A Feminine View of an Apocalypse

I hope I’m not being too sexist here, when I review Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer.  The books seems to be a feminine take on the end of the world.  But I have read many end of the world stories, and I think they’ve always have been written by males.  Books about the collapse of civilization are a special favorite of mine since I was a little kid, and now they are becoming very popular with young adult readers.  It’s rather fascinating to read a woman’s take on the genre.

First off, this isn’t going to be a regular review, because it’s going to contain spoilers to all the essential events in the story.  Let’s just say that I found Life as We Knew It to be extremely readable and likeable, but I want to dissect it because it was such a different view on the end of the world as I know it.  It was a rather nice and civilized view, and I’m essentially asking if that’s because the author was female.  Of course, this is a YA novel, so maybe it was pulling its punches, but then I’m not sure if YA readers want to be handled with care.  Kids loved The Hunger Games, which made them sort of like Romans at the Coliseum.

Surviving a brutal world at the collapse of civilization is the core appeal of reading end of the world stories.  Like I said, I really liked Life as We Knew It, and felt it was a compelling read.  I’d recommend it to any adult or kid who loves to read YA novels, but I’m now going to pick it apart for psychological reasons.  If you haven’t read it, don’t read beyond the cover photo.

lifeasweknewit

When civilization collapses all rules disappear.  Survival is the number one driving force.  And in most post-apocalyptic novels of this type, the key conflict is kill or be killed.  Susan Beth Pfeffer completely side steps this issue.  An asteroid hits the moon and brings about catastrophic changes to life on Earth.  The story takes place from May to March, beginning slowly, but ending with a brutal “nuclear winter” like winter.  The story is told by Miranda, a sixteen-year-old girl in diary form, and is about how her single mother Laura keeps Miranda, and brothers Matt and Jon alive when civilization falls apart.

One reason I love these after-the-collapse stories is they present a perfect fantasy puzzle of “What would you do?” in the same situation.  If you were sitting in your suburban home watching the news and knew that civilization was about to come to an end, what would you do?  Laura withdraws a lot of cash out of her bank and pulls her kids out of school.  She also gets an old lady neighbor and they all go on a frantic shopping spree for food and necessities.  Now this is practical, but Pfeffer presents this chaotic moment as too civilized.  Sure it’s a madhouse at the grocery story, but not crazier than Walmart at 4am on Black Friday.  And it’s a bargain, all shopping baskets can be stuffed with as much stuff as possible for just $100, so each person gets several loads.  That’s just unbelievable.

And here’s the thing, that one shopping spree lasts the family eleven months.  Even though they live near a pond, there is no mention of fishing.  Even though they live in the outskirts of town with lots of trees to cut down for firewood, there’s no mention of hunting squirrel, rabbits, raccoons, possums, groundhogs, frogs, turtles, dogs, cats, birds or anything else.  Everyone begins to starve, but they take dead bodies to the hospital.  If these people are that hungry and think they won’t make it through the winter, why aren’t they eating the dead?  I’ve been a vegetarian since 16, but hey, every real life story I’ve ever read about starving finally comes down to cannibalism.  By the time Mrs. Nesbitt died, Miranda and family should have been hungry enough to eat her.

Pfeffer evidently doesn’t believe in killing animals for food even though the family eats a lot of canned meats.  It’s strange that the boys chop wood seven days a week to get ready for winter, but never go hunting and fishing.  Nor do they go scavenging.  In Pfeffer’s world, the rule is people leave each other alone, and only plunder each other’s houses if the family dies or moves south.  But Matt, Jon and Miranda never routine scavenge homes on their own.  That’s way too civilized.  And dare I say too girly?  Life as We Knew It is way too civilized view of no civilization.  America is full of gun owners, but we don’t see guns in this story except for a couple tiny mentions.

Liberals often ask NRA members why do they need assault rifles.  Well, they are for the end of the world.  When civilization goes down the toilet, it’s a dog eat dog wild west world.  In Susan Beth Pfeffer’s apocalypse it’s a please-and-thank-you end of the world scenario.  Only nature kills, not people.

