPD are now building a criminal case against Harvey Weinstein. If tried, he will directly face his vicious ego, the New York justice system, and Hollywood—all male-dominated worlds. He will sit with his intense sexism. Weinstein will be forced to reevaluate his communal responsibility to other human beings. He might face the wrath of his mother.
Or maybe, like Van, Jeff, and Terry, Harvey Weinstein will remain aloof to the sexism that Charlotte Perkins Gilman so skillfully holds up to the world like a mirror in Herland.
Lee Miller graduated from Cornell University and has taught writing for over 15 years at the secondary and post-secondary levels. This column examines current events through the lens of quality literature.