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Petra Hůlová: Stručné dějiny Hnutí (The Movement)
In her introduction, Hůlová mentions that she was one day in Prague with her five-year old daughter. There was this billboard with a model in her bikini and the advertisement was for something like, I don’t know, yogurt or spaghetti. My daughter was five years old and she asked me this question which I’ll remember for the rest of my life: ‘Mummy, why is the lady naked?’ This inspired her to write this feminist dystopia.
The five-year old daughter becomes Rita in this novel and it is Rita who was inspired by this ad to do something about the objectification of women and their bodies by men. Initially, Rita becomes a terrorist, blowing up the Ministry of the Interior and a plastic surgeon’s. She then helps found what becomes known as the Movement, the subject of this book.
The book is narrated by Věra (we learn her name only right at the end of he book) who works as a guard at one of the Movement’s institutes. She is writing her memoirs, which are this novel. These institutes take men – some coming voluntarily, some sent by their spouses/parents and others simply seized off the streets. The men are subject to an often humiliating course of treatment and then released when they have passed the final exam, proving that they do not judge women by their bodies. How long the course lasts depends on the men. Some of the features of the course include having to masturbate to pictures of elderly/ugly women (in front of others) and have sex with elderly/ugly women. In other words they have to see women as people and not as bodies.
As for the world outside, women now only wear tracksuits, while make-up and plastic surgery (including breast enlargement) are strictly forbidden and we have universal contraception and sexual intercourse no longer fulfils a reproductive function.
Much of the book is about Věra’s daily work, dealing with men, particularly recalcitrant men. There are punishments, such as electrotherapy and solitary confinement. For example, some of the men try to smuggle porn in and that is, of course, completely unacceptable.
There is an opposition, called Manhood Watch, that puts out lies about the Movement but, according to Věra, they are fighting a losing battle.
One thing that struck me is that Věra – who has a boyfriend whom she rarely sees – spends an ordinate amount of time looking at and handling penises. The men are frequently expected to masturbate in front of her. She seems to have the right to get men to remove their trousers (underclothes are not allowed) at will. Presumably the point of all this is to show men being humiliated the way men currently humiliate women.
There are also community centres where the wives of these men go while their husbands are being treated. They are weaned away from such things as make-up and feeling the need to have breast enlargement surgery. Our narrator visits one, well away from the city, where she finds things are not as smoothly functioning as in the city. One of the staff tells her that many of the leaders of the Movement were lesbians and they lie about the Movement consulting wives before snatching men off the streets. Clearly, the people in rural areas still have what are called Old World values. Our greatest challenge isn’t recidivist men, but the women who undermine our work with their open contempt for our values.
While this is certainly a novel, in that the Movement and all the characters are fictitious, it often reads like a manifesto. I would certainly would not dispute that the objectification of women and the excessive use of pornography, particularly in the Internet age, are harmful and should be substantially reduced. I am reading this while, in the UK, the brutal sexually-based murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer has been the focus of attention as well as other assaults and murders of women. Clearly, men all too often behave badly. I can certainly sympathise with Hůlová’s views and her ideas for solving the problem are interesting but, perhaps, she should have written a manifesto rather than a novel.
There are quite a few dystopian novels on this site and, though their dystopias vary, they tend to take the view that they are warning against this dystopia because it is bad. There is one obvious exception – Naomi Alderman‘s The Power, also a feminist novel, about women getting power, which enables them to administer at will an electric shock to someone else by touching them. I am sure that most sensible men will agree with the premise behind these two novels – that men’s behaviour towards women is all to often unacceptable and needs to be controlled – but may challenge the proposed solutions.
First published by in 2018 by Torst
First published in English in 2021 by World Editions
Translated by Alex Zucker