Like I said, Life as We Knew It is a gripping, well told story, even though it doesn’t fit the standard after-the-collapse model.  Is that because Pfeffer is a woman and expects the end of the world to be different?  Or does she believe young adult readers shouldn’t imagine such a brutal existence, even though they’ve been assigned Lord of the Flies for decades?   Or is her novel just a cozy story of how she thinks things should be if civilization should collapse?  Sort of a politically correct Mad Max?

Even the ending was too nice.  Miranda has decided to leave home to die in hopes of leaving more food for her younger brother who everyone thinks should be the ultimate survivor.  But at the last minute she finds a flyer from a newly set up government office that’s giving away food.  They are saved.  Civilization hasn’t completely collapse and its making a comeback.  Survival has merely been one of waiting, hoarding food, and rationing.  No one in this story fights to survive.  They struggle, they endure, they work hard, but they don’t fight.

The thing I’ve always loved about after the collapse stories is the pioneering spirit of starting over.  Of reinventing old ways of doing things to replace modern technology.  There is no invention in this story, no learning to make bows and arrows, no Gilligan’s Island professor inventing new tools out of old parts, no reading old books to figure out how to make animal traps and cure hides.  Most of all, these people don’t scavenge, steal or kill.  Nor are they preyed upon by armed hoards of starving survivalists.  Every family holes up in their own house and waits.  Ultimately, waits for the government to help them.

Hey, I’m about as liberal as they come, but I know better than wait on the government after civilization goes down the drain.   I don’t know if the collapse of civilization would be as brutal as The Road by Cormac McCarthy, but it should be as brutal as Survivors (BBC 1975-1977), a favorite TV show of mine.   My all-time favorite after the collapse story is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart.  That’s because it’s about the intellectual rebuilding of society.  Stewart shows that once civilization collapses it will be very hard to rebuild.  I’m afraid Susan Beth Pfeffer doesn’t really understand what a collapse of modern society means, or she didn’t want her story to be all about realistic brutality.  I have to give Suzanne Collins a lot of credit for having her sixteen-year-old Katniss facing realistic brutality in a honestly violent way.

Even if Pfeffer didn’t want Miranda and her family shooting guns at other people, she should have at least included a local militia protecting the neighborhoods and setting up the power behind the rule that you don’t loot your neighbor’s house unless they are dead or moved.  Pfeffer makes no suggestion that strangers would organize or work together.  Family is the only bond.  That’s odd, don’t you think?  After every natural disaster I see endless news stories about strangers helping each other.

Also I was disappointed that Miranda and her family totally depended on the phone, radio, TV and the Internet for their news, and once those systems died, they just did without.  Why didn’t they communicate more with other people?  Why wasn’t their some kind of gossip grapevine, or bulleting board news system?  Pfeffer’s characters aren’t inventors, but I think necessity really is the mother of invention, and they faced a whole lot of necessity.

I believe we all write end-of-the-world stories that reflect our own psychological make-up.  And this could be a little like taking your clothes off in public.

I’m calling Life as We Knew It a feminine apocalypse because her nonviolent view of the end of the world is so very different from all similar books I’ve read which have always been written by males.  Is that sexist or political incorrect of me?  Who says end of the world stories have to play by masculine rules?  But why didn’t Miranda try to catch fish at the pond, or the boys try to kill squirrels when they were chopping wood?

Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe most women would be fighters in real life, and probably if they wrote fictional accounts of surviving, their characters would be fighters too.  I’m just wondering why Pfeffer wrote such a polite story about a brutal time?  Is this her naked honesty of how she thinks people would behave?

In this story food only comes from the grocery store, and help only comes from the government, and desperate people never resort to using guns.  Where’s the 4th of July spirit?  I grew up watching westerns, so I guess I might be indoctrinated differently.

Maybe I shouldn’t write such a story as this, because my naked views might be loathsome.  But now that I’m old, and in declining health, it would be much different from one I would have written at 25.  I should write an after-the-collapse story about a gimpy old fart trying to survive the end of the world.  It would have a hilarious scene of a life long vegetarian killing and eating a squirrel.

