How many words do you use in a day? Think about every text, every tweet, every time you tag a friend in a meme. Think about every assignment you do for uni, every blog post, every time you say, “Sorry!” when you bump into someone on the street. The average person actually uses more than 16,000 words every day but that fact doesn’t live at the forefront of our minds. It doesn’t have to, because we can afford to speak without thinking. No one’s running a daily word count on us. Unless, of course, you live in a patriarchal hellscape where women do have a word count of 100 words a day. In this world, your speech is monitored by a tiny little tracker affixed to your wrist, very similar to your FitBit. They come in pretty colors like a sparkly rose gold or a bright pink for little girls, as if you can make oppression fashionable, as if the sparkles will help you forget that once you go past 100 words, you’ll be zapped with a jolt of electricity.
That’s the nightmare Christina Dalcher paints in her feminist dystopian horror novel, Vox. The first time I read this book, it made me so angry that I had to pick it back up and force myself to keep reading on 3 separate occasions. Because although the text is meant to be dystopian, I see far too many present-day parallels to a world under the leadership of men like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. And although Trump isn’t specifically mentioned, Vox is about as subtle as a charging rhinoceros; three guesses about who inspired the slogan of Vox’s president: “Make America Moral Again!” Having set the stage thusly, Vox’s core principle is simple: first, they elect a conservative president. Then they come for our rights. Then they come for our words.
Told through the first-person perspective of neurolinguistic researcher Jean McClellan, we navigate this dystopia with Jean’s whispers in our ears. She confides that the nightmare began as conservatives gained more power; no longer confined to the Bible Belt, “that swath of Southern states where religion ruled, started expanding. It morphed from belt to corset, covering all but the country’s limbs.” That’s all it took for the far right’s distorted interpretation of the Bible to fuse with a conservative preference for “traditional” gender roles and yank America back into the 1950s. With the country operating under an exclusively patriarchal leadership, women are no longer permitted to work outside the home. Female education is vetoed as well and high-school and university curricula alike are re-structured to align with conservative values.
The new regime is even more severe for women who were activists and academics and for members of the LGBT community. So far from being allowed to exist in simple verbal castration, those who most ardently resisted forced domesticity simply disappear, forced into conversion therapy and internment camps, with their word counters set at zero. As an added bonus, female academics and lesbians undergo re-education procedures by being forced to recite “The Pure Manifesto” which is comprised of such affirmations as, “We are called as women to keep silence and to be under obedience. If we must learn, let us ask our husbands in the closeness of the home, for it is shameful that a woman question male leadership.”
But if the Pure Movement is brainwashing women into silence, it’s indoctrinating men with delusions of grandeur. For while Jean’s six-year-old daughter Sonia comes home from school with an award for being the only girl not to speak all day, her teenage sons inform Jean that today in school, they learned “hysteria” has been reinstated as a medical diagnosis, that women are too unstable to hold jobs, and that a woman’s place is in the home. This brainwashing is later revealed to have a significant impact on the molding of young male minds when Jean’s son rapes his silent girlfriend, Julia, and later turns her in to the literal purity police, claiming that she enticed him into immorality.
Under the rise of the country’s puritanical “Pure Woman Movement,” Julia is kidnapped from her home to be publicly shamed as a “slut” on national television before being sentenced to an internment camp for impure women. First, her head is shaved on live TV as part of a re-educational “shame and modesty” procedure. Then, as a homework assignment, her high-school classmates are provided with a list of every derogatory insult that can be aimed at women and instructed to write nasty letters to Julia which incorporate as many of these words as possible to “humiliate her into being Pure.”
This is the hellscape Vox presents for readers. And while it’s true that not all people who identify as Christians embrace this worldview and the literary critic in me wants to poke a lot of holes in Vox’s narrative structure, as a feminist, I’m more inclined to focus on its overall message. So, if you, like Jean, find yourself reading this and saying, “This would never happen. Ever. Women wouldn’t put up with it,” I would ask you to consider your own words– and Vox– as a testament to the danger of complacency. Rather than focusing on the advances we’ve made for equality, consider how many of our liberties are already being threatened by Trump and Johnson’s regimes. Think of the attacks on equality and sexuality which are spearheaded by their conservative sycophants. And most importantly, don’t make the mistake of assuming that the fight for equality is someone else’s job.
Because while there are a lot of brave feminists fighting, I submit that it takes all of us to keep Vox from becoming reality. Without all of us voting, protesting, writing, we risk losing everything we’ve worked for. So, if you enjoy saying more than 100 words a day, I implore you to continue standing as the hysterical women who shriek on and to use your words for good.