Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Before I start my review, I have a few things I'd like to remind people of:

The head of the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation is being investigated because he was given the gift of a wife (along with a cow and a calf!)  by chiefs who were asking for more programming in the Venda language (wife picked was a 23-year-old Human Resources Management Student)

A Louisiana bill is trying to make it illegal for any doctor to take any woman more than 20 weeks pregnant off of life support - even if her next of kin makes that decision - unless she has a written will saying that's what she wants

This is related to the Texas case where a family had to sue the hospital and be in legal limbo for TWO MONTHS  in order to get the right to take a brain dead woman off life support (she was only 14 weeks pregnant when she originally collapsed)

Women in Saudi Arabia are still banned from driving

A 13-year-old girl in Tunisia was allegedly burned alive by her father in an honor killing because she had walked home with a male classmate

Alyssa Funke, a straight-A college student who did one porn, killed herself after being harassed online by her former college classmates (who, statistically speaking, probably watch porn regularly)

No one humiliates Thomas Bagley for subscribing to porn sites and watching enough to recognize one of his classmates, but the media loves to shame Belle Knox for being in porn

America's birth rate is at an all time low due to the drop in teen pregnancies and women waiting later to have children

Parents can get a hot deal on hiring an Indian surrogate for $10,000 in comparison to the $63,000 an American surrogate costs (excluding insurance and extra C-section fee). 

And so. I think it's important to keep all these things in mind while reading the Handmaid's Tale. The dystopian future plot may be far away from the reality of many Americans, but it is NOT far away from the reality of many women.

Margaret Atwood herself says that she needed to write a story that was not far fetched: 
"I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behaviour. The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents, and many were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within western society, and within the "Christian" tradition, itself."

In the life before the Handmaid's Tale begins, the Feminist Movement seems to be in full swing with more women choosing abortions, more women choosing birth control, more women choosing not to have children and thus a declining birth rate (the book mentions a specific concern over the declining birth rates of white women it should be noted). There are also references to the Feminist Movement in the book as being anti-pornography (with violent bondage porn later being used as propaganda to show why society must be structured the way it is). After an "Islamic terrorist attack," the American government is overthrown, the Constitution is suspended, and women's rights are swiftly taken away.

Early in the timeline, the protagonist Offred goes to the store to buy cigarettes; her bodega lady has been replaced by a man and her debit card is denied. She continues to her job at a library where she, and every other woman, is fired because it's the new law. When she tries to commiserate with her husband about the loss of her job, he says "It's only a job" and "You know I'll always take care of you." As if the possibility of his death, detainment, or illness could NEVER happen (or more likely, the possibility of her existence without him could never happen). Later, after a failed attempt to make love, he asks her what's the matter. She can't quite articulate it, so he tries to comfort her:
"We still have..." he said. But he didn't go on to say what we still had. It occurred to me that he shouldn't be saying we, since nothing that I knew of had been taken away from him.
And so. The narrator loses access to her money. Her job. The government decides that her marriage doesn't legally qualify as a marriage. The government decides that therefore she has no legal right to raise her child. (5 states explicitly outlaw adoption by two people of the same sex and only 20 states explicitly allow it). However, as a young fertile woman she has the 'option' of becoming a Handmaid (her other options are Death or Slow Death by Working With Deadly Chemicals). Her training is rooted in religion, brainwashing, and propaganda. At one point all the future Handmaids pray:
"What we prayed for was emptiness, so we would be worthy to be filled: with grace, with love, with self-denial, semen and babies. Oh God, obliterate me. Make me fruitful. Mortify my flesh, that I may be multiplied. Let me be fulfilled..."
Motherhood is still seen as the Default, the Reason for Living, the Purpose of Marriage, the Way to Be Fulfilled. A student at my progressive fine arts school asked one of my colleauges what was the point of being married if she wasn't going to have kids? In modern society, it's seen that if you don't want kids, it's because you're selfish (kids make you a selfless and perfect being!), you don't know what you want (no, you can't have your tubes tied, you'll change your mind!), you are short sighted (who is going to take care of you when you're old? every parent has their children's financial and emotional support at all times as they age!), and tragic (there is no love like a parent's love. YOU WILL NEVER EXPERIENCE THAT AND YOUR LIFE WILL BE WORTHLESS). I jest - but only slightly.