JWH – 7/4/13

16 thoughts on “A Feminine View of an Apocalypse”

    1. Thanks Craig, but I do want people to know that Life As We Knew It was a very good story even though I didn’t think it realistic. I just love stories about people surviving. And Miranda and her family had to sacrifice a lot to make it through the winter.

  1. “I’m calling Life as We Knew It a feminine apocalypse because it so politely passive, lacking any testosterone aggressiveness. Is that sexist or political incorrect of me?”

    In a word, yes, it’s sexist. That comment, and the post as are whole are obviously, overwhelmingly sexist.

      1. Not the person you’re addressing, but that’s not going to stop me from attempting a reply. The reason your post is coming across as sexist (at least to me) is that it squarely places the blame for what appears to be a lack of imagination by the author on her sex, nothing more, nothing less. It’s honestly not a concept that would have crossed my mind had I read this book. Your analysis attributes it to gender, with no consideration for any other circumstance that may or may not surround the author’s experiences. Why is that? What does the fact that the book does not seem realistic have to do with the author being a woman?

      2. Well, on a simplistic level, violence is often blamed on men, so if we have a non-violent story about a subject that is always full of violence, is it so strange that I ask if it’s because a woman wrote it? And I did point out that I thought other women would write the story differently. I don’t think all women believe like Pfeffer, but I am asking if Pfeffer’s particular view isn’t due to her being a woman?

        Trish, do you have any suggestions as to why Pfeffer didn’t have people killing each other, or hunting animals, in a type of story that always involves both? The 800 pound gorilla in the room that Pfeffer avoids is the gun nuts. Anytime civilization comes apart the people with guns will be coming out of the woodwork. To ignore that for this kind of story is a mystery to me.

        When I watched the British BBC Survivors TV show from the 70s I thought it interesting that even though it was violent, the good guys did everything they could not to kill people. But American stories covering the same topic usually have the good guys relishing the violence. Most of our action movies are based on violence being thrilling. As much as I might wish that guns didn’t exist, they do.

        I’ve often wondered if civilization collapsed by some disease that killed all the men, how would women act as survivalists?

        We do know from endless real life incidents, that when civilization breaks down that life becomes violent, and without a strong government, gangs, warlords, or the guys with guns, rule by violence. So is it so strange that when I read a story about the collapse of civilization without violence that I ask why?

        I’m a anti-violence person, and my personal prejudice is violence in our society usually comes from males. Is that sexist too?

        We should also go deeper into our gender prejudices. If Miranda’s brothers had killed people to protect their sister and mother probably most readers would felt a kind of satisfaction with the story. What’s interesting in recent times, is for girl characters to kill and produce the same kind of satisfaction. This might sound perversely contradictory to my earlier statement, but I do think girls acting as bloodthirsty as boys is gender equality. Buffy, The Vampire Slayer said a lot on this subject, as does The Hunger Games trilogy.

        Like I said more than once, I really liked Life as We Knew It, I’m just asking why a story that’s very realistically told ignores such a big aspect of reality.

  2. “Well, on a simplistic level, violence is often blamed on men, so if we have a non-violent story about a subject that is always full of violence, is it so strange that I ask if it’s because a woman wrote it? ”

    Yes, it is, if one isn’t making sexist assumptions. You even refer to THE HUNGER GAMES as a contrast to this book, but don’t address the obvious fact that it undercuts your thesis that we can reasonably look to gender as the reason why LIFE AS WE KNEW IT depicts an apocalypse with little violence.

    And then there’s the matter of tone:

    “I’m calling Life as We Knew It a feminine apocalypse because it so politely passive, lacking any testosterone aggressiveness.”

    Do you not notice how condescending this remark is?

    1. I didn’t mean to be condescending. I didn’t mean it to be judgmental. I’m not saying being aggressive is superior. In fact, I lack aggressiveness myself, and accept that as one of my feminine qualities. Regarding the book, I’m saying that there’s a lot of aggressive people in the world and to leave that factor out of a book about the collapse of civilization is to ignore an important aspect of the story.

