In my recent review of Red Clocks by Leni Zumas, I said I’d write a future essay that went into more details of specific aspects of the story and writing. Well here I am, making good on that promise! This essay will include spoilers, so if you want a spoiler-free synopsis to help you decide if you want to read it, check that review linked above.
After I finished Red Clocks, I read a couple reviews of the book to see what had already been said about it. This book won a few awards when it came out, particularly for political and speculative fiction. It got a lot of attention for being focused on reproductive rights, and of course, got some criticism for how it approached the subject. One of the main criticisms I saw was that this book is not intersectional. This is definitely a valid critique, but in some articles, I think it was oversimplified.
Before I go further, I’m going to define some terms. “Intersectionality” and “diversity” get thrown around a lot together, but they are not the same thing. While “diversity” implicates the presence of differences, “intersectionality” is an analytic tool to examine the ways one person’s identities intersect to compound oppression. The term intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in a 1989 paper about the intersection of race, sex, feminist theory, and antiracist politics. Super simplified, Crenshaw brought to light some of the ways that black women’s struggles were ignored by both black activists and feminists, because they had problems that were not thought of or prioritized by white women or black men.
Back to Red Clocks: all of the book’s main characters are white, generally healthy, cisgender women. They are, however, different ages, in different relationship situations, and have different backgrounds with regards to their interactions with society. In addition, the world itself is not completely devoid of diversity. Mattie, known as The Daughter, has a recurring internal accusation of herself: “ignorant white girl.” She got this term from her former best friend, Yasmine, who was always thinking about how the color of her own skin would affect her interactions with others. Yasmine was the daughter of a congresswoman and knew she had to be on her best behavior or people would use her race to discount her (and her mother’s) accomplishments. We don’t learn why Yasmine is no longer in Mattie’s life until later in the book, but we know it has to do with an abortion attempt. I assumed she had died, but we learn later that she was imprisoned after Mattie called emergency care because she thought Yasmine would die. I think it would have been great to see Yasmine’s perspective, especially since it would have shown how the strict anti-abortion laws affect those who are convicted. We could have gotten some critique on the prison system as well, which is an important part of any story that revolves around the criminalization of reproductive choices.
There are other intersections that would have also helped us see that restrictive laws affect people disproportionately. Seeing struggles with fertility through the lens of a trans man would have added a different dynamic to the layers of hurt that we see Ro experience. And though Gin Percival is not straight, she is also not concerned with starting a family, and seeing how these restrictive laws could be weaponized against LGBTQ+ families would have again added another layer to the social critique.There was a classroom scene where I actually thought Mattie might be deaf, but I quickly realized that previous chapters had already ruled that possibility out. If she had had to manage an unexpected pregnancy on top of a chronic health condition or disability, we would have seen an example of how laws like these disproportionately affect people who experience multiple intersections of marginalization.
As far as how intersections maximise oppression, we do see a lot of prejudice from side characters, and it’s mostly used to show that bigoted beliefs don’t exist in a vacuum. Mattie’s father uses the fact she was adopted to try to guilt her into agreeing that abortion is wrong. He also assumed Yasmine’s mom was the bus driver the first time he met her, because I guess he didn’t expect his daughter to be going to school with people of color.
Susan’s husband, Dittier, is shown pushing all sorts of boundaries with his coworkers. He makes racial statements about his Chinese friend Paul, who has repeatedly asked him to stop. He calls Ro “Roanoke” at one point for seemingly no reason, and takes her request for him to stop making jokes about overdosing as a challenge to find out who in her life died from heroin. I thought it was interesting that Dittier isn’t portrayed as a stereotypically bad husband in that he has unreasonable expectations of his wife, or is abusive – he’s just a generally inconsiderate guy who ignores other people’s feelings. We do see that he probably has some trouble with managing his own emotions as he is vehemently against therapy, thinking it will only result in him being told he’s a horrible person.
My point here is that even with the relative homogenous nature of our protagonists, we do get some important points about how biases intersect. I agree that the story would have been stronger with even more front-and-center intersectionality and diversity, but I also think that one book can’t take on every aspect of an issue. I think Zumas could have taken her messages further, showing how laws like the ones she imagines would have compounding effects on certain people, but I also love what she did give us, and don’t think that her audience is limited to white people.
I think at least some of the complaints I saw about a lack of intersectionality were really about a lack of diversity. But at the same time, most of these women’s marginalization came simply from the fact that they were women. They have other hardships, of course: Ro faces not being able to adopt because she’s single. If Mattie had been a Canadian citizen, she would have legally been able to pursue the treatment she needed. But otherwise, no one is facing systemic oppression because of any aspect of their identity besides being a woman. That makes their storylines relatively straightforward, because the sole prejudice here is gender-based. Having characters with multiple intersections of marginalization would have shown just how insidious laws like this are, and would have made readers think harder about people with more or different intersections with oppression than they have.
What are your thoughts on portraying intersectionality in Red Clocks, or literature in general?