By Vyvyan René

CW: sexual assault, rape

David Wiener’s TV adaptation of Huxley’s classic dystopia launched on Sky One and Peacock on July 15th 2020.

Set in New London – in a society where class is enforced by genetic engineering and hypnopaedic indoctrination, the use of the euphoric drug soma is universal, public orgies are wholesome fun and ‘mother’ is a swear word – Brave New World is a novel with many themes. One of them is misogyny and the mechanisms by which it is expressed and perpetuated. Consequently, the portrayal of the novel’s central female character, Lenina Crowne, and her relationship with John the Savage (the emotional core of the story) are huge contributing factors to the success or failure of any adaptation. Wiener faces the challenge of depicting a society he describes as ‘hugely problematic’ without condoning it, which raises questions about how the problematic aspects of the novel could, or even should be, adapted.

the challenge of depicting a society he describes as ‘hugely problematic’ without condoning it

The events of Brave New World take place in 2540CE, but despite the many technological advances of New London, the treatment of women hasn’t changed much since Huxley’s time — or ours. Beneath this brave new world’s veneer of equality, Huxley makes it plain that misogyny is alive and well. Secretaries are unanimously female with ‘lustrous smiles’, and are ordered about by ‘powerfully built… broad-shouldered’ men. In one scene two female characters discuss being ‘patted… on the behind’ by their boss, and the sexual assault is accepted as ‘conventional’ male behaviour. In the opening scene a group of students tour the Hatchery where genetic engineering takes place, and it is made clear by the narration that there are no women amongst them.

Scientists make derisive comments about freemartins (women who have been genetically sterilised in utero with male sex hormone), mocking their ‘tendency to grow beards’. Women are subjected to compulsory ‘Pregnancy Substitutes’ from the age of twenty-one, and those with especially wide pelvises are encouraged to begin having them as teenagers. The word ‘“father” [is considered] not so much obscene as [“mother”] with its connotation of something at one remove from the loathsomeness and moral obliquity of child-bearing’.
Book cover by Leslie Holland via Wikimedia

Alexis Soloski, writing for The New York Times, describes Lenina in the novel as ‘a cheerful sex bunny’ and certainly this is the socially-sanctioned persona she adopts. Yet behind it, Huxley’s Lenina is fully aware of the ugliness and meaninglessness of her world. At one point in the novel she recalls waking in the night as a child and hearing with ‘a shock of fear’ the hypnopaedic suggestions that psychologically condition all citizens, ‘the whispering that… haunted all her sleeps’. Like the prominent male characters in the story, she is deeply unhappy. But where they feel entitled to complain, to rail against the system, to riot, to write transgressive poetry, to request a transfer to the Falklands, Lenina takes soma and does what is expected of her with a determined smile on her face. For women, this is a familiar and well-indoctrinated message — you are powerless, so you had better grit your teeth and just get on with it.

Soloski refers to Huxley’s John, with considerably more accuracy, as ‘prissy and deeply neurotic, anti-sex and anti-fun’. This is, if anything, a generous assessment. John’s behaviour towards Lenina is characteristic of an abusive relationship. His attitude towards her swings between idealisation and devaluation in a manner characteristic of clinical narcissism. He slut-shames her for watching the immersive porn that is New London’s main form of entertainment (‘I don’t think you ought to see things like that’). He is controlling, condescending and physically violent. And yet worryingly, Ehrenreich, who plays John in Wiener’s adaptation, describes him as a man driven by his ‘ardent belief in a deep, emotional love’. At the climax of the novel, John beats Lenina to death for perceived unchastity (and, it’s implied, rapes her corpse). One wonders how such a statement and such a scene can possibly be reconciled.

Adapting a novel about a society whose bigotry you are unwilling to address, or even acknowledge, misses the point

In the novel, John’s treatment of Lenina is chilling because it is realistic. He is not the first man to feel entitled to a woman’s chastity; to objectify her, then subject her to physical and verbal abuse because she does not live up to his idealised fantasy. Nor is he the first misogynist to use literature to justify his Madonna-Whore complex (it is no accident that, of all the Shakespeare plays John reads, the most frequently referenced in the novel is Othello). Nor will he be the first to be romanticised because of it.

Dystopia is a vehicle to examine the sociopolitical injustices of our own time. Adapting a novel about a society whose bigotry you are unwilling to address, or even acknowledge, misses the point, resulting in an adaptation that colludes rather than condemns. The treatment of women in Brave New World is hugely problematic for a reason — one that this adaption has seemingly decided to gloss over by reframing abuse as ‘deep, emotional love’. 

Featured image © Peacock

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