      I know making generalizations is bad, especially when it comes to gender, but we all do it all the time. Are you saying we should never make sexist statements? That we should do away with the concepts of masculine and feminine? Technically that should be true, no one person is 100% male or female, but on the other hand, we have thousands of years of characterizing masculine and feminine traits. I think people have both feminine and masculine traits. But I also believe we can make bad generalizations about gender because both men and women want to believe they are different.

      I knew when I created the title and made the sexist statements I did I would get into trouble. We are discussing science fiction here, and I think it will be a long time before society creates gender equal thinking. I think it’s very important for science fiction to get as many diverse viewpoints as possible.

      Dbellis (I don’t know your name sorry), when you read a book written by a women do you not expect it to be different from a book written by a man? When I read Life as We Knew It, which has a 16-year-old-girl as a protagonist I expected the story to be different from one where the POV character was a boy. To me, part of the charm of reading this story was seeing the end of the world from the eyes of a young woman. So is it sexist of us to expect the character to have feminine traits?

      By the way, an interesting variant of this problem is when a male author writes about a female character. I recently read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green which also had a teen girl POV. Is Green being sexist to portray Hazel in generalized girl traits?

      Like I’ve said, I really like Life as We Knew It, and plan to read the sequels. For the most part I’m praising Pfeffer for giving us a uniquely feminine view of the apocalypse, but I’m dinging her grade some because she ignore gun nuts and the violence they would have brought to her characters. I also criticized both the female and male characters for not fighting harder to survive. That kind of fighting is neither male nor female.

  3. ” Are you saying we should never make sexist statements? That we should do away with the concepts of masculine and feminine?”

    Wow. You’re neck deep in the hole and still haven’t figured out that you should stop digging. The two sentences quoted above are precisely what I’m talking about. The two are not equivalent. It is not sexist, for example, to say “more women than men write romance”. It’s simply a fact. Referring to a book as a “feminine apocalypse because it’s so politely passive” IS sexist.

    Please tell us you understand the difference.

    1. I know its sexist, I even open my essay by hoping I’m not being too sexist. But for you dbellis, I’ll rewrite that particular sentence. I changed it to:

      “I’m calling Life as We Knew It a feminine apocalypse because her nonviolent view of the end of the world is so very different from all similar books I’ve read which have always been written by males.”

      Does that help? The whole essay is still sexist because I believe Pfeffer’s new view on this old idea is different because she is a woman. But that’s good. Science fiction is often criticized as being too male dominated. Now if her story was just purely escapist fun we wouldn’t have anything to talk about. But it’s a certain type of story, a what if… story, a story of extrapolation, and those stories are judged by how realistic the speculation. I’m asking why she left guns out of her equation. I’m not a gun person myself, but guns would be a factor in the situation she set up.

      1. “The whole essay is still sexist because I believe Pfeffer’s new view on this old idea is different because she is a woman. But that’s good.”

        Sigh. Thinking that women may bring a different perspective to an issue than men is not sexist. That’s not why the essay’s very premise was sexist (and there is no “good” sexism). It’s that you attribute the perceived flaws in the book to broad negative stereotypes about women. Changing the wording here and there doesn’t change that. Women are as aware that the world can be a violent place as you are. Women writers deal with that fact all the time. If this writer chose to depict a social breakdown with less violence than you’re used to it’s not because, due to being a woman, an overly passive perspective or over-niceness is natural to her. She has a blog. Why not just just climb out of the hole you’ve dug for yourself and ask her?

      2. I don’t think so dbellis, I’m tired of this topic, and you have made me gun-shy about saying anything more about women writers, much less to them. However, I think I will go read the next book in the series to see what happens. There are three more books in the series, so maybe Pfeffer has already gotten around to dealing with the issues I was asking about.

  4. I totally see your point – I have also read many end of world type narratives, and they are often written by men, and come to think of it, most of them do feature violence of some level, so its interesting to think of how a woman may approach the same subject – mainly because it is something that we don’t see much.
    With regards to those of you stating that this is a sexist remark – read it again. It is not sexist to state a stereotype or even to explore a stereotype, which is what I believe James is doing. It would only become sexist if he then started to state that he believed that women and men should have to behave in this way, and that the stereotypes are correct which he hasn’t. To ask if it could possibly be because she is a woman is very different to saying it is because she is a woman!

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