Feminism and Flatland

(image via imdb)

Recently I have been obsessed with Gravity Falls, and that led me to watching a very strange but intriguing movie based on a now-famous science fiction novel called Flatland. When Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch went on Reddit answering questions as Bill Cipher, one commenter asked what Bill’s home dimension was like. Hirsch as Bill (and in entirely in capslock) responded, “EDWIN ABBOTT ABBOTT HAD A GOOD IDEA.” I looked up Edwin Abbott Abbott and discovered he is the author of Flatland, a satirical science fiction book about a flat world inhabited by geometric shapes. Initially, I worried that Abbott would use math and science jargon and that much of the story would be lost on me because of it. I love math and science, and I am fascinated by it, but I don’t have much of a head for it.

However, one day I discovered the 2007 film Flatland: The Film, and decided to watch a little of it, thinking it would be interesting but that it wouldn’t hold my attention long. I was wrong. I was so fascinated with the story that I immediately immersed myself in learning more about the world of Flatland as well as the somewhat feminist views of the story.

Trigger warning for mention of suicide below.

Edwin Abbott Abbott wrote Flatland under the pseudonym A Square, who is our main character. Abbott wrote this in 1884 as a satire critiquing Victorian culture. (I should mention that I still have not yet read the book, so this post will primarily contain info from the movie, as well as some research I did into the book.) In the movie, we learn that A Square is a lawyer who goes to meet his new client, a woman named A Line, who is the first woman accused of chromotism. Chromotism is when a Flatlander colors their sides, which is considered extremely taboo. I should also mention that while all men are polygons of some sort, all women are lines, or rather, they are all just really thin rectangles. When A Square meets with A Line, she begins to tell him about how he woke her from her dream. She tells A Square that in her dream there was more than this Flatland. A Square is confused and says that the world is only flat and doesn’t understand what could be outside of it. However, his client kills herself and doesn’t explain any further.

Later, A Square is in his home when a large circle appears. This circle, however, calls itself A Sphere and tries to prove to A Square that there is a third dimension, with very little success. Eventually A Sphere pulls A Square out of Flatland so he can see what his world looks like and see Spaceland. While in Spaceland, he learns that many people in Spaceland think that Flatland is an abomination and want it destroyed, but a company called Messiah Inc. sends a representative every thousand years to try to convince someone in Flatland to be a prophet and teach about Spaceland. A Square tries to defend his home to the Spaceland people while marveling at their world. Eventually he is sent back to Flatland, where he learns that President Circle has made it illegal for anyone to talk about a third dimension. A Square tries to talk about the Third Dimension anyway, only to be attacked and nearly arrested (he manages to get away with some help from his wife). However, the movie ends with the fabric of Flatland’s reality falling apart as if being destroyed, before his whole world disappears.

(image via ariom.ru)

Despite the importance that A Line plays in introducing to the audience the idea that there is more than Flatland, sadly, women play little to no role in the movie. At first I was a bit annoyed by the fact that all the women were lines, but eventually it was something I viewed as being clever, especially with regards to Flatland being a critique of how Victorian women were treated. The women of Flatland are extremely regulated by their male counterparts. Women are considered the lowest rung of the social ladder, but they are also extremely dangerous. Because they are lines, they can look almost invisible to Flatlanders and can pierce the men with their bodies cutting them apart and killing them. Women are required by law to let out a peace-cry when moving so that people know where they are, and are mostly confined to their homes. There are only three notable women in the movie, and frankly they don’t do much. There is A Line (A Square’s client), Frau A Square (A Square’s wife), and Frau B Square (A Square’s sister-in-law); this seems like a pathetic amount of women and it really is. In the movie we get very little about how the women feel about their position in life and our protagonist doesn’t seem very concerned with them either, but they do contribute to the story in a few notable ways. A Line is the first to mention a world outside of Flatland and Frau B Square helps A Square talk to his brother B Square, who is imprisoned near the end of the movie, by attacking the Triangle guards and killing them. Frau A Square is featured the most: she and A Square talk about issues with their children and worry about the state of their country together. A Square does seem to listen to her at times, but he still makes all the major decisions. Frau A Square does help at the end of the film by using a war-cry that stuns the guards who are after her husband, but that is about all we see of the women of Flatland.

Flatland is supposed to critique Victorian culture, but ultimately, Flatland did not do that great a job satirizing the state of women in Victorian culture. Even at the time it was published, it was criticized for being sexist, prompting Abbott to put a foreword in the second publishing explaining what he was trying to do. In Flatland, women are largely confined to the home, not able to move up in society, and while not mentioned in the movie, in the book women are seen in Flatland as having lesser to no intelligence. The men regulate the women so heavily because they are scared of them and how much more powerful they are, because they can make themselves nearly invisible as well as their ability to pierce and kill people. Abbott was friends with some feminists at the time that he wrote Flatland and it seems that he wanted to make a statement that men are scared of women’s power. The women of Flatland could easily kill and overthrow the men if they chose to and very little could be done to stop them. However, perhaps due to his privilege as a man, Abbott isn’t entirely successful with this, largely because of how little he focuses on the women in his book, which is also reflected in the movie. Furthermore, since women aren’t really inherently dangerous killers, this falls into the same traps as other stories that portray minority groups as dangerous magical creatures, when obviously these groups aren’t actually inherently dangerous.

(image via havanatimes)

The movie tries to update things a little, but not much. Though I haven’t read the book, the research I have done seems to suggest that the women have even less of a role in the book than the movie gives them, so in that way the movie has improved things. But ultimately Flatland can’t be divorced from its critique of Victorian culture and attempts to take it out of that fall a little… well, flat. When Frau A Square uses her war-cry to save her husband, she literally says “I am woman, hear my war-cry!” Again, I haven’t read the book, but I’m pretty sure that’s not in there and it’s pretty cheesy in the film. You can tell it was an attempt to give female characters more obvious autonomy and power, but it just comes off as hokey. Flatland depicts women as having no agency as a critique of Victorian society, so if the movie wanted to update this then it needed to dive into the issue more thoroughly. They could have made women polygons instead of just lines and even could have added more female characters to the narrative in order to modernize it, but instead what we get is a half-hearted attempt to give women agency without actually giving them agency. Overall, Flatland is an incredibly complex and unique story; however, sadly its feminist critiques are lacking, which is upsetting for an otherwise very intelligent story.

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