I recently started a book club with some of my friends. After some voting and debating, we settled on Brave New World by Aldous Huxley as our first book. Many of the group remembered liking the book in high school, but couldn’t really recall any specifics, and the rest had never read it at all.
This was my third time reading Brave New World, and I noticed things that had escaped me before. Things that made me angry.
My Newfound Feminist Lens
Despite always having some feminist tendencies, I wasn’t properly introduced to the movement until college. I took a class on punk rock music and discovered Riot Grrrl, and I’ve never looked back. I greatly appreciate that class for introducing me to a social movement I identify so strongly with, and I’m grateful that my journey into feminism and feminist theory was shaped by finding Riot Grrrl first.
Since I was introduced to feminism through Riot Grrrl, I’m pretty comfortable with anger. And I’m pretty comfortable voicing that anger.
So, what made me angry? The fact that the society of Brave New World is supposed to be a futuristic utopia, and women are still dealing with the same old shit.
Despite being genetically engineered for perfection, the women in Brave New World are still worried about their looks. Despite sex being demystified and normalized to the point of banality, women are still treated as the lesser partner. Despite the years of “progress,” women are still seen as less than men.
Lets break these things down one by one, shall we?
Worried about Physical Appearance
Brave New World is a very short book, which means that scenes that would normally be a mere blip on the radar of a story on a grander scale become imbued with significance. One such scene, or rather, series of scenes, is when Lenina is speaking with her friend in the locker room after work. The two women have lockers next to each other, and often chat while changing from their work clothes to their street clothes. Nothing abnormal about that.
But all they talk about are their bodies and their attractiveness toward men. Despite being genetically superior specimens, they are still worried about looking too fat. About not being beautiful enough. About being imperfect physical beings.
But we never see the men worrying about this. Ever. Just the ladies.
Lesser Sexual Partners
On a similar note, we see women being the only ones to worry about their sexual health and well-being. The few women who have not been created sterile are solely responsible for contraceptive measures. Forget about condoms. It’s all birth control, and it’s all for the ladies.
And while there is more of a sense of the men and women being equal sexual partners, the men “have” the women much more than the other way around. It’s not 100% — the women are mentioned to “take” the men every now and again — but is dominant.
While we’re talking about sex, why is everything so hetero? There is not a single, solitary mention of homosexual relationships.
Finally, I want to talk about the use of the word “pneumatic” to describe the women in the story. If there were a drinking game that called for readers to take a drink every time Huxley used the word pneumatic, it would have a 100% fatality rate. It’s so frequent. And what is pneumatic used to describe? The women’s bodies, and occasionally furniture. Yep. Women and chairs.
A Product of Its Time
I realize that Brave New World was written at a time when people were less informed than they are now. Women didn’t have the same rights and privileges then that they do now. I understand that Huxley’s work is a product of its time.
But it still makes me mad to see all of this, because Brave New World is supposed to be a view of progress. A satirical view, sure, but progress all the same. And what are the women? Sex toys that are concerned with nothing more than their ability to please. No women in power. No women dissatisfied with their role as little more than something for a man to use.
That’s not progress.
I also recognize that Brave New World is supposed to scare us. To act as a warning against the mindless pursuit of pleasure and the lack of social awareness. It’s very effective, because it sure scared me.