What would happen if Lord of the Flies was cast with women?
There’s been a lot of discussion of this question since writer-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel announced that they were planning a gender-flipped version of William Golding’s 1954 novel. But that conversation is perhaps less interesting than the one raised by Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To. That question being: What if Lord of the Flies were feminist?
Many critics of McGehee and Siegel’s project have argued that the book is about violent masculinity, and the viciousness of upper-class boys trained to rule. Switching boys to girls, in this reading, undermines Golding’s critique of patriarchal violence.
But does the novel really critique patriarchal violence? Golding’s own discussion of the issue is quite confused. When asked to explain why he’d chosen to make the story about boys only, he rambled incoherently, first saying that he had been a boy so understood boys better, then arguing that boys were a better representation of a “scaled-down version of society,” then concluding that girls are superior to boys.
Golding, in short, did not seem to know why he had chosen boys, which suggests that the decision was less an intentional effort to critique gender roles, and more an unconscious default to the boy-centric adventure stories which Lord of the Flies both critiques and reproduces.
Joanna Russ was neither confused nor ambivalent. We Who Are About To, released in 1977, is a clear-eyed, bleak excoriation of the interpenetration of masculinity, colonialism, and death. The short novel is about eight people—five women and three men—whose spaceship has gone off course and dropped them on a distant, unknown, semi-hospitable planet.
According to science-fiction and boys adventure tropes, this should be the start of a story of adventure and excitement—or at least, à la Lord of the Flies, of devolution and satisfying violent confrontation with horrifying atavism. The people on the ship are familiar with these stories, as the narrator wearily informs us. The escape pod has barely landed before the others on board are engaged in “excited talk of ‘colonization,’ whatever that is.”
The narrator herself isn’t dreaming of colonization, though. As soon as the ship goes off course, she knows that on a world without food, with unknown dangers, billions of miles from rescue, they are all going to die. In fact, that’s the first line of the novel. “About to die. And so on. We’re all going to die.” The action of the novel—such as it is—is not about fighting for survival, either against the natural world or even against the other passengers. Rather, the narrator’s problem is that the other passengers won’t accept that they’re as good as dead. As a result, they decide that the women must agree to breed.
In Lord of the Flies, civilized young boys shuck off civilization and become pagan savages, as if the real evil of the British is that under the polish they’re just like the people they colonize. But in We Who Are About To, the civilized people are horrible not because they’re really savage, but because they are, after all, blandly civilized—and civilization is built on an edifice of sexism and violence. In the name of the noble ideal of perpetuating civilization, the men insist that they have to rape the women. The shipwrecked view themselves as colonizers, thrusting themselves upon a new virgin land, taming and teaching, spreading their seed across the soil. The narrator is forced to kill them all so that she can die in peace.
In Lord of the Flies, the terror of the novel is the vision of slipping backwards into savagery. Golding may be critiquing the upper classes, but when he wants to represent horror, he does it through paganism and images that might as well have been taken from Tarzan serials. If he is horrified by the violence of little boys, he also finds it exciting. That ambivalence, directed at a female cast, could easily turn into a mix of misogyny and fetishization, perhaps especially in the hands of male directors.
For Russ the horror of colonization isn’t some sort of romanticized savagery. On the contrary, colonization is ugly and terrifying precisely because of the boring dead weight of sexist norms, to which humans stubbornly cling even in the face of certain destruction. Violent masculinity isn’t exciting. It’s a series of clichés justifying power, cruelty, and death. Lord of the Flies fits enough of those clichés to interest Hollywood, whatever the gender of the protagonists. Which is why William Golding’s novel is getting another reboot, and We Who Are About To is still sitting on that distant, barren planet, not waiting to be rescued.