As a feminist and a professional who is passionate about my job, I am in tune with and overly sensitive to the expectations of motherhood and child rearing. I see moms completely lose themselves in their children, I see dads taking only a few days off of work after a kid is born and then leaving mom/baby alone all day taking care of everything, I see the double shifts being worked and unacknowledged, I hear the judgement of stay at home moms and the judgement of working moms and the judgement of moms who are doing too much and moms who don't do enough and basically I see that there is no way to win and be a mom.

Bringing it back to the novel (and what this post is theoretically about): The government in the Handmaid's Tale simply formalized a pressure/expectation to have children that most women have felt - even if they choose not to give in.

Women who are too old and poor are delegated to housework as Marthas, women who are too old and rich get to keep their financial power as Wives while letting a Handmaid lie between their legs once a month while their husband tries to inseminate her. Women who are too feministy and unable to play the Handmaid Game...well, they get to be sterilized and put into sexual slavery. The other options, again, are Death or Slow Death By Working With Deadly Chemicals.

The most painful part is listening to the Commander justify why the choices made by the government are in the best interest of the women (if only our teeny tiny brains would allow us to see why it's so much better for teh menz to be in charge!)

Reasons Why The New World Order Is Better:

  1. Singles' bars, the meat market, and blind dates are a terrible indignity to go through.
  2. Some women easily get dates and some women don't - this causes conflict.
  3. Some women have eating disorders because they couldn't get a date.
  4. Some women had plastic surgery because they couldn't get a date.
  5. Women were sad. Look at women's magazines which are filled with problems problems problems.
  6. Husbands would disappear and leave women with nothing.
  7. Husbands would beat their wives.
  8. Working women had to leave their children with "some brutal ignorant woman" in day car that they would have to pay for.
  9. Society doesn't respect mothers.
  10. Now women are protected with full support and encouragement - a man for every woman whether as a servant, wife, handmaid, or prostitute. 

The Commander sees the entire point of women's lives - of MY life - is to find and keep a man. I wish I could say that I have never thought that society felt the point of my life was to find and keep a man, but let's take a look at the Bechdel Test results for the top grossing movies of 2013 (a movie 'passes' if there are two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man).

Hunger Games - totally passes with flying colors
Iron Man 3 - technically passes, but I call bullshit. There is one tiny scene where two women talk about work
Frozen - totally passes with flying colors
Despicable Me 2 - totally passes
Man of Steel - technically passes, but I call bullshit. There are two SENTENCES where women talk (one about the news, one about how the technology will provide air)
Gravity -  only one female character
Monster's University - only one named female character
The Hobbit - only one named female character
Fast and Furious 6 - totally passes
Oz the Great and Powerful - technically passes, commentators say it shouldn't

And so.
4 totally pass - 3 are movies targeted towards kids and young adults.
3 technically pass - 2 pass based on ONE MINUTE of dialogue.
3 don't even come close.

My Final Thoughts
The novel is realistic, terrifying, disheartening, and reflect the subtle attitudes that some people still believe - even in 2014, even in America. Everyone should read this book in the same way that everyone should read 1984 and Brave New World. Even if a person 'knows' the plot, I would still recommend it as a read. The ending was unexpected and a fresh take on how to finish off a dystopian future novel. 

1 comment:

billy said...

I'm glad that you read this book, too! It's a must read. I also really appreciate your perspective. I think we were both horrified by just about everything in the book, but I think it was interesting what jumped out at each of us: for me it was the way men exert control over women, be it through violence, slut-shaming, complacency, etc. As a man in a patriarchal society, these are things I have to constantly be aware of and raise awareness of, because they're easy or expected or allowed or frowned up (but still probably fine). But the pressure and pitfalls of motherhood, while I'm aware of them and try to call them out (without mansplaining), aren't things that affect me personally and intimately, and it was very interesting to read how the book drew those out in you.

tl;dr You bring a new and interest perspective to the Project and I'm glad you contribute