The future ISN’T female. Envision a deteriorating world where you are no longer capable to accomplish anything for yourself, and it is forced upon you to obey the commands of others. The women in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood live that reality. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a comprehensive novel which informs the reader what happens when we are confronted with a totalitarian male-dominated society.
Women are only valued for their reproductive system and what they can do for men, resulting in them being completely dehumanized because of this. ‘There must always be some group of people who, through systematized oppression, can be made to feel surplus, to occupy the place of the dehumanized inferior’ (2). Atwood describes them as ‘two-legged wombs that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.’
By examining this novel with a feminist lens using texts such as Simone De Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ a book in which discusses the treatment of women throughout history (3) and a feminist excerpt from ‘Sister Outsider’ by Audre Lorde.
The derogatory and challenging aspects of these have encouraged me to gain a new and deeper understanding on how the patriarchal society and the forced gender inequality and stereotypes of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ can be compared and relatable to our own society in 2019 and where humanity fits into the book today considering it is a dystopian novel.
One aspect seen in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is the idea of a patriarchal society and how men are completely dominating figures within the world they are living. The society that Atwood has created is based around religious/military and economic groups who have transformed the United States into the Republic of Gilead, a country in which is filled with white supremacy. A nightmare for women, yet a male bigot’s paradise. Rape is ethical, men are powerful, women are wrong.
The patriarchy in the novel is not a secret and is so visibly seen. For example, the oppression of women in the novel. The men have taken away their reproductive rights, they are forbidden from reading and writing, which withholds the women in the text of being able to record any of their own histories. Resultant in all history being written with the perspective of a white man. They don’t want us; they only want our bodies “I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.” (1)
However, something that I find very interesting is that all of the controversy raised in Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ have been previously corrupting issues that we have experienced; such as enforced surrogacy and adoption, attitudes to rape, Kristallnacht, The Holocaust and the Salem Witch Trials making ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ confronting and alarming as this is our reality. Audre Lorde describes in her essay ‘Age, Race, Class and Sex’ that ‘by ignoring the past, we are encouraged to repeat its mistakes.’ (2) A ton of injustices that we happen to associate with the distant past didn’t actually occur very long ago. The oppressions still suffer consequences, and this is very important. However, it is something we tend to overlook. Ignoring our past may steer us into this patriarchal nightmare of a society. New Zealand holds one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world, more than ever do woman need to be united against hardline patriarchy (4). We must also follow as Offred is doing, acts of rebellion against anti-feminine laws and being that voice that is needed for noticeable change.
Another aspect is colour symbolism in the novel, specifically the motif of the colour red. Handmaid’s are made to wear red as it symbolises fertility, the menstrual cycle (a sign of failure for the handmaids as their job is to conceive), it also symbolises shame, sin from adultery and violence. This highlights the power relationship between those who wear red and those who control the handmaids. It shows us how prominent masculinity within the government is through its power to take away the wills of these women.
They are defined by their colour; a floor length, long sleeve red dress paired with a white headpiece. The handmaids are completely covered up almost imprisoned from their own identities as this uniform makes them indistinguishable from the other. By wearing these outfits, the identity of the handmaid is taken away, and all that people see is red. Handmaids are seen as their purpose rather than as individuals because they wear their purpose as their outfit Simone De Beauvoir mentions in ‘The Second Sex’ that women are seen as the other, they are not human, they are only commodities. Man is seen as the superhero, women are the subordinate. She believes that certain myths have been carefully constructed so that being treated as the other and as second class becomes justified.
Even today, ‘feminism has been similarly recuperated. Women’s magazines attempt to redefine feminism through commodities, interpreting the everyday relations women encounter and negotiate into a series of ‘attitudes’ which they can then ‘wear” (4) explains Deborah Heath in her article about commodity feminism. We are still and will always be the ‘second sex’ forever being conditioned into thinking we are nothing without men and that our identity is only defined by the relationship we have with a man. There is so much evidence that women have always been treated as the inferior but no evidence into why we are made to be ‘mutilated’ or ‘incomplete men’
Gender Inequality and Steryotypes
My final aspect is the forced gender inequality and stereotypes throughout the story and how they can relate to the inequality we experience in 2019. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale portrays this as they explain most women in the novel as to be properties of the men and that they must do as the men desire. Simone De Beauvoir emphasizes this point as current in ‘The Second Sex’ when she said ‘she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex, absolute sex’ (3)
The Handmaids are considered as reproductive vessels that are only there to produce ‘keeper’ babies. They are reduced to their fertility as they are forced to be used as sex slaves. However, the ‘sex slavery’ is justified as they are helping to restore the population. The women are belittled and stripped of all power we had once obtained. You can picture this when Atwood describes the hurt of the girls with the quote “Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.”(1), it is also easy to envision as Atwood has purposely written the book in the perspective of Offred, giving the reader a more feminist viewpoint. I enjoy this aspect as most books are set from a males perspective.
The women in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ are confiscated of their bodies, their rights, their identities. Atwood describes them as ‘two-legged wombs that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.'(1), they are animalistic and are portrayed so similarly to animals in a zoo, torn away from the lives they formerly lived to become battered, bruised and a show for men to feast their eyes upon.
‘I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name; remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me.'(1) This sounds very similar to those who are sold into the slave trade market as sex slaves today, an issue which is so important yet always looked over and ignored, especially in the places we call home. We are taught about poverty-stricken cities and at first thought linking them with things cognate to slavery and illness, developing countries etc. yet we aren’t so knowledgeable or aware that the countries we live in are also just as bad. there is still an estimate of 21 million slaves worldwide even though sixty-eight years ago they declared the right that nobody could make us their slave and we couldn’t make anyone ours either.
If the Handmaid’s fail to bear healthy children they are stripped of their identification as a woman and are classified as unwoman. ‘If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through ‘the eternal feminine’, and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question ‘What is a woman?” (3) When looking back on her life Simone De Beauvoir finds that she cannot define herself without defining herself as a woman. What does it mean to be a woman? How are the men in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ able to classify someone as unwoman so casually?. This leads us to believe that gender inequality and stereotypes will never be able to come to an end.
To summarise, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is incredibly relevant and a very effective novel to be re-reading in 2019 as this dystopian society Margaret Atwood has created is so close to what will be our reality if we don’t care enough to do anything about it and change. Atwood is able to create a world that; sadly, I can imagine myself in. It is terrifying and one I don’t ever wish upon my children to experience. Our racist, sexist, homophobic president makes the era of ‘The Handmaid’s tale so real as it is so easy for him to facsimile into our own society and make this achievable much sooner than we may think.
While it is undeniable that the many waves of feminism have made tremendous change within the past 100 years it is also undeniable that there are still large inequalities between men and women politically, economically and with instances such as legal rights, sexual assault and rape.
Although ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is written as speculative fiction it is not necessarily a fictional book. I believe that Margaret Atwood has purposely done this so that the horrors of the novel seem more sinister as they are as far away from fictional as they can be. So long as gender inequality and oppression exists, feminist thought and theory will continue to exist and matter to millions of people around the world. As a woman myself, having a deeper understanding of feminist theory and the implications on being a women in past, present and future allows me to think more in-depth about the world as one that is predominantly overruled by men and how I am able to take a stance and prevent that from happening, for myself and for my children in the future.